6 Tips for Effortless Language Learning with Foreign Movies

We all love movies.

And finding foreign language movies poses no problem in the modern world.

We’re not cavemen—we’ve got Netflix and Redbox.

That means you’ve probably heard all the buzz about learning a foreign language through movies.

It’s supposed to be ideal for learning new vocabulary in context, understanding culture and all-around supplementing our language learning in an enjoyable way.

Plus, watching movies lets you learn languages for free.

There’s just one catch. After a while, watching movies in another language can start to become a chore.

It’s happened to me a few times.

My initial enthusiasm with starting a new language had passed. The first excitement that came when I began to understand some bits of movies had been replaced by irritation at all the bits I still couldn’t understand. I kept trying to push myself to watch more difficult movies, but every time movie night actually came around I found myself reaching for a movie in my native English.

You know what the problem was?

Foreign movie night had started to become Too Much Work.

It’s no wonder that I’d started to lose interest! For most of us, watching movies or TV shows is a reward after a long day of work. If we start to treat it like “yet more work,” then of course it’s going to become a chore.

But, never fear!

I’m going to give you 6 great ways to re-engage with your foreign movie night and keep learning without it becoming a chore.

6 Tips for Effortless Language Learning with Foreign Movies

1. Become “That Annoying Person”

Are you one of “those people” who sit through a movie and give a running commentary on everything that’s going on in the plot?

If you’re not, you should be!

Provide a running commentary.

Providing a running commentary on a movie in your target language is a great way to get more engaged in the movie and practice your speaking at the same time. The more engaged you get, the more you’ll enjoy watching the movie.

Okay, so this might be controversial advice, and it’s not applicable in every situation — I wouldn’t recommend you start chatting in a movie theater for example.

However, most of us watch loads of movies at home. When I’m travelling I often watch foreign movies alone on a computer. This is a great time to start chatting to the screen and getting really involved with what you’re watching.

What to talk about?

It might seem an odd question, but what should you say when you’re commenting on a movie?

Comment on those things that interest you! The same things you would comment on in your native language.

Personally, because I write short films, I’m interested in the “nuts and bolts” of a movie and its script. I talk about story structure and technique in English, so that’s exactly what I talk about in my target language. I practice talking about things that interest me.

Maybe you prefer to predict what’s going to happen later in the movie? Maybe you like commenting on the characters, costumes or the actors?

Whatever interests you about the movie, just say it right there when you’re watching it. Get a dialogue going with yourself. You’ll get great practice speaking about those things that really interest. The more you pay attention to details that you’d like to chat about, the more you’ll be getting engaged in the movie.

How to avoid annoying others

People talk throughout movies more than you might realize. When you’re watching movies with friends you’ll often find that people add their own comments. It’s a communal act!

However, in case you’re bothered about annoying people, these 3 tips can help:

1. Save the commenting until you’re on your own. I don’t always talk when watching movies with others, but when I watch movies alone I really chat a lot. It allows me to try out vocabulary, and I can always rewind if I miss something.

2. Only comment on “less important movies.” If you’ve all been waiting for ages to watch this one special movie, don’t feel like you have to talk all the way through it, just enjoy it. But, don’t hold yourself back if you have a quick comment (as long as it’s in your target language!).

3. Save all your comments for afterwards. Maybe you’re with a crowd that likes silence throughout movies. That’s fine. Just wait until the end and have a good chat about it.

2. Quick Tip: Write Reviews

One quick tip to get really engaged in foreign movies is to write a quick review online after you’ve finished, in your target language of course. It won’t take you very long (between 20 minutes and 1.5 hours depending on your level of detail) and you’ll develop some really useful vocabulary to talk about the movie (and others) in conversations.

3. Find Familiar Faces

We often think that difficult language is what stops us understanding a foreign movie, but it it’s only half the problem.

One of the most overlooked issues when watching movies in another language is the difference in “cultural background.”

Cultural knowledge can be much harder to acquire than linguistic knowledge.

The culture that you live in currently or grew up in has given you a rich and varied set of life experiences. These make your view of the world different from the country in which the movie was made, even if you understand all of the vocabulary.

Foreign movies often feel strange and unfamiliar because everything about the movie is new — the actors, the “normal” home life of the characters, the locations, the type of humor, etc.

Even when I watch movies from Spain, a country where I’ve lived for years, I still sometimes get the feeling that “this is not my culture,” so I don’t get as involved in the movie as I would if it were in English.

This challenge can make watching foreign movies quite a chore.

How to connect with the country’s movie culture

The best way to combat this “cultural disconnect” is to get as involved in the target culture as possible.

Here are 3 tips to connect with the culture and enjoy the cultural background of movies:

1. Keep your movie choices consistent. One of the quickest ways to feel familiar in the movie’s culture is to watch several movies with the same actors and/or director. When you start seeing lots of familiar faces or getting a familiar vibe, that feeling of cultural strangeness goes away.

2. Watch movies set in your home country, or in the United States. Wherever you’re from, these days we’re all very familiar with the United States because of the far reach of Hollywood. Watching films in your target language with familiar locations is a sure way to feel connected to the cultural background of the movie.

3. Watch dubbed movies from your country. Sometimes it all gets too much and you just need a “rest” from foreign movies. Watching a dubbed movie set in your home country is a great way to feel connected to the culture of the movie, while still learning your target language.

4. Original Version vs. Dubbing

In general, you should be watching as many movies that are originally in your target language as possible.

Original versions are better for a variety of reasons:

  1. You learn the real vocabulary in context.
  2. You get used to the rhythm of the language in a way that dubbed movies don’t allow.
  3. You have the added visual stimulus of being able to read the actor’s lips, which you don’t for a dubbed movie.
  4. You learn the culture as well as just the language.

On the flip side, dubbed movies have some advantages:

  1. The voice actors sometimes (not always) speak more clearly than the actor on screen.
  2. The culture of the movie might be more familiar to you, especially if it’s a US import.

The best advice is to “cycle” watching dubbed movies and original versions. Get the best of both worlds.

5. Pick Movies by “Difficulty Cycling”

How do you pick which movie to watch in your target language? Really, it’s going to vary day by day.

Some days you’ll be thinking, “I just want to watch something easy and relax.”

I realized that on those days when I felt too tired to watch a film in my target language, I’d usually reach for the English movies. They were an easy choice for my tired mind.

The thing is that when you’re learning a new language, movies in your native language will always seem an easy choice. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

The three types of movie difficulty

The relative “difficulty” of foreign language movies comes in three different flavors:

1. Difficult language. The level of the language is hard for you to understand.

2. Difficult cultural background. The cultural background of the movie is unfamiliar or uncomfortable to watch.

3. Difficult subject. The subject matter is harrowing and/or the story is complex.

When you’re picking movies in your target language, try not to make everything hard for yourself at the same time. When you want to watch something easy, only pick a film that’s “difficult” in one of these categories. 

If you’re feeling really lazy (it happens) then pick a film that’s easy in all of these categories, like a dubbed action film or kids’ animation. This way, you can watch films in your target language even when you don’t feel like watching a foreign film.

Not sure where to start in terms of difficulty levels? Try out FluentU. 

It’s there to help you discover video content that’s perfectly suited to your skill level, learning style and personal interests.

You can stop browsing Netflix and YouTube for decent movies–simply hop on over to FluentU for personalized suggestions. The site will keep track of your viewing history and figure out the best routes to continual learning and improvement.

The best part? We’ll help you learn how to actively study language through movies. While you watch your chosen content, FluentU adds your newly-encountered vocabulary to flashcards and a running vocabulary list, so you can always go back to practice even more.

6. Watch “The Classics”

In any language there are “classic” movies which you have to watch. The best way to find these is to search for “top 100 movies in (insert language here)” into Google. You’ll get the best results by searching in your foreign language and reading lists on sites written in that language. Once you’ve track down a good list, pick a few to start with.

Here are some of the great reasons you should watch the classics:

1. They’re called “classic” for a reason. You’ll watch some wonderful movies.

2. Each country has it’s own distinct movie culture. You’ll understand the movie culture in that country far more deeply than you did before.

3. You can see what’s popular. You’ll begin to recognise some of the best actors in that country.

4. Everyone knows about them. You’ll have a sure topic of conversation when talking to someone from the country.

Now that you know all the joys and rewards of watching movies in your target language, pick a few cool flicks to start with and get to learning!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.

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