The Scene Approach: How to Really Learn Language Through Movies

That little skeptic in your head is getting to you.

It’s telling you that you can’t learn a language through movies.

It sounds like a myth, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

Well, let me give it to you straight: It can be done!

Yes, it’s totally possible to learn your target language just by watching movies. And in this post, I’m going to tell you exactly how.

But first, let’s talk about some common reasons why people have a hard time learning language through movies.

4 Reasons Language Learners Have a Hard Time with Movies

1. They watch the movie once, then move on.

When a language learner sits down to pick up lessons from a movie, they don’t fare as well when they treat it just like any other movie.

Meaning, when they watch it only for the story and its twists and turns. When they know the plot, how it ends or how the bad guy was thwarted from his evil plans, they move on to the next foreign feature. Often, they’ll just watch the movie one single time.

This is a case of “close, but no cigar.”

Repetition, and lots of it, is the name of the game. You don’t have to watch a dozen different films to learn language lessons. You only need to watch just one or two, but you have to really focus on them. You have to go deep instead of going wide. As you’ll see later, there’s a very specific way of doing this so you can maximize every minute of the film.

2. They study the movie as one big chunk.

A 90-minute film is too long to be properly absorbed by language learners, especially at lower skill levels.

You not only have the language to contend with, but the culture as well. There’s a ton of nuance in the spoken words, gestures, expressions, behaviors, customs—even the dress and chosen scenery—and you’ll miss out on these rich lessons if you watch the movie once and only focus on understanding the words.

Watching a movie just once, it’s no wonder that even well-intentioned students only scratch the surface.

To use a movie as a learning tool, you have to use the “pause,” “replay” and “loop” buttons strategically throughout the movie, and not just pause when you need a bathroom break or a popcorn refill.

A movie isn’t one single language lesson. It’s actually packed with so much content that it can yield dozens, even hundreds, of language lessons for you. Watching it from start to finish, in a single stretch, won’t release all its language secrets.

3. They don’t take advantage of the subtitles.

You know subtitles are there to let you know what’s happening in the movie. Even non-learners benefit from the subtitles, when all they really want to do is enjoy the film that their friend recommended.

As a language learner, you need to do more with subtitles. You need to mine them for linguistic gems like grammar lessons and vocabulary insights.

There are two things needed for this to happen:

1. Accurate subtitles. These can be harder to find than you might think. Sometimes, you’ll be watching a French movie and notice that the French subtitles are off, using different vocabulary or phrasing things differently than what’s spoken. If you’re a beginner, you might not realize what’s going on and end up confused.

2. You need to have a copy of what’s being said. You need to print it up and be holding that thing in your hand! But how many language learners actually do this? To get your own copies of scripts, you can try looking on the Internet Movie Script Database or SimplyScripts.

You have to believe me when I say that the movie will be a whole different animal when you have an accurate copy of its dialogue in your hands.

4. They let the dialogues go by too fast.

One of the most common reasons language learners don’t get as much as they can from watching movies? The dialogues are simply too fast for easy comprehension. The lines are hard to follow, the individual words almost possible to tease apart—the native speakers blur words together, drop syllables, play with tone and rhythm, use slang.

It’s hard to follow all of this when you’re still learning. Especially at the beginner and intermediate levels, this can be discouraging.

Of course, the movie was made for native speakers, not language learners. Native speakers eat, sleep and drink with the language so there’s really no need to artificially slow things down. They may even know what a character is naturally going to say before the line is delivered.

But for the noble and well-intentioned language learner, the lines whiz by too fast. Even if they have the subtitles printed up and know what was said, it’s still hard to catch the words or to repeat the line.


I bet at least one of the above situations sounds familiar.

It might be exactly the reason why your inner skeptic is telling you it’s not possible to learn language through movies.

After all, remember that time you tried and it was way too hard? Or you just didn’t learn anything new?

Now, to combat these problems, I’m going to share an effective strategy called the Scene Approach.

The Scene Approach: How to Really Learn Language Through Movies

The Advantages of the Scene Approach

At its core, the Scene Approach is simply the strategic splitting of a film into its component scenes.

A scene is a segment in the movie where events happen in a single sequence. A scene in the movie “Titanic,” for example, is Jack successfully intervening before Rose jumps off the ship into the water.

In the Scene Approach, scenes that are fat with language content are studied relentlessly, repeated over and over till the cows come home. Other, less linguistically valuable scenes, like the movie’s big car chase, are skipped.

The approach comes with hefty benefits.

1. It makes the whole movie manageable.

Who has the time to watch the same 90-minute foreign language movie 200 times, anyway? Imagine how much that would eat into your day—or into your life!

And, as said before, not all scenes are created equal. There are scenes, like the training montages of all “Rocky” films, that could otherwise be skipped. They have no serious value for the language learner—aside from being entertaining.

Splitting the movie into component scenes is altogether a different proposition. It’s more manageable this way. A single scene fits nicely into the length of an average, everyday study session.

Dividing the whole movie into manageable chunks means you can now focus on learning fewer lines and fewer vocabulary words in each viewing session. And you’ll have fewer fast-paced, back-and-forth dialogues to contend with.

Plus, you don’t have wait for the whole movie to end before you hit “replay.” When you’re dealing with scenes, if some linguistic confusion happens in the third minute, you don’t have to suffer through the whole thing and wait for the final credits to roll before you seek clarification.

Divide and conquer!

2. It gives you the necessary context.

But why scenes? Why not split the movie into discrete five-minute segments instead?

Scenes are natural cut-off points. They contain continuous action that happens in a single place and without a break in time (usually, though more experimental films may skip around a bit).

By their very nature, scenes are more palatable to the mind—unlike a random five-minute segment where two characters are talking one minute, followed by a different set of characters talking about a totally different thing the next.

Now consider that language and meaning never happen in a vacuum. It’s not just about the words. Each scene really gives you the context for everything the characters are talking about. A scene is a world unto itself. It has its own purpose, characters, character motivations, scenery, costumes, background sounds and outcomes.

Movies help language learners because they give all the necessary context for understanding language. The Scene Approach just amplifies this advantage by dividing the whole movie into its scenes.

3. It slows things down.

In this approach, you don’t move on to the next scene until you’ve mastered the one you’re currently on.

So, instead of watching the movie as one long stream, feeling helpless with the speed and flood of information, you deal with individual scenes. You can pause and rewind any time to replay it over and over. You now deal with the thing line-by-line, so even if the dialogue goes very fast, you can always play it back.

Speaking of playbacks, our new technology allows us to replay a clip without losing quality. It used to be that, in the era of VHS tapes and DVDs, you would get diminishing audio and video quality for every replay. Can you imagine?

Today, because everything is digital, you get the same quality no matter how many times you replay a clip. It’s also easier to click and drag back to the beginning of the scene—just jot down the time at which the scene starts.

Things still going too fast? There’s now video functionality that literally helps you slow things down to 75%, 50% or 25% of the normal speed—even YouTube videos offer this.

Language learners are really running out of excuses not to learn from movies.

Now, we’re going to talk about how to implement the Scene Approach, step by step.

How to Learn Language with the Scene Approach

1. Watch it like any other movie the first few times.


Go ahead. Watch the movie like any other movie.

Get it out of your system. Watch the movie with popcorn and soda while stretched out on your couch. You can even invite some friends over and view it on a Friday night. Ogle the good-looking actors, laugh at the jokes, be surprised by the unexpected twists. Focus on the story and get the big picture.

So, are you done?

Now let’s really heat things up.

2. When you dive into the scene, stop treating it like a movie.


After watching the film as a moviegoer at least once, it’s the perfect time to put on your language learning cap.

Go to the first scene and take out a notebook. Jot down the timestamp of when it starts and when it ends.

Focus on this one scene and nothing else.

Understand the specific context. What’s happening in this scene? Is the villain interrogating and torturing the hero in some dark dungeon? Listen to the back-and-forth volley of dialogue. Only this scene exists!

This is very important. When you’re working with scenes and you know in the back of your head that it’s part of something bigger, the temptation to proceed to next scenes is very real. Movies are designed to be that way, to take you from scene to scene in a frictionless fashion. A director might prick your heart early so you feel for the main character later. And as for the villain? You can’t wait for the satisfying revenge where you get to see the jerk get his just desserts and fall off a cliff.

It’s cathartic to go through the entire journey of the film, I know. But then you would still be treating the whole thing as a movie.

You’ve donned your language learning cap now, and it shouldn’t matter if the hero gets his revenge or not. Think instead of the language learning opportunities in the scene. Is the bad guy asking questions? “Who stole the computer chip?” “Where is the gold hidden?” Then take them as lessons in question construction!

Yes, there’s high drama happening in the scene, but you should rather be interested in more earthly matters. That’s why you already watched the whole movie like any other blockbuster. So, when you end a day’s session, you won’t be left hanging on the scene where Liam Neeson is threatening his daughter’s kidnappers over the phone by touting “a very particular set of skills.” That would be too much a cliffhanger to stop at!

3. Go from English subtitles, to foreign language subtitles, to no subtitles at all.


Master the scene starting with English subtitles first, then foreign language subtitles second, then no subtitles at all.

This seems to be the subtitle study sequence that yields maximum learning.

The English subtitles will ensure that you fully understand what’s happening in the scene.

After a few tries with English, you then use subtitles in the target language. You now begin to follow the mouth, the movements and the lines that are being delivered. Your eyes are trained on the scene, your ears are listening to the sounds. You listen more closely this time, even pushing the headphones closer to your ears.

If you forget what’s happening, switch back to English subtitles. You can actually ping back and forth as often as you like. Or, if it’s at all possible, display both English and target language subtitles at the same time, like you can with your FluentU videos. This visual gives you unprecedented comparison of vocabulary.

Finally, watch and comprehend the scene without crutches, without subtitles, just like native speakers do. Watch the scene, without the subs, several more times. More than you think you need to.

4. Write the subtitles down.


It pays to have the scene’s transcript in your hand, instead of trying to catch them on your screen where they quickly disappear.

Whether or not you’ve already printed the transcript out, take the time to write down the text of the particular scene. By hand, if possible.

This shows not only commitment, but writing the subtitles down will help you remember the words better. Research has shown that the act of writing makes it easier for the brain to store and retrieve information from memory.

Instead of thinking of subtitles as aids for films, think of them as language materials in and of themselves. Or better yet, think of it the other way around. Think of the scene as an aid for the subtitles—a video clip to help language learners understand what’s written on the page.

This is the principle that’s put into practice by FluentU, a unique language learning program that transforms short, authentic video clips into full language lessons. It’s basically an entire program that operates on the Scene Approach.

This is done through accurate, interactive subtitles that appear on screen. You can click on any word or phrase to get a definition, in-context usage examples and pronunciation.

5. Memorize the lines and talk along.


Believe it or not, you have to memorize some lines. Not because you’ll be blurting them out in real life. Well, maybe you will, maybe you won’t.

Memorizing the lines is really just a way for you to improve your memory, open your mouth and indeed say the words used in the scene. The speaking practice matters—language isn’t just in your head.

Speaking is a physical act, and like any physical activity, you reach mastery when you actually do it over and over.

A movie, even if you take it one scene at a time, can only do so much. You better be talking, yelling, mumbling, gesturing and generally acting in front of the TV or your computer screen if you want to get the most out of it. Say the lines as the actors say them, talk back to the actors, shout comments out loud, get involved.


So, there you go! You now know how to really learn a language through movies.

The Scene Approach lets you do a deep dive into a 90-minute feature film so you come away with a wealth of lessons.

Good luck, and happy watching!

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