The question of whether or not learning language through movies actually works has been hotly debated by language experts and teachers over the years.
Well, I argue that foreign language movies are an absolutely vital part of any language learner’s experience.
It’s every bit as powerful as watching TV shows and entire TV series in a foreign language. Maybe even more so, since movies allow you to press “pause” on real life for over an hour and fully immerse yourself in the language.
The more time you can make for your target language, the better, so popping in a foreign movie in place of an English one is a great way to increase your exposure to the language.
But in any language you might be learning, there are tons of movies out there to choose from.
What you can learn from these movies varies greatly, depending on your level and how you approach them.
All you need to do is leave the English language—or whatever your native language is—behind, and step out of your cinematic comfort zone. It’s time to explore some favorite flicks in your target language and start learning serious language lessons from them.
Learning Languages Through Movies at Any Skill Level
So how can you get the most out of learning language through movies at your specific level? Let’s start with the beginners.
Beginning Learners: Foreign Language Movies for Excitement and Motivation
Let me break it to you now, you are not going to learn an entire new language from solely watching movies. As a beginner you probably aren’t even going to learn some basics from watching movies.
What a movie can give you in these early stages is something else very important: passion, enthusiasm and excitement for your new language. Choose the right movie and, after watching, you will most likely be left with strong desire to learn the language so that you can meet the people who speak it and venture into their world.
I owe most of my decision to start learning Spanish to a Mexican movie, “Y tu mamá también” (If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend it, no matter what language you’re learning). When I went to see this movie at the cinema, I had already vaguely considered learning Spanish. But during the movie I fell in love with the Spanish language and the passion with which it was spoken by the movie’s characters. I also fell in love with the culture and scenery of Mexico, which this movie opened a window to.
What this movie gave me, as well as a fantastic introduction to some Mexican swear words, was a strong determination to become so accomplished in Spanish that I could understand the movie without subtitles.
If you can find a movie that gives you that amount of motivation to learn a language, then watching foreign language movies is very important for any beginner. Of course, what follows is many many hours of study, practice and immersion before you will do anything close to learning the language, but every language learner needs a motivation and a wonderful foreign movie could be yours.
How to watch foreign movies at a beginner’s level
At this level, watch a foreign movie with English subtitles and don’t even worry about trying to understand the language, just enjoy the movie and soak up the culture.
Intermediate Learners: Foreign Language Movies for a Native Accent and Sharp Ear
Like the beginners, as an intermediate student you’ll still have a lot to learn about your new language. You’ll have yet to tackle some of the trickier aspects of grammar, but watching a full-length movie isn’t going to help much with that. Keep watching those movies though, because once you have some familiarity with your target language, it’s still a very useful activity to supplement your structured study.
At this level, you can use movies to gain familiarity with the rhythm and sounds of a language. One thing that some people find really challenging when learning a language is mastering the accent. Hearing the accent regularly in movies will make you feel more comfortable with the sounds you’re aiming to mimic.
You’ll also spot and recognize words every now and then during a movie, which will be extremely rewarding. It will prove to yourself that you are genuinely making progress. It’s a great feeling to get that little spark of excitement when a recognizable word suddenly jumps out at you. I also find that hearing a word I recognize in a “real life” context also helps that word stick in my memory.
If you want to use this sticky context to directly learn that grammar and vocabulary we’ve so far set aside, then I recommend watching movie trailers on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons!
How to watch foreign language films at an intermediate level
At this level, watch foreign movies with English subtitles, but try and tune in to the language just a little, even for a couple of minutes at a time. You could also try watching a movie in your own language with foreign subtitles. If you hear an interesting phrase and you’d like to know how it translates, glance at the subtitles to find out.
Advanced Learners: Foreign Language Movies for Vocabulary and Retaining Level
Here is where movies really start to be an excellent resource for language learners. You’ve been learning your language for years, you’re comfortable with every grammatical construction and maybe you’ve even lived abroad to immerse yourself in the language.
You’ve reached a point where you’re relatively fluent, and all you really need to do now is expand your vocabulary and make sure you don’t lose what you’ve worked so hard to learn.
Watching movies or TV series at this level is a genuinely enjoyable way to maintain and expand on what you know of your second language.
I also find that spending an hour or two watching a Spanish movie, for example, sets my brain into “Spanish mode” and leaves me thinking in Spanish for a couple of hours after. This definitely makes it a great way to prepare for a speaking test or a meeting with a language exchange partner!
How to watch foreign language films at an advanced level
At this level you can go native and take the plunge with a foreign language movie without subtitles. If that’s a little too intimidating (let’s face it, a movie with an unusual accent or a lot of slang can be tricky to understand even for the most fluent language speaker), adding subtitles in your target language is the best move.
You could also try watching a favorite classic English movie dubbed in the language you’re learning. I recently watched “Back to the Future” dubbed in Spanish, and not only was it great fun to revisit an old favorite, but it gave me some welcome exposure to Spanish as well.
How to Find a Great Foreign Language Movie to Watch
One really key point to remember when finding a movie, no matter your level, is that you need to be watching movies you enjoy! You know what your favorite film genres are, so use that knowledge to guess which movies you’ll like in your target language.
However, you may find that some genres are not as well represented in some languages as they are in others. For example, you may have trouble finding a Lord of the Rings-style special effects extravaganza in Greek (unless it is, of course, “Lord of the Rings” dubbed in Greek!).
Instead of starting from scratch at Google, we have several helpful guides for you with specific movie recommendations for the following target languages:
- Chinese movies
- English movies
- French movies
- German movies
- Japanese movies
- Spanish movies | Argentine movies
If you’d like to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s hot in the world of foreign cinema, larger cities often hold film festivals focusing on particular languages or regions of the world. The films featured in these festivals have been hand-picked, and the festival listings will usually be online.
So you could search, for example, “Spanish film festival 2015” or “Latin American film festival 2015” in order to read in English about the latest good releases. It of course doesn’t matter whether or not there’s a film festival near you; the point is to use the titles from the festivals to get a hold of your own copy of any of the listed movies you’d like to watch.
Another great way to find movies that you’re going to enjoy is to watch out for any actor/actress you like in a foreign movie, and then use IMDb to see what other films they’ve appeared in. If you find the actor or actress particularly funny or attractive, that’s already a good sign that you’ll enjoy watching him or her in other movies. Believe me, I’ve chosen to watch a few Spanish films simply because of their good-looking leading man!
So, Get Watching!
As long as you remember that movies in a foreign language are no substitute for study and practice, you should absolutely add them to your language learning repertoire.
At the very least, movies are going to give you a really useful and fascinating insight into the culture of your new language, and maybe even an interesting topic of conversation when you meet a native speaker for a language exchange.
As you can now see, learning language through movies is a real possibility—and a really fun possibility at that. It’s time to get watching!
And One More Thing…
If you dig learning language through movies, you’ll love using FluentU. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks.
With FluentU, you learn real languages—the same way that natives speak them. FluentU has a wide variety of videos like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.