10 Tips to Learn a Language Through Movies
The use of video for learning languages is an effective addition to a modern language learner’s toolkit.
Multiple types of videos present learning opportunities but one of the most popular ways is to find movies in the target language and learn from those. This is especially popular for students aspiring to an intermediate or high level of language proficiency though some beginners also throw themselves in at the deep end.
If you’ve decided to give movies a crack, it’s a lot easier than it used to be. No more CDs or VCRs (remember those?). No more constant stopping, rewinding, and replaying. And no more endless note-scribbling new words and phrases.
We have YouTube, Netflix and other video-on-demand platforms with a wide array of movie content available — together with a growing number of AI-based language-learning apps designed to assist with the movie-learning experience.
Let’s briefly look at why movies work for foreign language learners and then dip into the best ways to learn languages from movies, with 10 pointers to get you started…
- Find movies in the target language with native speakers
- Start with movies you know and love
- Make sure there are subtitles
- Choose simple plots with repetitive storylines
- Try turning off subtitles (for more advanced learners)
- Watch short movies or break long movies up into chunks
- Look for movies a little above your current proficiency level
- Use AI-based apps to enhance learning
- Try to find movies in different dialects
- Take frequent breaks
Why do movies help language learners?
Movies provide engagement, cultural/language context, visual cues (think body language, clothing, location shots, etc.), and aural cues to improve pronunciation.
This helps to make language “stick” and more memorable than simply learning from flashcards or textbooks — while potentially also demonstrating how to use the learning points of the language in real-life situations and exposing learners to an authentic use of the language with slang terms and “street” vocabulary.
Movies can help with language immersion (the best way to learn a foreign language to a native speaker level) and provide access to memorable engagement with native speakers. For motivated students aiming high with their language learning, this beats simply learning vocabulary and grammar rules in a classroom.
How to use movies to learn a language
How easy it is to find movies in the foreign language you’re learning on video-on-demand platforms depends on which language you’re targeting. You’ll likely have few problems if the language is English, French, Spanish, German or Italian …but more challenges if it’s Danish, Finnish, Romanian, etc.
Either way, there’s plenty of great movie content out there and here are 10 practical pointers for getting started with movie-based language learning:
1.Find movies in the target language with native speakers
A quick point to start with: languages are best learned through immersion with native speakers.
Don’t be tempted to use movies dubbed in your first language with subtitles as this will remove the native-speaker element and limit the learning experience.
Dubbed movies may seem like an easy way to watch foreign movies but it sometimes impacts the enjoyment of the movie too. Dubbed versions may be low-quality translations, may not capture the precise nuances of expressions, and can cloud understanding.
2. Start with movies you know and love
Familiarity with storylines, plots, and characters can help with language learning because you don’t have to expend mental energy on what’s happening to whom in the movie. All your attention can focus on the language itself.
Languages are best learned when engagement levels are high. So, movies you know and love are a great starting point — but these are likely to be in your first language. If they are dubbed into the target language with subtitles also added, they can be very useful to you.
3. Make sure there are subtitles
Foreign language movies have greater educational benefits when they are subtitled so that learners can check the meanings of words and phrases and follow plots more closely.
Because it’s so easy to stop, rewind, and listen again, movies in the target language with subtitles are a great way to discover new words and phrases and understand how they’re normally used.
Subtitles are particularly important for beginners, who may need regular explanations and reinforcement of the new target language.
4. Choose simple plots with repetitive storylines
Simple plots with repetitive storylines may be the best movies to start with if you want to learn a language.
Movies that engage you are important (see point two) but that may contradict the need for repetition when learning a language. Repetition helps reinforce new language, so there needs to be a balance between repetition and engagement.
Sometimes, movie plots can be complex even in your first language so it’s best to keep it simple at first. And watching the same movie (or TV series) again and again is also effective at reinforcing language.
5. Try turning off subtitles (for more advanced learners)
As you become more proficient at a language, you can experiment with subtitles and more complex movies.
Watching a movie with subtitles the first time and then switching it off and watching again might be a good option at some stage. The second time, you’ll already know the storyline so you can focus more completely on the language.
6. Watch short movies or break long movies up into chunks
We don’t need to watch three-hour historical epics to benefit, language-wise. Short, simple movies may be beneficial at first.
If you insist on longer movies, that’s OK but you may want to break your learning up into convenient chunks. Part of the beauty of learning from online video is that you can watch at your own pace.
You’re not in a movie theater at the mercy of showtimes and projectionists. You’re in control and can stop, fast-forward, or rewind as you like, so you can learn in 15- or 20-minute chunks in whatever time slots suit you.
7. Look for movies a little above your current proficiency level
Stephen Krashen talks about the importance of “comprehensible input” during the language acquisition process, i.e., input that is slightly beyond the student’s current level (but still comprehensible) is best for language development.
Accordingly, it’s best to search for movies that are just above your current language proficiency level so that you can follow the storyline and learn.
This can be a challenge, especially for beginners. Even kids’ movies and animations may be difficult to follow in a foreign language that you’re not very familiar with. However, for more advanced language learners, this is a useful strategy that can help you “pitch” the language of each movie at the optimal level for learning.
8. Use AI-based apps to enhance learning
While watching movies, learners usually combine passive and active learning. Traditionally, part of the active listening and learning process is taking notes and gradually building a new library of terms and vocabulary learned during the movies you watch.
It’s fair to say that AI is changing how people learn languages — perhaps forever. Technology has made the process of library building much quicker, more convenient, and more personalized.
LangApp is an AI-based app designed to enhance foreign language learning by working with subtitled YouTube and Netflix movies. As you progress through each movie, translation of the language is automatic, phrases you highlight are explained and you can save words and phrases that are new to you in your personal library.
That means no more pocket dictionaries, sheets of paper with scribbled phrases, movie journals or notebooks to lose. Everything is saved in your account.
9. Try to find movies in different dialects
If you’re learning a language, there are likely many different dialects spoken. Think of Scottish, Welsh, Irish, US, and Canadian English, for instance. In Spanish, the language spoken in Argentina, Mexico, and Uruguay is different from that spoken in Spain.
It’s a good idea to get exposure to a variety of dialects. Try to choose movies that help you do this — especially if you’re aiming for a rounded knowledge of the language and aspire to a high level of proficiency in it. Different accents will help you improve your listening and pronunciation skills, in particular.
10. Take regular breaks
One of the benefits of learning a language from movies is that is considered a relaxing way to learn. But language learners experienced in learning this way will tell you that it’s not all about popcorn and giggles!
Learning from movies can still be mentally draining. A high level of concentration is required at times when the language inevitably gets challenging. To avoid mental exhaustion and keep the mind fresh and alert, take regular breaks.
Alternatively, sit back and simply enjoy the movie for a while, absorbing its wonderful acting, cinematic beauty, wonderful plotline or rib-tickling comedy! You can go back and watch it again later to catch the learning points. Besides, even passive listening is considered beneficial for learning the target language.
Download our free app to learn from movies
It’s surprisingly easy to be productive with your language learning — even with a bag of popcorn in your hand!
Movies are a trusted way to learn languages and, with the additional tools at our disposal through AI, this has become an even more effective way for self-motivated students to make great strides with their language proficiency.
Try our free Chrome Extension, which uses AI to help learners build language fluency from subtitled videos.