I’ve watched hundreds of movies over the years to help me to learn one language or another.
I bet you have too. Who doesn’t like a good movie? And even better if it’s in your target language!
The thing is, I don’t do it much any more.
At a certain point, I grew a bit suspicious of that stock language-learning advice that every man in the street will give you: “Oh, you want to learn [language in question]? Well, you should watch movies! You’ll get to hear how people really speak!”
I think I’ve got a fairly good perspective on this topic, having watched a lot of movies in numerous languages, and, importantly, at different stages of proficiency in those languages.
Whether you can learn a language from watching foreign films is a question that Anne Billson posed recently in an article for The Telegraph, and actually suggested a few good ideas, but ended the article without drawing any clear conclusions.
In the last 6 months, whilst learning Cantonese, I’ve had the opportunity to take a fresh look at the role movies actually play in my learning, from the zero beginner level onwards. This little project changed my perspective about the role of movies in language learning for beginners.
By the end of this post, you will have a much clearer idea of the true benefits of watching movies in a foreign language. (Warning – it's probably not what you’re expecting!)
You’ll be able to make a more informed decision about how much of your time you spend in front of the TV screen, and what I think you should be doing instead.
I’ll also give you 10 ways to really make the most out of the movies you do watch, and make sure you’re not wasting your time!
Meet Rob – He’s Learning French
Rob has been learning French for the last year. Although he’s still a beginner, he’s passionate about the language and wants to become fluent. Like many other people, he loves French cinema, and often watches movies to help him learn the language.
People always say that you should watch movies to help you learn a foreign language. I think it’s useful because you get to hear lots of slang and cool expressions – it’s how people really talk. I love cinema as well, and French cinema, in particular, is awesome.
Watching all these movies is definitely going to improve my French and will make it much easier next time I go to France!
Or will it?
I’m going to confront Rob head-on about his movie-watching habits. I’m going to show him exactly what’s going on inside his head whilst he’s watching all those movies, and why he’ll be disappointed if he thinks he’ll become fluent in French any time soon.
Fun Or Fluency – What's It To Be?
So, you’re going to tell me I shouldn’t be watching movies? Are you nuts?
Not exactly. (On the first count, at least! 🙂 )
Let’s start by taking a step back and getting clear on what we’re talking about.
Is it relaxing to kick back in front of a movie after a day at the office? Yes. Is French cinema cool? Sure. Can your girlfriend enjoy the movie with you? Absolutely.
But that’s not the issue here.
You want to learn French, right? This is a question of language learning.
Having enough time is the most commonly cited
excuse reason for not learning a language. So if you’re serious about becoming fluent in French, what we’ve got to do here is to be brutal about separating how you use your free time and your study time.
If you enjoy watching movies, that fine. Who doesn’t?
But let’s not convince ourselves that watching movies is any more of a sensible study strategy than playing with Lego, until we’ve thought about exactly how it’s helping us.
If you want to chill out, sign up to Netflix. If you want to get a language learnt, read on.
What Actually Happens When You're Watching A Movie?
I’m going to need some convincing.
Let’s dive in.
How Movies Can Help
There are some good reasons for watching movies in French as a beginner in the language. Here are some of them:
- You can get used to the sounds and rhythms of the language, and certain cultural idiosyncrasies as well.
- You might notice certain words and phrases that crop up often.
- It helps to consolidate language that you have been learning elsewhere. For example, if you’ve learnt a word in a textbook and hear it later in a movie, that might help it to stick.
- Motivation is key to learning a language. You love French cinema, so that passion for the culture is going to motivate you to keep learning.
- Not only that, but you will probably continue to watch movies, which will increase your exposure to the language. That’s a great thing.
- If you’re creating a French immersion environment at home (one of the most powerful things you can do), watching movies would be a good part of that.
- If you’re going to spend your evening watching a movie anyway, better for it to be in French than English.
Exactly! I told you it was a good thing to do!
Take another look at the list. Notice that all of these things, as useful and supportive as they are, are peripheral to actually learning the language.
Why Movies Don't Help
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin and see if a different picture starts to emerge.
- The language level is way too high for you to understand most of what goes on. Improving in a language requires you to be able to notice interesting features of the language from the things people are saying. For that to happen you need to listen to language that’s slightly above your current level (this is known as comprehensible input)
- Watching a movie is a passive experience, with no interaction. Patricia Kuhl’s fascinating study of young children’s learning showed that those who learned passively (through watching TV) improved far slower than those who interacted with a real person. OK, you're not a child, but you get the point!
- You’re not really listening. Don’t be under the impression that you’re really listening to the language. If you’ve got subtitles on, what you’re actually doing is reading. And you’re reading in English. OK, you can still hear the French being spoken, but it’s not the focused listening you thought it was.
- Movies are long! What other learning activity would you spend 2 hours on, without varying it, or trying other things?
- You can’t focus. And during those 2 hours, how much are you really focusing on the language? You’re probably trying to enjoy the movie at the same time, which means inevitably you’re going to spend a lot of the time more focused on the subtitles and the story line than the French that’s being spoken.
- It’s impractical to look up words in the dictionary. OK, you can look up the odd word, but no more than that if you actually want to reach the end of the movie!
- There’s no accompanying text/transcript to help you. Even if there was, it’d be too long. Compare that to a short dialogue in a textbook which you can rip apart and learn from, go back over and analyze when you want to understand something. (Even if you have subtitles in French, it’s not the same – it’s usually paraphrased, and you only get one line on screen at the time.)
- You can’t listen multiple times (without a huge time commitment). Really improving your listening skills in a language means listening to a recording multiple times, listening intently and trying to notice new things each time. Try doing that with a 2-hour movie!
It’s All About The Balance
But nothing’s perfect, right? I still think if I spend hours listening to French I’m going to improve!
But don’t you want to have a smarter approach than that?
This is the point where you have to think about what a good language learning strategy for beginners looks like, and see where watching movies fits into that.
At any stage in learning a language it’s important spend time working on a good balance of the four skills.
But when you’re still low-level, you have specific concerns. You have to focus first and foremost on building your vocabulary. In order to do that, you need to spend time on activities that give you lots of high-frequency (i.e. the most commonly used) words and phrases.
And for this, you need materials that are not only at a level you can understand, but that give you the chance to explore the language in intimate detail. This means using fairly short texts that you can go over multiple times, and ideally with the option of both reading and listening.
And then keep repeating all of the above for some time as you vocabulary grows and your knowledge of how to use it improves. This is what will lead you towards becoming fluent.
Put Yourself In Control Of Your Study Time
So what you’re saying is…
Watching movies is great fun, and will help you in some ways to learn French too. But smart language learning means making conscious choices about how you use your time.
What makes some language learners more successful than others?
Ultimately, the one thing in this world that everyone has equal amounts of is time.
Ultimately, how you use your time is what will lead you to fluency or not.
If you’ve been using movie-watching as your default activity for learning French, and that’s been the lion’s share of your “study time”…
…time to think again.
10 Ways To Exploit Foreign Movies
I get it. So I need to be honest with myself about how I’m using my time. I probably watch six hours of movies a week, but maybe only an hour or two of actual study, and hardly any speaking.
I need to remember that that time spent watching movies isn’t really getting me anywhere quickly, and I just need to rebalance.
But I’ll still keep watching French movies, especially during my free time, because I love it after all!
So, how can you make the most of the time you do spend in front of the TV?
- Try to find movies that you've already seen, but dubbed in French. The fact that you know the story will help you understand what’s going on.
- Watch the same movie over and over, rather than a new one each time. The repetition will help you notice language and help words and phrases to sink in.
- Turn off the subtitles! They distract you from noticing new things in the language. A good trick is to watch a movie once with subtitles, so you understand exactly what’s going on, and then watch it lots more times with the subtitles turned off.
- Don’t stop and start the movie to look things up in the dictionary. Probably the biggest value in watching movies is exposure, rather than specifically learning new things. Just let it roll.
- Instead, you can keep a notebook next to you and jot down words and phrases that catch your attention. Don’t look anything up in the dictionary (you can do that later), just jot down things you want to remember.
- Whatever you do, watch things you enjoy!
- If you can find the script for a movie you like, move heaven and earth to get it! It will be one of the most valuable resources you can find.
- Whilst watching, try to engage with the story line. Ask yourself consciously: “What did he just say?” “What’s happening now?”
- If you do understand something that’s said, repeat it aloud…essentially try to find ways to make the viewing experience interactive rather than passive.
But I’ve left the biggest hack of all till last.
10. Watch TV series rather than movies.
Episodes of TV series are shorter, and the language used can be simpler than in a lot of movies. Best of all, you can harness the power of repetition.
From episode to episode (which can add up to 20+ hours over the course of the series), there’s a lot of repetition in the language that’s being used.
This is because the topic/theme of the drama will usually stay constant, and each character tends to have a well-defined personality, talking in a specific way and using the same words and expressions over and over.
This repetition is incredibly valuable for you as a learner and will help you notice things much more easily than one stand-alone 2-hour movie.
How To Use Foreign Language Movies As A Beginner
In this post I’ve talked to Rob about his love of French cinema and his movie-watching habits. I’ve asked him to think objectively about the role that they play in his mission to learn French. I’ve talked about some benefits of watching movies for language learning, and then some drawbacks.
Finally, I’ve suggested to Rob that what he’s really been doing is using movies to learn French more out of habit that of choice, without really considering how his valuable study time might be rebalanced to achieve a better mix of skills and approaches to learning.
Rob shouldn’t stop watching movies, but with becoming fluent in French as his dream, he should understand what role they really play in his learning, and make an informed choice about how to use his time.
When he reaches an intermediate level in his French, we might be having a different conversation. I might be suggesting that watching movies can help him a lot more than before, since he’ll be able to understand a lot more of what’s gong on, allowing him to notice a lot more, and benefit accordingly.
Rob, of course, is fictional.
But how about you? How have movies been working for you in your language learning ambitions? Disagree with what I say? Be sure to leave a comment below.
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