How to Learn a Language with Movies

14 Jun

I love watching movies. Lots of people do. But I have a special secret: when I watch movies, I’m not just relaxing. I’m also strengthening or reviewing Chinese, Spanish, or Portuguese. Seriously! This is a very easy way to relax, while passively working on your language skills, and it also help you learn lots about that culture. Now, keep in mind that using only passive learning strategies will not make you fluent in another language. However, if you’ve studied or worked all day long and you are exhausted, having a target-language movie is a nice way to relax while still improving your brain’s language skills.

So if you are learning Spanish, find some Almodovar films. If you are learning Chinese, get up some Zhang Yimo movies. If you are learning Portuguese rent or buy Tropa de Elite or City of God. The DVDs of any one of these films will normally have audio in both English and your target language, as well as subtitles in many different languages. But I’ve only written a few movies here, so what movies other should you look for? Well, it isn’t too difficult to find good quality movies. For example, IMDB has a list of the best Brazilian films. If you are studying Arabic, they’ve got that too. When I began studying Spanish I looked up a list of films that had been nominated or which had won the Goya Award, and added them to my “to-watch list.”  For Chinese movies, I’ve always used DouBan to keep track of what is popular and the Chinese Movie Database to find what is coming out. Searching google with best *country name* films will usually give you lots of results.

Now that you know how to find the names of the movies that will work for you, how can you find the movies themselves? Well, for those of us who have plenty of extra money, Amazon is a good source of DVDs of foreign films. A lot of people would rather not spend so much cash, though, so I’ll share a few strategies that I sometimes use. First, use a library. University libraries and public libraries often have DVDs of foreign films, so go ahead and borrow it for a few days and be happy that you didn’t spend a penny. In fact, you can even get DVDs of movies from other countries, and just change the language setting to watch it in a different language. I watched Thor
in Spanish last summer and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest in Brazilian Portuguese a few days ago. If you really want to watch a hollywood blockbuster, then watch it in your target language! A video rental store is another option. (pro tip: if you need to find the name of a film or a TV show in a different language, so to the Wikipedia page for that film or TV show, then view that page in the other language to see the title)

However, nowadays I do nearly all of my language learning through the internet, and this is where we find our last option: video sharing sites, like YouTube. Most American films can’t be found easily on YouTube, but I’ve seen many Chinese movies there. I suspect it is because the copyright police working for YouTube focus on English-language and American-made films, so finding The Warring State (战国) or If You Are the One (非诚勿扰) on Youtube is easy. For countries that have their own video sharing sites, like Youku and Tudou in China, those can also be good resources to find movies in that language. Series Yonkis is a great site for finding Spanish TV shows as well as american TV shows dubbed in Spanish, and I enjoyed watching quite a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother there.

Of course, some evil and nefarious elements of society would propose using a torrenting program to quickly and easily download high-quality films directly to your computer. I won’t tell you about that! But if you happen to have some of these video files already available on your hard drive, there is an excellent option watching it with subtitles to it: Fleex. I only heard about Fleex a few days ago, but it has already proven it’s worth. Simply put, Fleex will automatically find subtitles for your video file, whether it is a movie or a TV show. Further, it can easily switch between English and target-language subtitles. This means that if I am a beginner and I want to watch and American movie with the normal audio but with Portuguese subtitles, I can do that. If I am more advanced, I can take my target-language language movie and watch it with target-language subtitles. It is targeted towards people who are learning English, but it can be easily used by English-speakers learning other languages.

These are just a few of the strategies that exist to use film and movies to practice a foreign language. Remember that this is a passive form of learning, and passive forms should not be your main strategy, but it can be used as a supplementary strategy when you aren’t motivated to do something energy-intensive. So next time you come home from your job or you finish your classes and you want to just sit down on the couch and zone out in front of the TV, try to have a target-language movie or some target-language subtitles easily available so that you can zone out in front of a target-language movie.

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3 Responses to “How to Learn a Language with Movies”

  1. The SCOLA Symposium June 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    What a great way to make movies educational and enjoyable!

  2. Afilato June 16, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Reblogged this on Language Thief and commented:
    What a great idea! This will really speed up the process and make learning with video effective and enjoyable.

  3. Rachel July 15, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    One of my favourite ways to pass time on an aeroplane – switch the movie over to a different language option. As you’ve mentioned in a previous post, some airlines have poor language options. Cathay is fairly good – I recently spent a flight with my screen set in French, and watched “Alvin and the Chipmunks” in German (I’d never seen it before, would you believe!).

    My local libraries have pretty good foreign language sections, so I borrow movies in other languages regularly. Of course, you can end up with some particularly… uh, interesting… films. Otherwise, most DVDs come with a couple of language options. I’ve been known to watch some of my favourite sci-fi shows in German or Spanish. Where I live, we also have one channel which broadcasts foreign shows and news – although the English subtitles are annoying.

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