Using Movies to Help Learn a New Language

You may not have seen Amour, but you probably know that it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. If you’re planning on watching it because it’s apparently a very good film, AND because you happen to be learning French, here is some advice that will help you enjoy the film and get a little French mileage out of it, too. Naturally this applies to any language you happen to be learning and any film in that language that you’d like to see!

First, watch the film. If you really want to use a film as a learning tool, it’s a very different experience from watching a film for pleasure. And it can suck all the pleasure out of the experience, especially for anyone who you might be watching the film with but who isn’t interesting in learning the language. So first, sit back and enjoy the film as a film.

Film’s over? Great, now you’re familiar with the plot, and you probably remember a scene or two that were short, manageable, and easy-ish for you to follow without the subtitles. Ideally you want something that’s only a few minutes long, because you’re going to be spending some time with it. Find one of those scenes, pause at the beginning, and go through it like this.

1. Keep the subtitles on and watch the scene once more. No doubt you’ve forgotten a few lines, so this is a chance to remind yourself of the details of what’s being said.

2. Jot down any new vocabulary that came up that you can isolate from comparing the audio to the subtitles. Use the pause button liberally to milk the scene for all of its new language content, and don’t worry if you can’t follow every single word or aren’t familiar with every single grammatical construction.

3. Repeat this once or twice if you need to, until you’re comfortable with the scene. You want it to be familiar enough that you’re picking up lots of vocabulary you already know, along with some new words that you’re just learning because of the subtitles.

4. Go through it one more time, this time with the subtitles off. See if there are any new words you can squeeze out if from the context.

Now that you’re really familiar with the scene, go back to beginning, keeping the subtitles off, and play through it sentence by sentence. Or phrase by phrase, since people don’t always speak in complete sentences. The goal is to listen carefully to each sentence, and see if you can:

5. Pick out the new and familiar vocabulary. It should be getting more and more familiar, and you’ll be surprised at how many new words you’re adding to your lexicon.

6. Look for examples of grammar that you know. Listen for verb forms, examples of adjective agreement, pronouns, etc. This will vary depending on your level, but it will always help build your listening comprehension and put the grammar that you’re learning in a course in a realistic, actual context. Learning to examine other speakers’ grammar will help your own.

It may seem a bit silly to spend so much time focusing on one short scene of a foreign language film. But this will help you do a few things. First, you’ll solidify the vocabulary and grammar that you already know by seeing examples of it. Second, you’ll learn some new vocabulary, and maybe even a new structure. Third, you’ll hone your listening comprehension skills by training your ear to pick out familiar words and constructions against the backdrop of natural speech. This is a vital skill! And finally, you’ll learn how to become an active listener in your new language. You’ve got to put forth more listening effort than in your native language, training yourself to focus carefully on known cues or context.