How to learn English with movies

Students often ask me if watching films is a good way to learn English. The short answer is YES, absolutely. Films are usually full of great conversational expressions. However, as usual, there are some things you can consider that can make a difference in learning.

The first thing you need to understand and accept as a language learner is that watching a film to learn English is not the same thing as watching a film for entertainment (at least not at the beginning). The difference is quite simple: learning requires effort and “extra brainwork”. You can’t just sit back and expect to understand and remember all of what you hear right away after watching a couple of movies in English. As a learner, you’ll need to look at it as an activity that you do (at least when you are starting off) less as entertainment and more like a language lesson. This applies to most learners who only have a couple of hours a week. Which is true for the great majority of my students actually. If you are a person who has time to watch dozens of hours of movies a week, then of course this can work differently for you, because you have a lot more language input. However, even then I think quantity does not guarantee quality learning necessarily. So even then I still recommend that you check my learning tips in this blog, and see which ones fit your needs best for some additional language work. It can enhance your learning more than just watching the movie and expecting to learn “automatically”.

What films to choose?

Once you’re clear on the first point, you’re ready to pick a movie. Start with a film that you have already seen in your first language before. This way you will be familiar with the story line and you can focus on the language part rather than being “distracted” by discovering the story.

Key: You are learning with the help of the film. Find the useful parts in the movie for this purpose. These are typically the dialogue parts, where conversational English is used, but it can also be a monologue (for example a person remembering something and thinking aloud).

Step by step guide

These steps are also explained with additional comments in the following video.

Select a scene with a dialogue (1-2 minutes long) to work on.

  1. Watch the scene without sound. Stop. Spend a moment thinking: What do you think the people were saying to each other? Did they look happy, sad, angry etc.? Jot down your ideas quickly on paper. (for example: asking for information, complaining, planning something etc)
  2. Play the scene again. This time do not watch, only listen. Stop again and compare what you heard with your “predictions” in point 2.
  3. Watch the scene again, now with the sound ON in English, without subtitles. Stop. Compare what you understood now to point 1. Do you understand a bit more? What’s missing?
  4. Watch again, now with the English subtitles ON. Watch the whole scene from the beginning to the end without stopping. Just watch it and read along the subtitles.

    Note: Subtitles sometimes do not reflect the exact words the actors are saying. (If you’re feeling this is getting kind of repetitive and tedious, then you can take a break, and move on to the next point some other day. Remember, you’re studying, not “simply watching a movie”, as explained in the introduction. That’s why you are working on the same short scene repeatedly). 
  5. Now comes the study part. This is where you are going to decide what expressions and words you find useful to learn from the scene. Repeat Step 4, but this time go pausing the video as you’re watching the same scene to observe the language used in it more closely (use a TV remote control or the slider of your movie player app). Take your time. This step is important. You need to understand the information and take notes if you want to remember the new material. This is the time to note down useful words and new expressions.

Now evaluate

Look at your language notes and think about the following:

Were the words and expressions that you didn’t understand BEFORE turning the subtitles on all unknown and new? Or only some were new and the rest were simply hard to understand?

In the second case, why do you think that happens?

Is it because the words were not pronounced clearly? Or perhaps not the way you’d expect them to sound? If this is the case, then there’s clearly some pronunciation work you can do here.

Well done!

If you got to this point you have done a great job. Now you can prize  yourself: switch off the subtitles, and go back and watch the scene again, but this time forget about notebooks and notes, just watch as if you were watching it for entertainment.

Since this is only a short scene, you can do it a couple of times until you feel it just sounds more comfortable to follow.

At this point you should notice a difference between your ability to understand the language in the scene compared to when you started. This doesn’t mean that you will or are supposed to understand ALL the dialogue 100%. No, that’s not the point. You should be happy with even small advances. And most of all with the fact that you have done more than most students do when it comes to learning with movies.

Yes, but ...

And now that well-known “Yes but” is ringing in your head, right?

You’re questioning your efforts like Yes, of course, I understand a lot more now, but it’s because now I have seen the subtitles, I know the story, I have worked on the scene in detail” blah blah blah.

Let me tell you this: you understand the dialogue in the scene better now because you have worked on it. As simple as that.

But wait a second, is that not what you wanted in the first place?

Rinse and repeat

With this learning experience you can move on and choose your next favourite scene to work on from the same movie, or from another one, and follow the same steps.

As you progress you will probably find that you are able to handle longer scenes or longer dialogue parts easier, and that you will understand more and more even for the first time.

You will probably still want to continue taking notes of new expressions, but the ones that you have learned earlier will sound familiar and will be easier to recognise in other new contexts.

Follow up exercises

As a follow up exercise, what you can do is go and find the movie script and go to your chosen scene to read the dialogue from there as well.

Sometimes there are last minute changes to what the characters actually say compared to what was written to be said. Look for differences that there may be between the final movie version and the original script. It’s just a nice complementary exercise you can do to learn more.

Also, if you enjoy the world of movie making, you may find the annotations and other notes included in scripts fun to read.

Conclusion

Learning a foreign language is a process. All you need is to get started and keep going to see the results. I hope this guide helps you with that.

Good luck and have fun learning!

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