Watching movies is a great way to improve your foreign languages
Movies are fun, emotional, dynamic, audiovisual, and use authentic language, in nearly any language you want to learn.
You can start watching target language movies at any stage in your learning. However, I typically recommend using movies as learning materials at around the B1-B2 level. This ensures that you already have decent listening skills, and will not be completely lost when confronted with native-level audiovisual materials.
How Film and Video Revolutionized My Language Learning
Watching movies made a huge difference in the early years of my language learning, when I was studying English and French.
When I began learning English around the age of 12, my tutor would record British and American movies on VHS tape. Every week during our session, she would gift me the tape, which I would then study and learn from.
Later, on my own initiative, I bought a English learning video series called “Speak Up!”, which came with a video tape and a printed script.
For learning French through film and video, I got my fix through regularly watching the TV channel France 2, which I received on my TV set at home. Much to my delight, I also discovered that I could watch the France 2 footage with subtitles in French.
With authentic French video and subtitles broadcast direct to my home, I was able to spend countless nights over several years watching, learning, and improving my knowledge of the language.
Those initial years learning French and English through audiovisual media opened my eyes to the power of such resources to improve my language skills in an authentic and fun way.
However, I discovered over those years that it was generally not enough to simply expose myself to a movie and hope that my knowledge of the language would get better.
In order to improve steadily, I had to learn deliberately, following an organized set of steps that would help me process what I learned, retain it, and then later put it to use when it came time to actually use the language.
A Note on Deliberate and Natural Practice
Remember that there are two key ways in which you can learn from any type of language learning resource: naturally, and deliberately.
Learning naturally from movies consists solely of watching them for pleasure, and hoping that mere exposure to a large quantity of movies in your target language will improve your passive skills.
Learning deliberately from movies consists of putting in time and energy into the process with the goal of learning new vocabulary, phrases, and cultural maxims from the material and retaining them over the short- and long-term.
While both deliberate and natural learning modes will improve your skills, the deliberate mode will help you broaden your active language skills most efficiently and reliably.
5 Tips for Deliberate Practice While Watching Movies
1. Choose the right location, body position, and viewing medium.
Location - Movies and videos in your target language are best absorbed in comfortable, distraction-free locations, like your living room, bedroom, or (if you have headphones) a quiet public place, like a library.
Body Position - You’ll want to make sure your body is positioned comfortably, but not too much so. Too comfortable, and you’ll be liable to fall asleep. To avoid this, I recommend sitting upright while watching a movie, either at a desk or on a couch. Sitting upright will also ensure that you’ll be better prepared to take notes while watching, which we will explore in a following tip.
Viewing Medium - Nowadays, we have a wide range of viewing options when it comes to enjoying movies and TV. The most popular of these are on a television set, computer screen, or mobile device. For deliberately learning from movies, I recommend watching on a television, as it is a more immersive viewing experience than the other two, and does not come with added distractions.
2. Watch movies you know well
The next key step is to begin by watching movies you already are familiar with in your native language. If you’re starting a movie-watching routine with B1-level listening skills, this will allow you to fill in any potential gaps in comprehension by simply recalling what was said or done in the film when you watched it previously.
3. Always use subtitles
Subtitles are a tremendous learning aid that you should always put to use when watching a target language film or video.
If you’re not ready to read subtitles fully in the target language, start with subtitles in your native language (or another language you already know well).
If you’re more advanced, use subtitles only in the target language.
If you’re advanced enough to not need subtitles 90% of the time or more, I would still recommend leaving them on, and simply ignoring them the majority of the time. You never know when an unfamiliar word or phrase will come up, and you’ll be happy to have the subtitles there to acquire that new information when you need it.
4. Use a notebook
The ancient Romans used to say “verba volant, scripta manent”—in English, “spoken words fly away, written words remain.”
When watching film and video, there will inevitably be a lot of spoken words “flying” at you at any given time, and keeping them all in memory is impossible without some sort of outside, written aid.
Thank goodness, then, for the simple but effective tool that is the notebook.
Having a notebook & writing implement handy while watching a movie will help you write down any words, phrases, or other information that you find useful during your viewing sessions.
On top of that, simply knowing that you intend to take notes will keep you focused while watching, and this alert state will help you process more material.
Once you’re done watching a movie, or video, you then can take your written notes and cross-reference them with a dictionary, phrasebook, or other resource so that you can actually learn the meanings of the new words and expressions you wrote down.
5. Break down viewing sessions
Most movies are long, clocking in at an hour or more. Even television shows nowadays have episodes that last anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour. That’s a lot of potential material to absorb at once, and the longer a movie or video is, the more likely you’ll get bored or sleepy before it's over.
To avoid this, I recommend breaking down your viewing sessions into smaller, more manageable chunks.
The exact length of each viewing session is up to you, but I recommend that you experiment and settle on a length that is just long enough to be productive from a learning standpoint, and short enough to still be enjoyable. Anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes is likely ideal.
In conclusion, watching movies and videos is a fantastic way for learning vocabulary and improving your listening comprehension. You can do this through the lens of either natural or deliberate practice, though keep in mind that deliberate practice will result in the most steady improvement.
Put to use the above 5 tips, and work to find a balance between the pleasure of simply watching a movie and the effort of deliberate practice. Watch one movie or more a week using the above methods, and you will soon build a fun and effective learning habit that will massively improve your foreign languages in the long run.