Learning a language with films

I’ve had a request from Justin K, who would like to ask if you have any recommendations for films (movies) that are good for learning languages. Justin is currently studying Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin), Arabic and Hindi. I’d also be interested in your suggestions.

When I watch a film in a foreign language with subtitles, I can’t help myself reading the subtitles. If there are no subtitles, I concentrate more on the spoken dialogue and find I can understand more of it because my attention isn’t divided. If the subtitles are in the same language as the dialogue, as is the case with TV and films in Taiwan, I find I can understand even more.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

12 Responses to Learning a language with films

  1. pg says:

    I feel the same way about subtitles. It’s also more fun without them anyway, as you realize that most movies can be reasonably followed without comprehension of a single word in the target language.

    I’d recommend Justin just watch films he finds interesting. If I were learning the languages above, I’d probably look into films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for Mandarin.

    In French and Spanish, my favorite films thus far have been The Motorcycle Diaries, Y tu mama tambien, and Amelie.

  2. I’d love to hear the recommendations for films in Mandarin, as I’m currently in my second year of university study and am picking up more and more from the films I’m watching.

  3. Mike says:

    For Mandarin, I’d recommend the DVDs of “House of Flying Daggers” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” so that the language can be set to the original, and the subtitles can be turned off. Unfortunatley I don’t have any recommendataions if Justin isn’t a fan of kung-fu films. 🙁

    Also, the American DVD release of “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children” can be watched with the original Japanese dialogue, and a choice of subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean, Thai, Madrain (traditional), and Cantonese. I’m not sure if this is the same for other regions, however. But with that one he could practice his Japanese listening, as well as Mandarin reading… though I don’t know how productive that would end up being.

  4. This person on YouTube has posted songs from Disney films in many languages…maybe too simple for your friend, but they ARE good for helping with vocabulary.


  5. TJ says:

    There is one movie starring Antony Quinn, which talks about the beginning of Islam and his role was the uncle of prophet Mohammed. This movie also has another version where Quinn and other actors were changed to Arab actors mostly Egyptian. This movie actually is in standard classic Arabic of course and I think it is good to follow it for learning a bit of Arabic.
    Its name is “The Message” (in Arabic: Al-Risaalah)

  6. Ramses says:

    Watching tv or films in a foreign language is a good way to learn lots of new words fast. Me for example learned English by watching MTV Britain and Cartoon Network. In that time they didn’t included subtitles for that channels, so it was a great learning school for me.

  7. Joseph Staleknight says:

    I find that one of my favorite foreign-language films is “Good Bye Lenin!” (which is, of course, in German). I could never find a more dramatic or emotional film than that one. Nor one that helped me better understand German culture, history, and (obviously) language.

  8. Camilla says:

    @ Joseph, I agree about Goodbye Lenin!, a fantastic and moving film with great cultural depth. When I rewatched it recently it reminded me of the beauty of the German language and prompted me want to refresh my German skills.

    And in general: I think using films can be a great way to learn a language. In one of my Burmese classes we watched films, rewatched our favourite scenes and then re-inacted them. We learned interesting vocab and had discussions (in Burmese of course) about the films and cultural issues they brought up. Our group also dabbled in making a film of our own, it was a really fun learning experience and I will never forget the Burmese that I learned that way.

  9. Mike says:

    Something we have done in my Japanese classes has been to make films as final projects. They have to be entirely in Japanese, so we learn a lot and get in a fair amount of practice while writing the scripts and filming the actual project. My final for Japanese 103 was a “Shaun of the Dead” style zombie survival film. Very fun. 🙂

  10. Billifer says:

    I truly enjoy foreign film, and I’ve been on a Jean-Luc Godard kick lately. (Ingmar Bergman and Wim Wenders before that; more of both to come.) I would have to say that I’m learning much more French from Godard than I did Swedish from Bergman or German from Wenders.

    A word of caution, though, is advised: Watching Godard without English subtitles is like waking up on another planet. Text is so fundamental to context (and vice versa) in his films, weaving a beautiful tapestry together, that you’d likely be completely lost. Having said that, though, there are many sections of the Godard films I’ve seen (all of them available from Netflix now) where the language is delivered so slowly (as if a student reading a foreign language) that it’s very easy to hear the subtleties of language.

    The only things I’ve been able to pick up from Chinese films is that “thank you” is pronounced somewhat differently in Mandarin and Cantonese, and that I can tell the difference between the two dialects just by listening closely.

    On another note, I once had a Serbian friend who was born in Сарајевe; and lived there until she was 8 before moving to Milwaukee. She learned English completely by watching TV. I first met her when she was 21, and she was so fluently trilingual she was code-switching between English, Serbian, and French all in the same sentence without realizing it.

  11. we live in norway, so my kids learn english by talking to me and also by watching movies. but it is also important to repeat movie lines back to each other (and have fun doing it). so yes, watch something that is interesting and has songs on it to. movies with subtitles in the spoken language is definitely the way to go. but remember you’re watching to learn, not watching to watch =) the only problem is that the subtitles somtimes differ from what is actually being said.

    i also find that talking to children in general, in another language, is a great way to practice because children don’t care if you make mistakes (and you also know they don’t care so you are not hindered in any way).

    if you want to learn norwegian i suggest watching kaptein sabeltann, noddy, etc.

  12. parkbench says:

    For Japanese, I can’t stress enough how useful “J-Drama” (Japanese Drama, just a colloquialism) is. There’s a lot of them. They’re usually a pretty decent quality. Sometimes they’re corny–but 90% of the time they deal with “real situations,” so you’ll hear people asking each other their feelings, confessing their love, expressing desires…basically everything a drama entails.

    Even the good ones aren’t Shakespeare so it’s not impossible to break through.

    I also disagree about the subtitles. This should only be done with advanced learners. I find that having the subtitles on actually facilitates my learning (specifically with vocabulary). My brain hears a sentence structure it knows, but a noun or verb it doesn’t. Knowing the rest of the sentence, my eyes immediately focus in on the word in question and an association is formed in my mind. It’s a great way to whittle down the parts of a sentence. You might, for example, hear a sentence structure you’ve never encountered before. But you hear it multiple times, and each time the same thing is translated, with the exception of one word. You’ve just deduced how to say something like “Wouldn’t it be great if…?”

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