Watching Movies to Learn Language

“It is no use saying, " we are doing our best. " You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”
by ~Winston Churchill~

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There are really a lot of different ways to learn languages. Of the ones that work, and not all do so well, there are some common threads that can be extracted. I recently came across this comment made on a site that I wish to quote here in its entirety and see what we can learn from it.

Watching Movies to learn a languageI learned a foreign language in about 18 months to fluency. No programs, no Rosetta Stone, No classes. All you need is movies, I used about 20 movies in the target language and learned them all by heart (daily). Rewind, watch, speak , watch the film again, you train your ear in the language. ( you can alternative the films each day and each week)

I read in the language with no translate (sounds crazy but I learned this trick from a person who spoke 3 languages and it works, read in the language and you start to understand, sounds crazy but it works)

I spoke the lines to myself like an actor, I did this every day for 2 hours(literally). Speaking to myself out loud in the target language helped me speak fluently with no accent. Few will do this every day for a year and a half but i did and natives of the language still cannot believe that I did not live in the country at one time.

Now whether this will work for everyone has not been confirmed of course BUT there is I believe a lot to learn from such an observation. The fact that the author learned this language at home without talking to people may give some hope to not only those people who are learning the language in a country other than where the language is spoken but also to the people who are a bit more shy. 😎

Some of you may be wondering ( especially the teachers who read this!) how it is possible that any one can learn a language without formal study or instruction of some kind.

Well, all you have to do is to consider that ALL of us learned our first language without any formal instruction, so we clearly have what it takes. We have been taught to believe that we need instruction which has resulted for many in the disempowering belief that “I can’t do it by myself”. And then once we struggle, we end up confirming our beliefs and blaming ourselves, rather than the instruction or practices we are using, a recipe for disaster ( in terms of our re-developing the required abilities)

I should hasten to add that not all language instruction creates such beliefs, but I would suggest that the vast majority do. This is reflected in part by the poor outcomes for the vast majority of people that has been noted all over the world. There are language classes that of course can do the exact opposite, namely empower and learners, helping them to recognise the powers that they do have to learn languages. You will need to do some real research to track them down.

Some of you may be wondering how it is possible to learn such good pronunciation….

One of the most common complaints that language learners have is about their pronunciation. Here is someone who has “perfected” theirs. How? Well the critical thing to understand is that it is your listening ability which is a key to your pronunciation. I have long maintained that it is that ability which will determine the level we attain in the language we are learning. With the exercise spelled out in this comment, it is listening (and observation) which is at the heart of this technique. It is only by listening more and more carefully to the other as well as oneself and to note the differences that the spoken language can be improved. The end result of all this working on listening will be an improvement in that ability, in all of its aspects.

Some of you may be wondering how it is possible to stay motivated for so long to persist with such a practice…

Well, I would hazard a guess that the 20 films chosen were not random but were ones that the author of the comment chose according to her/his likes. This is really a key to what happened here.  We only persist in things when we are engaged in what we are doing. Engagement is a key to learning. It extends beyond just liking a movie, but that is a key as why else would you want to get your pronunciation the same as the actors’. You just want to be able to say the same, exactly the same, with the same sounds, tones, the same lilt, the same inflexions, etc. That exercise becomes like a game, and as with any game, we know exactly what is our goal (find the hidden treasure, become a basketball player, accumulate as many houses and hotels we can, etc). Then with our goal set, we can see whether we are getting closer or not, every moment of that journey. When the going gets tough, we not only persist but we may alter what we do, or how we do it.

I am sure we could mine a lot more from this example but for now I will leave it at that. Should you have your own experiences on this, just leave a note below!

  • Angelo

    Hi, do you know Topwords App? I invite you to know… We create an app that get the most common words in a movie and shows the translation and a movie phrase that shows each word. It’s available for IOS and Android. I would appreciate If you test it and If you like promote it in your page. Thanks.

  • Abdelkrim Makhloufi

    Thank you very much Mr Andrew, but it would be better to propose a list of movies that could be helpful for english learners

    • Abdelkrim, thank you for your suggestion. The only one I could make thought is choose the one/s that you enjoy the most! That way you will want to keep watching it and learning from it.

  • I found this following observation on Quora by made a retired English language teacher, F. Dennis Williams: “I had one Korean student who seemed to speak English like someone who
    had lived in America. When I asked her about it, she said she watched “Titanic” about 50 times and carried around cassette tapes with the entire soundtrack — wearing out the tape. She was admitted to Yale, MIT, and Princeton.” Dennis went on to say that this student loved the film. Thought it might add to the conversation.

  • Great observation Nives.

    It is amazing what we can do once we focus on those abilities that lead to real learning, as opposed to what is done a lot of the time in the name of language learning.

  • fatima

    Good article thank you Andrew but movies nowadays have slang vocabulary and i myself as a teacher doesnt feel safe to watch!!!

    • Thank you Fatima. I am sure there must be movies out there past and
      present that wouldn’t offend your sensiibilities. Sound of Music is one
      that springs to mind from the past. I would have thought that children’s movies would be free safe as well. Enjoy!

  • riders

    this is just a step away from the failed audio-lingual methods of the 60s and is very unlikely to succeed for most people! Most of what is written here completely ignores SLA research and takes us back to the good old days when anyone could invent a ‘method’ and flog it to the unsuspecting student. In particular this ignores the affective aspects of pronunciation – ego permeability, tolerance of ambiguity and more; achieving half decent pronunciation does not depend on hearing or listening, it depends rather more on psychlinguistic factors. This ‘method’ should be treated with great suspicion by anyone who needs to learn a language.

    • Thanks for the observation, it is a useful one to add here.

      The big difference between the method described here by a learner from the audio lingual methods of the 60’s and 70’s is that in the latter the teacher/course was the driving agent. In the method described here, the learner is the driving agent. That is a huge distinction.

      Effective language learners embrace ambiguity, are moved (by psycho linguistic factors amongst other factors) to want to perfect their pronunciation, and allow themselves to be vulnerable to what they are hearing and seeing. Learners who this method will not work for are those who don’t do what I just mentioned. So as a learning method, it is not flawed for learners who can do all that. For language learners who do not currently have these capacities or do not develop them, I agree with you.

      The issue with many teaching methods, and that is not limited to the audio lingual methods you refer to, is that there is a lack of understanding of how to implement all we have discovered.

  • Jaz

    As much as I disagree with this method as I’ve seen my Canadian colleague, in China, putting a film on for adult learners or a cartoon for kids and let them watch it while he was falling asleep! Yet they all come to me to do the speaking & listening practice and prepare for tests. I am an ESOL Cambridge Interlocutor for Speaking & Listening Tests so, they had no vocabulary not even from the films they’ve watched recently! and have not progressed in any way, shape or form! with him after few weeks. We had to work so had together so that they pass either IELTS or other tests at school.

    • One key I referred to above is engagement. Without that, the best
      method, if there is one, cannot work. When I find that the people I am
      working with are not engaged, I change what I do, ask a question, give
      them a break, etc. Without engagement, the best thing a learner can do
      is to either find it or stop doing what they are doing – movies
      included! 🙂