How To Use Movies To Learn A Language

Netflix and chill? More like ‘Netflix and drill…your vocab.’
Drei Frauen auf einer Couch mit Popcorn zum Thema Sprache lernen mit Filmen

Learning a language is not just about rote memorization of vocab and grammar rules. The Babbel approach we recommend most often involves a balanced diet of language lessons, real-world practice and supplemental media like books, podcasts and movies for language learning. Movies aren’t just for entertainment, after all. They also give you a cultural education that enriches your language comprehension. Movies also expose you to a more natural form of the language with authentic vocabulary and slang, and they teach you to connect words with associated body language.

So yes, good news for all you movie buffs: you can be very productive from your couch. But movies will only serve as an effective learning tool if you approach them in the right way. Don’t plan on hitting play and zoning out if you’re serious about this whole studying thing. Instead, take some pointers from us and watch your skills get measurably sharper. And if you’re just interested in movie recommendations, scroll down to the bottom.

5 Ways To Use Movies For Language Learning

1. Pick Your Plot (And Get To Know It)

Selecting the right movie is almost as important as how you go about watching it. Just because a film has cinematic appeal doesn’t mean it’s the best film to help you progress as a language learner. It’s true you should choose a movie that’s going to keep you engaged, but if you’re just starting out, it might help to start with a storyline you’re already familiar with, or to read a synopsis of the plot and characters first so you’re not totally lost when you start watching.

Also, consider the difficulty level of the dialogue. If you’re not into watching children’s movies (which often have the easiest vocabulary to follow), a light comedy or romcom might be a better candidate than a heady and complex psychological thriller that’s probably hard to “get,” even for native speakers of the language.

2. Subtitles Are Your Friend

There’s an ongoing debate over whether you should watch movies with subtitles or with dubbed voice-overs. It’s often referred to as the subs vs. dubs debate, and we stand firmly on the side of subs. Not only is the dubbing sometimes poor-quality, but it also kind of defeats the purpose of what you’re trying to do. Subtitles are sort of like training wheels in the sense that they can help you find your balance in a new language, even if they’re not meant to support you forever.

This is also where we get into the importance of repetition when it comes to learning with movies. Watching it once probably won’t get you optimal results. Instead, try watching the movie again without subtitles when you feel ready, or perhaps challenge yourself to first watch without subtitles, then go back and turn the subtitles on to test how well you comprehended things the first time. And then watch it a third time sans subtitles sometime in the future. You might want to choose a movie you know you’ll enjoy for this exercise.

3. Break It Up Into Chunks

You’re not in a movie theater, and you’re not obligated to watch the entire movie from start to finish in one setting. In fact, it’s probably better for your brain to break it up into chunks, because you’re going to need to focus on the film a lot more deliberately than you would be if you were watching for pure entertainment. Instead, try breaking it up into 20- or 30-minute chunks so that you can process what you’re seeing (and also rewind certain parts you don’t get the first time).

4. Take Notes

When we say active listening, we mean active listening. Not only does writing things down help you remember them, but also you’ll exercise your listening skills even more if you practice writing down what you hear. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even spelled correctly. Start by merely writing down the sounds as you understand them, and then maybe rewatching the same part with subtitles to see how you did. Comparing your initial take with the actual transcript can help you identify trouble spots in your listening comprehension, as well as give you a trial-and-error working knowledge of what the language sounds like in practice.

As a bonus, keep track of the new vocab you learn as you make your way through the movie. Cultural media is great for teaching you niche or colloquial words you wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

5. Take A Mental Break

If the above sounds a little arduous, it’s because it’s not really meant to be a relaxation exercise. But that doesn’t mean you need to push yourself to the brink of mental exhaustion. When your brain starts to get a little tired, give yourself permission to just enjoy the movie and soak it in for a bit. That way, you can familiarize yourself with the content in a fun way so you’ll be even better prepared to learn the next time you take a stab at it. Plus, even passive listening is a way to increase your exposure to the language you’re learning.

Recommendations For Movies For Language Learning

Depending on the language you’re learning, finding good movies to watch can vary in difficulty. Streaming services are filled with Spanish and French films, for example, but Dutch and Polish ones require a little more digging. Fortunately, we’ve compiled movies for language learning in each of the 13 languages that Babbel offers. We’ve also checked to make sure that they’re available for streaming in the United States, and we tell you where you can find them.

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