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Learning Languages through the Movies

July 17th, 2013 by Dexter Findley

It's long been established that 'immersing' yourself in a language is one of the best ways to learn. However, not everybody can jet off and live in their chosen country for a few months. There are various language-learning packages available which claim to simulate this immersion - the most notable of which is Rosetta Stone - but there is another way to experience it: by watching films in the language.

This was my experience. I'd learnt French to AS level at school, but hadn't used it for years and my once passable knowledge and conversational ability was waning. So, I decided to dive into the world of French cinema for a refresher course. To begin with, I watched some kids' stuff with a limited vocabulary - Asterix and the like. I kept the subtitles on for the first few films, just so I wouldn't get lost, and to pick out the more obscure words. I had to play back some of the dialogue a few times to get my head around it, but after a surprisingly short time I felt like I could move on to something more challenging.

So I explored contemporary 'pop' films, like L'Auberge Espagnole, Russian Dolls, Amelie and Banlieue 13. This was an important point, because these films contained the level of vocab, slang and grammar constructs used in everyday French speech. In short, if I could understand the majority of these films, I was well on the way to reclaiming my knowledge of French.

I came to wonder whether these films were perhaps a little too slang-heavy, so I decided to graduate to the Serious French Films a little earlier than I'd planned. I'm still on them, longing for the day when I'll be able to understand them perfectly. I've gone back to subtitles, mainly because they help you understand trickier sections, and you can always not look at them during the more comprehensible bits. So for a while my film-watching history was the likes of La Vie en Rose, Persepolis, La Haine, Jules et Jim, Belle du Jour, Les Diaboliques, Breathless etc. My favourite? Les Diaboliques - it's like Hitchcock made a French film.

I've also started to apply the technique to Spanish - a language that I have no grounding in, beyond the similarities shared by Romance languages - and I've found that I've mostly been watching horrors! The Spanish are good at scares, that much is clear. El Orfanato, Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone... but they all have clear Spanish dialogue which makes some of the simpler aspects of language easy to pick up.

Of course, I'm not suggesting you use films as your sole exposure to the language, rather as a supplement to whatever other learning method you're using. Also, this technique won't be possible for all languages - while almost all European languages have a healthy cinematic tradition, in other parts of the world this unfortunately isn't the case. Japan, Korea and Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong all have solid movie industries, but Mandarin is woefully under-represented cinematically, as are lots of other Asian languages. Desi languages have Bollywood (some Bollywood films interchange with English, however, so be warned) but Arabic is lacking: as a language it's primarily seen in Egyptian classics and contemporary (2005+) films from countries in the Levant.

Want more on Langauges? How about looking at the Top 5 Language Mysteries?

Tags: Films
Categories: Advice