Can You Learn a Language by Watching Movies?

The short answer? Yes.

The slightly longer answer: only if you’re prepared to spend hours and hours studying it. I know what you are thinking – it doesn’t sound very fun.

I can see the allure – the idea that you can just sit there, enjoy a movie while soaking up all those foreign words like a sponge and just magically become fluent after binging through several TV shows is understandably enticing.

You know what they say – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But the good news is – it is definitely far more entertaining than flashcards and workbooks. And it does work, as long as you go about it the right way.

Here’s how I did it.

Step 1: Choosing the Right Movie

Finding a movie that is right for you is half the battle. First of all, it has to match your level of proficiency – not too easy lest you get bored, but not too difficult so as to go over your head completely. Basically, in order for this to work, you have to have at least a strong intermediate command of the language, which allows you to understand at least 50% – 60% of the subtitles without having to pause every 3 minutes to google the meaning of a word.

And as you’re going to be studying this movie, it’s probably a good idea to go with a movie that you really like – something that you wouldn’t mind watching several times. If this is your first time attempting this approach, I would recommend picking one that you are already familiar with – preferably one that you have already seen several times.

Step 2: Studying the Movie

This is the stage where you dissect the movie and get to know it inside out. If you have not seen it already, I suggest watching it first with subtitles in your native language. This will give you a clear understanding of the plot, which will be helpful later on when you’re analysing the dialogues.

If studying the whole movie in one go is too much for you, try breaking it down into several parts. I like to tackle it 30 minutes at a time.

Then, re-watch the movie, this time with subtitles in your target language. Pay close attention to the dialogue. Jot down words and phrases that are new to you, and look them up. If you have a language partner, now would be the time to ask for their help. If you don’t, there are always online language learning communities like HiNative and italki where you can find plenty of native speakers willing to answer your questions.

Write down what you’ve learned in your notebook, or put them on flashcards – whatever works for you. I usually create a new Memrise deck for each of the movie I study.

Step 3: Listening to the Movie

Now that you have studied the entire movie and understood at least 80% to 90% of it, it’s time to work on your listening skills.

Here’s a problem that many language learners eventually run into, somewhere in the murky depths between B2 and C1: they often find that they cannot understand a single word that is being spoken, despite having a pretty good grasp of grammar and a decent vocabulary. When they’re presented with a transcript, however, they find that all of a sudden they can understand everything.

I’m sure some of you are familiar with this frustrating scenario. This happens because you are not used to hearing the words being spoken. It is especially common among people who focus heavily, if not exclusively, on their reading and writing skills.

To bridge the gap between your reading and listening skills, you need to train your brain to automatically associate the sounds you hear with the words you already know. And that is the whole point of this exercise. Watch the movie, again, with subtitles in your target language. This time the focus is not on the meaning of each sentence (which you should know pretty well by now, anyway, having studied it so extensively) but on the sounds you hear.

Read the subtitles as you listen, and try to match the sounds you hear to the words you are reading. Rewind and replay as much as you need to – it’s okay.

I usually repeat this process about three times. The first time is usually the slowest, because I would often pause and rewind to catch words that I’ve missed. The second time is a lot easier, because at this point I would be so familiar with the dialogues that I can almost manage without the subtitles.

For the third time, I try to watch without the subtitles. If I can understand about 80% of the dialogues – and by this, I mean being able to transcribe what is being said somewhat accurately and not just understanding the gist of it – I consider it a success, and move on to step 4.

Step 4: Reciting Lines from the Movies

This step is optional, but I personally find it very helpful for practicing my speaking skills. For many years, this was my only way to practice speaking English, as I didn’t know anyone in real life or online that I could practice with. It worked so well that when I finally managed to meet native speakers that I could talk to on a regular basis they were all surprised by my pronunciation and intonation.

What I would do is pick a couple of my favourite scenes from the movie and try to learn the lines. I used to call it ‘The Imitation Game’ because what I would do, essentially, is imitate the actors in those scenes. I would pay close attention to their pronunciation and intonation, and mimic them the best I could. It is kind of like doing a radio play all on your own. You can record yourself doing it and then compare it to the movie afterwards to assess your progress.

One side effect, though: you’re probably going to cringe a lot. But it’s good for you, I promise!

And there you have it! That’s how you make the most of a movie. It’s not exactly a walk in the park, but if you ask me, I’d say it’s a pretty fun walk. And at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.