Talks & Interviews — July 9, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Learning foreign languages by watching films: what you need to know

olly-richards-language2A lot of people use movies to learn foreign languages, but is it really a good strategy? Some say it’s a good addition, others claim it’s necessary.

BZFilm decided to speak to someone who knows a thing or two about learning languages.

Meet UK’s Olly Richards, who runs a “I Will Teach You A Language” website that gives practical tips and strategies for learning foreign languages.

Olly speaks 7 foreign languages and practices what he preaches with regular language learning videos and articles from around the world.

In an exclusive interview with BZFilm, Richards spoke about how he learns new languages and also reveals if watching films can really help to learn a new language.


Are you learning any new language as of now? Which language was the toughest for you to learn and why?

I’m learning Cantonese (the language of Hong Kong) and I’m just about to start learning Egyptian Arabic, as I’ll be moving to Cairo shortly. I like to document these processes, and I make regular progress videos on my blog. Cantonese has been the most difficult language for me, but not because of the language itself. This is the first time that I’ve been learning a language well and truly on my own – without living in the country where the language is spoken, or without a group of people around me who speak the language. Having regular opportunities to use your target language is the single most important ingredient in the language learning process. Coming into contact with people and trying out your language gives you immediate feedback on how you’re doing, and that is really motivating because it shows you exactly what you need to learn next. Without that, however, you need to manufacture other ways of staying motivated, and that’s what’s been the big challenge for me in learning Cantonese.

Does watching movies help to learn any language? You yourself speak English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Japanese, Arabic, Cantonese. How does watching movies apply to these languages?

The first thing to say is that watching movies in another language, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. However, in many cases, people who are trying to learn another language “default” into watching a lot of movies, mostly because it’s an enjoyable way to get exposure to the language. The important question to ask is: “If I’m serious about learning a new language, how should I best use my time?”

Watching movies can help, sure. It gives you the chance to listen and get accustomed to the sounds of the language. But as a beginner, you need a lot more than that. You need to acquire a lot of basic vocabulary, you need to read and listen to simple texts that are simple enough to allow you to notice key features of the language, and you need to start actually practicing the language, through speaking and/or writing, so you can get feedback on how you’re doing. Movies don’t give you that.

People in movies use advanced, native-speaker language that is totally irrelevant for the beginner. Language in movies is fast – way too fast for you to be able to break it down, analyze and learn from. Movies are also not easy to manipulate for study purposes. A short dialogue in a textbook, for example, is much easier to take in, look at repeatedly and comes with a translation or vocabulary list to help you understand.

Finally, watching movies is a completely passive activity. And that’s only half of the language learning equation. You need to be producing language as well as just listening to it. You may be reading this and thinking: “OK, but that doesn’t make watching movies a bad thing!”And you’d be right. But that’s why I asked earlier how you’re using your time. If you’re spending 6 hours per week watching movies and 18 hours studying – that’s about right. But if you’re like many people, you’re watching a few movies every week, but only 20-30 minutes actually sat down engaged in proper study.

Having seen many people defaulting to watching movies as their main language learning activity, what I’m trying to do is get people to take a step back and take an objective look at how they’re using their time. If you’re serious about learning another language, watching movies alone will not get you very far.

So does watching movies help to improve the language?

As I already said, watching movies is not going to bring you a lot of progress in your learning as a beginner. This is because beginners need a reduced diet of information in a format that’s easy to digest, which is the opposite of movies. However, there is an important caveat to this. I actually spend quite a bit of time watching movies in my stronger languages (Spanish, Japanese, French, Portuguese), and this is because I’m more advanced in them. When you get to an intermediate level in a language, you can speak with and understand native speakers fairly well – holding a conversation is not too hard. Getting beyond that stage, however, presents a whole new challenge.

Although being able to chat with native speakers in a foreign language sounds like a distant dream to many people, it’s not the end of the road. Far from it. When you chat with people, the topics you talk about are generally restricted to the very familiar (weather, the place you live, your job).

If you want to improve and raise your level even further, towards an advanced level, you need to get a lot more exposure to language than you can get from everyday conversation. And how can you do this? Reading books is one way. Watching movies is another. Watching movies is a different experience for intermediate level speakers and above. A lot of what is said can be understood, meaning that you’re free to focus on smaller details of the language: colloquial expressions, slang, less common vocabulary. This is something you can really benefit and learn from.

How does watching educational programs or series differ from watching movies to learn/improve the language?

It’s a great question. We’ve been talking about watching movies, but, in fact, I always recommend watching TV series instead of movies. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important thing is that TV series are repetitive. Over an entire series you see the same characters, in similar situations, talking about similar topics, and, critically…using similar words, phrases and expressions. This repetition is a gift for the language learner, because repetition is the most important element in learning anything. Short, 30-minute episodes are also far easier to digest than movies and make it more practical to watch and re-watch.

If we assume that watching movies does help to improve the language, at what stage, would you suggest to watch them?

Beginners can certainly watch foreign language movies (or preferably TV series), but ensure that it’s a supplement to their regular language study time, rather than a replacement for it. Movies are best seen as a way to increase motivation to learn the language and an opportunity to consolidate things that have been learned elsewhere. Intermediate and above learners can really benefit from watching movies in their target language, in order to get extra exposure to language that they might not otherwise hear. However, it’s likely to still be difficult for people to understand a lot of what’s said. The best approach is to watch as smaller number of movies repeatedly, rather than a new one each time. Again, it comes down to the value of repetition.

Some people say watching movies with subtitles is helpful, others claim it only distracts from the actual screen action. What’s your take on this?

As a lot of people confuse watching movies for enjoyment, rather than for learning, it’s really important to examine this. Put simply, if you’re watching for enjoyment then of course it’s better to have subtitles, otherwise you won’t understand what’s going on! However, don’t be under any illusions! If you’ve got the subtitles on (in either language), you’re then essentially practicing reading rather than listening. If you want to learn from the movies, you need to turn the subtitles off. Doesn’t that make it too hard? Well, yes! And that’s why it’s not a particularly valuable activity for beginners.

One practical solution, again harnessing the power of repetition, is to watch one movie a number of times. For the first couple of times, watch with English subtitles, so you know what’s going on and understand the story. After that, turn the subtitles off. Your knowledge of the plot and actual lines from the movies will support you and make it more likely that you’ll make sense of what you hear in the foreign language.

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