Listening to Movies: How to Use Film Dialogue for Language Learning

Note from the LinguaCore Team: This is a guest post submitted to LinguaCore by Jobst Upmeier, a language learner and student of LinguaCore’s own Luca Lampariello. In this post, Jobst shares one of his personal favorite language learning methods, which he uses to increase his listening comprehension and foreign language vocabulary


Movies and TV series are fantastic resources for learning languages.

It’s no secret that generations of moviegoers in Scandinavia and Holland who grew up watching Hollywood films often attain a high level of proficiency in English at a relatively young age.

Until today, consumers in those countries could only watch most foreign films and TV series in their original version with subtitles in the local language. By contrast, film audiences in other European countries such as France, Germany, and Italy are used to watching mostly dubbed versions, depriving them of the opportunity to acquire enhanced language proficiency as a byproduct, like their Northern European counterparts.

At a closer look, however, dubbed films are extremely useful when you are learning a foreign language. As language learners, we must be thankful to the film industry for providing us with an almost infinite pool of dubbed movies on DVD, Blu-ray and via video-on-demand portals in a multitude of different languages, which most often come with a free transcript of the dialogue in the form of subtitles. Not to mention local arthouse films that may only include one or two language versions, but often provide fascinating insights into cultural aspects of a country that no Hollywood popcorn movie could ever deliver.

How, then, do you make best use of these tools in your language learning?

My proposition is that by extracting the essence of a movie – the verbal parts without the images – you can vastly improve not only your passive vocabulary and your listening comprehension, but also your command of grammar and even your ability to express yourself more naturally in your target language.

Listen – And The Force Will Be With You

Aside from the music, most movies consist primarily of dialogue (and the occasional monologue by the narrator). This is what you want to focus on, as it most closely resembles the situation of having a real conversation with a native speaker.

The key is to watch the film once and after that concentrate only on the dialogue. When you are watching a film, a large part of the brain is preoccupied with processing the images. Listening just to the spoken parts frees up brain power and lets you concentrate on the phrases and expressions, making it easier to store them in your permanent memory. The action parts in a movie often carry no dialogue anyway, so you can easily boil down a 90-minute film to under 40 minutes of useful dialogue, leaving out the silent parts and the lines that do not interest you.

In this article, you are going to be introduced to the technique of creating a transcript of the spoken scenes from a movie and using it along with an audio recording to internalize the expressions and sentences you hear in the scenes. This will enable you to fairly quickly build a foundation for formulating your own sentences from the transcribed material.

Because film dialogue is generally fast-spoken and often contains many colloquial expressions not found in audio material for language learners, you should have at least the equivalent of a B1 level in your target language to get the most out of the method presented here.

In the next paragraphs, you’ll find a little tried-and-tested exercise to get you started, which you can easily expand upon once you gain experience with the technique.

Let’s get started!

How to Use Film Dialogue for Language Learning

Step 1: Choose a Film in Your Target Language

Learning a foreign language should be fun, and not boring. Nowhere is this more true than when incorporating movies into your language learning.

What do I mean by that?

Always learn from films that you enjoy watching!

It could be a rediscovered film from when you were a teenager, or a film that deals with a topic you are passionate about now. What matters is that the plot and the dialogue lines really appeal to you.

Why do plot and dialogue matter here? Because many key events in movies are verbal in nature. The deeper your emotional connection with the characters and the story, the easier it will be for your brain to retain the expressions and phrases you hear and recall them later.

Step 2: Select and Record a Scene of Dialogue to Practice

For this step, you will need a way to record dialogue from the movie. The easiest way is to use a smartphone or similar device with a simple voice-memo function.

From your selected movie, choose a scene of dialogue that you do not yet fully understand. This may be because the actors talk too fast, or because the words they use are not yet part of your vocabulary. As a rule of thumb, if you can listen to the dialogue two or three times and get more than the gist of what is being said, you’ve found the right scene.

For your first attempt, find a scene that contains little to no background noise or music. This will allow you to fully focus on the spoken words.

Using your recording device, record the dialogue from the scene. Once you have a file that is 2 to 3 minutes long, move on to the next step.

Step 3: Create Your Own Transcript

Now that you have your audio file, listen to the recording several times.

There will be some words and sentences you’ll be able to catch the first time, while others will probably remain incomprehensible even after listening to them repeatedly.

At this stage, you have two options:

  1. You can go straight to the subtitles of the scene you have recorded and write them down, looking up any unknown expressions in an online dictionary until you have a complete transcript of what is spoken in the scene.
  2. If you are up for an extra challenge and learning effect, see how much of the dialogue you can write down accurately on your own before checking the subtitles. Compared with the first option, this may seem difficult in the beginning, but the long-term results you’ll get will more than justify this effort. It is a sure way to test and improve your listening comprehension as well as your ability to spell words that you hear correctly.

Either way, consider using a laptop or tablet to enter the dialogue into a word processing program rather than transcribing it onto paper. Having your transcript in digital form will allow you to search for specific words and phrases later, making your transcript an even more valuable training resource.

Step 4: Fine-Tune Your Transcript

Now is the time to fine-tune your transcript.

If the film you have selected is dubbed in your target language, you will probably notice discrepancies between the subtitles and the spoken parts that you will need to resolve.

The subtitles inserted in a dubbed film are rarely a perfect transcription of the dubbed dialogue. This is because the voice actors who perform the dubbing often deviate from the translated script in order to better synchronize their words with the lip movement of the on-screen actors. This sometimes results in two different versions of dialogue—the spoken dialogue line and the written dialogue line (which is often shorter in length).

I encourage you to write down both the spoken and written (subtitled) dialogue. It takes little extra effort to write down both versions, but this will help you develop the tools to express one idea in two or more ways, taking you to an even higher level of proficiency in your target language.

Here is what a transcript of a scene from a movie dubbed in French might look like after completing Step 4. The square brackets take the text from the subtitles, allowing a direct comparison with the spoken dialogue line written above it. Include a translation of unknown expressions, so that you learn them in the context of the phrase.

An example transcript of French-language film dialogue.

Step 5: Listen & Read, Then Review

Listen to the scene again several times while you read your transcript. Once you’ve done that, put the transcript away.

From now on, you will only need to look at it again to reactivate your aural memory from time to time. After a day or two, listen again to the recording, without re-reading the transcript. You’ll see that you will already be able to catch most, if not all, of the parts that you previously did not understand.

If you make it a habit to regularly listen to the recording, you will be able to adopt and manipulate the phrases and expressions in the scene and utilize them when you speak or write in your target language. As you add more and more lines of dialogue to your transcript, it will become a valuable reference tool for looking up expressions or verifying the correct use of a word within a specific sentence.

Why You Should Listen to Film Dialogue Often

Here are a few reasons why you should use this technique regularly, and make listening to film dialogue a regular part of your learning:

Learn Complex Grammar Structures

Repeated listening to film dialogue can do much more than just improve your passive vocabulary. It helps you grasp grammatical structures and complex tenses that you may find difficult to understand.

For example, regular listening to dialogue scenes from of a film in Spanish or French will inevitably expose you to the subjunctive mood, a grammatical feature that is notoriously difficult to master, particularly for speakers of languages that don’t possess it.

Listening to dialogue from Spanish or French movies will help you to better understand the correct use of the subjunctive in the context of specific phrases. The fact that the phrases do not come out of a textbook (which many learners have a difficult time remembering), but form part of a conversation will make it easier to recall them later.

Learn Domain-Specific Vocabulary

Movies are among the best tools for learning technical vocabulary embedded in natural speech.

For example, let’s say you have a strong personal interest in economics and finance. Because of this, you want to learn financial vocabulary so that you can have conversations with natives on a variety of economics-related topics.

In this case, the film Margin Call might be the perfect learning tool for you. The film itself details the cause of the collapse of the financial markets following the 2008 Lehman Bank bankruptcy, and many (if not all) of the conversations in the movie are heavily tied to investments, stocks, trading, and international business.

The best part about using films to learn foreign languages is that practically every aspect of human life has been dramatized in cinematic form. This means that no matter what your interests are, you can find a film that has dialogue pertaining to that area of life.

Learn Authentic, Natural Language

Film dialogue is the closest approximation of how native speakers actually talk.

A common problem faced by many language learners is that sample conversations included in study materials and on audio CDs often do not reflect a natural way of speaking in the target language. Consulting an online dictionary will rarely be of any help for this.

How many times have you entered an expression or sentence in Google Translate in search for a natural-sounding translation, only to find that the Google algorithm cannot deliver it?

There is a good chance that if you listen to enough film dialogue, you will eventually encounter all of the sentences and colloquial expressions you’ve always wanted to know, but could never find anywhere.

Conclusion

This article introduced the technique of using film dialogue to improve your skills in the foreign language that you are learning. Taking full advantage of the method requires that you follow a systematic approach; here, I have suggested a 5-step process that combines writing and repeated listening in order to commit the phrases and expressions to permanent memory for later use.

Because some discipline is needed to obtain results, you should choose a film or series for your learning that you thoroughly enjoy and which contains dialogue adapted to your level. Otherwise, you might become bored or frustrated, and quickly give up.

Finally, don’t be shy to ask a native speaker to help you with any part that you may be struggling with. It is hard to match the exhilaration of suddenly catching phrases that were once unintelligible to you, and being able to use them when you speak or write.

Film dialogue covers the entire spectrum of human language: funny, beautiful, dirty, deep, philosophical or just plain ordinary. And it often sounds a bit more eloquent than the way most of us normally express ourselves. But isn’t speaking better your goal, anyway?

As a dedicated learner of foreign languages, you have already distinguished yourself by deciding that you want to achieve something special. Film dialogue can help pave the way.


Jobst Upmeier is a Munich-based media lawyer and film auditor with a passion for languages. He can be reached by email at jupmeier [at] hotmail [dot] com.

Comments

  1. elfin.waters

    There are some really great ideas in this post and I can’t wait to put some of them in practice!

    Just wanted to suggest that for the transcription part, if you’re using a YouTube video, oTranscribe makes it easier to do the actual transcribing. It’s a program that helps write and watch at the same time without going to and fro. I’ve been using it myself and it really makes the process faster and less of a hassle.