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Watching movies in English

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

English learners have a big advantage over learners of other languages: Hollywood is in America and it makes English-language movies. So, if you know English and you like movies, why don’t you watch movies in English? You can have fun and, at the same time, learn a lot of English.

Why watch movies in English

If you are a fan of movies, you will notice that they are much better in the original. Watching a dubbed film will never be as good as watching the original version. Why? Because in the original version, the actor’s voices are real. Everything is just like the director imagined.

Learning English by watching movies is learning by input. The learning process is similar. First you get lots of correct English sentences into your head. Then you can imitate them and you can make your own sentences. And isn’t that why you are learning English — to be able to make your own sentences? That is why watching movies (just like reading books) is such a great way to learn English.

(You can learn more about how getting correct sentences into your head improves your English in our introduction to input.)

Of course, there are important differences between movies and books. With books, you learn how native speakers write in English. With movies, you learn how they speak English.

  • You learn what words they use. When speaking, native speakers use words and phrases that you often won’t find in a book. Spoken language is different from “book language”. For example:

    Book: The price of five dollars was acceptable, and I decided to purchase it.
    Spoken: It was, like, five bucks, so I was like “okay”.

    In many movies, the dialog is like real spoken English. Movies also let you learn informal and slang words which are not yet in English dictionaries. For example, in a movie you might hear Give me the freaking keys!, but you won’t find the word freaking in a dictionary.

  • You learn how they say these words. Movies let you improve your pronunciation, not only grammar and vocabulary. If you listen to Americans or Britons speaking English, you can learn to speak like them.
  • You learn to understand spoken language. Movies are made for native speakers, not for learners of English. So the actors talk fast, just like native speakers talk in real life.

How to learn as much as possible

The difficulty of watching movies

You won’t learn anything from the movie if you don’t understand it. You probably won’t enjoy it, either. :-(

This is one big problem with movies: They are much more difficult to understand than books. If you don’t understand a word in a book, you can simply look it up in a dictionary, because the word is written there (you know its spelling). With a movie, you sometimes hear something, but you don’t know what it is. Sometimes you don’t even know if you’ve heard one word or two. There are other reasons why listening is more difficult than reading, and they all mean one thing: If you want to understand a movie, you have to know a lot of English words — and not only their spelling, but also their pronunciation.

You can greatly improve your vocabulary by reading books, looking up words in your dictionary, and repeating them with spaced-repetition software. But even if you read 200 books in English, you would still not understand everything! There will always be some words that you didn’t know before. And some of the dialog will be spoken very quickly and unclearly. (You should know that sometimes even Americans can’t understand some of the dialog.)

What to do when you don’t understand something

If you are playing the movie from tape or DVD, you can stop it whenever you don’t understand a sentence. You can then play the sentence many times and perhaps you’ll be able to understand all the words in the sentence. If you still don’t understand a word or two, you can try to look them up in a dictionary (which is not easy, because you have to guess their spelling!).

Most DVDs let you turn on subtitles. With subtitles, there is no problem with quick or unclear dialog — everything is just written on the screen. It is also easy to look up difficult words in your dictionary, because you know their spelling.

The problem with subtitles is that they make you lazy — you stop listening and concentrate on reading. This is not good if you want to exercise your listening skills. Therefore, you should probably try to watch movies without subtitles. Turn subtitles on only if you’re having a hard time understanding the sentences in the movie, and it doesn’t help when you listen to them repeatedly.

Movie guides

There is a great alternative to subtitles. is a website which has “guides” to popular movies. A guide is a list of over 100 difficult sentences from a movie with explanations. (Here is an example guide [PDF] to The Graduate.)

Now the most important thing: You first read the explanations; then you watch the movie. So, when you’re watching the film, you already know the necessary vocabulary!

We think this is the best strategy for watching movies, because:

  • It feels great to understand a movie in the original! It’s very, very motivating when you learn a word, and then the knowledge of the word lets you enjoy the movie. It gives you a lot of pleasure — so you will want to learn more English vocabulary to understand even more.
  • You don’t have to stop the movie. (Or you have to stop it less frequently.) You can simply watch it and enjoy it.

A guide doesn’t explain all the difficult sentences in the movie. But the explanations in the guide should be enough to help you understand what’s happening in the movie.

Learning techniques

What else can you do to learn from movies more effectively? The same things that you should do when reading books:

  1. Pay attention to interesting things: new words, phrases, and grammar structures.
  2. Use your dictionary to learn about these interesting things. You can stop the movie to look up difficult words. You can also write down all the interesting sentences, and look them up later. But do use your dictionary!
  3. Add these interesting things to your SRS. If there is an ESLnotes guide to the movie, you can add all the sentences in the guide to your SRS collection — before watching the film. Later, you can also add the words that you have written down when watching the movie.