Another day and another boring English class. You pull out your notebook and pens as the teacher looks up at the class and tells everyone to turn to page 42.
Everyone lets out a groan. Even the teacher.
If this sounds all too familiar then know this: you are not alone. Many English students reach a point in their studies where they get too tired of going over dull grammar points. An entire lesson reciting huge lists of vocabulary or doing the same old role-plays over and over.
You need something fun and engaging. Something that holds your interest and makes you love studying English without being forced into it.
Why not take a trip to the movies?
Everyone loves watching movies and there are thousands to choose from.
Even your teacher has had enough of going through the textbook. He sees the next exercise and stifles a yawn.
This is where watching movies can be of use to both you and your teacher because it is fun and easy to do and everyone will gain something from it.
In the following article, I will outline exactly how to use movies in the classroom and how it can benefit your English study. You can improve your listening comprehension. But you can also improve your grammar, your speaking and pronunciation. All by sitting down and watching your favourite movie.
Let’s get started.
What movies should I watch?
Once students hear of this exercise their first question is: What movie should I watch?
Like there is one magic movie that can help all students become fluent in English in one sitting.
The truth is, of course, there is no one movie to do that.
The obvious answer is to watch the movies that you love.
So you get a real buzz from watching police thrillers? Watch those movies.
Or you prefer to curl up on your sofa and get into a romantic comedy? Then that is the best choice for you.
Whatever you like to watch that is what you should watch.
The purpose of this exercise is fun. You have to make sure that you are doing it because you enjoy doing it not because you think you must.
Some people rave about the Star Wars series of movies. They absolutely love them. Me? I can’t stand them. I just don’t get what they are about.
That would be a poor choice for me as I am not a fan.
Instead, I would choose a thriller. But that’s just my preference.
In this kind of activity, you need to watch movies you love. There must be dozens of movies that you enjoy so dive into one of those.
Improve your listening
Of course, the most obvious skill we can improve is our listening comprehension. By spending large chunks of time watching a movie in English we are training our ears and brain to become accustomed to the sounds of English. We improve our listening comprehension without even trying.
You can read the subtitles of the movie first – this will help when the actors say the lines. You know what you should be listening for. It just seems out of reach and strange to your ears.
But keep trying – you will get there.
Improve your pronunciation
The next key thing you can practice is your pronunciation. Learning the correct pronunciation for English words can be a tiresome exercise. We go over the same worn-out pronunciation cassette tapes that sound like they were recorded in 1973. Rewind and recite the words again and again.
The recorded conversations are unnatural and the dialogue doesn’t sound like real people talking at all.
But in a movie, the actors look and sound like real people. They speak in a natural way.
This is the best thing about practising English by watching movies. You can make great advances in your pronunciation by listening to what the actors are saying. Then simply repeat the words to yourself.
As you listen, you hear real-life English being spoken in a natural way using connected speech. You can study what they are saying and copy it. Your pronunciation will improve in huge ways.
Listening and pronunciation are the two main English skills that we can improve by watching movies. Many beginners need to practice these skills. Intermediate students too.
Just by sitting down and watching your favourite movie you can improve these two skills easily.
After some time you may want to develop your English in other ways. If you are planning to study abroad, you may wish to emulate the accent of that country. If you have been accepted to an American college now may be the time to study the way Americans speak.
Maybe you just like the Australian accent. Or British. You can learn the way people speak in any English speaking country. All you have to do is find the right movie to watch.
These are the two main skills for this movie exercise. For beginners, this is a great way to improve your listening and pronunciation.
But once you get to grips with these skills and you become more developed, you may want to challenge yourself.
The following stages are for more advanced students. This is where you can fine-tune your English in terms of accents and the way people speak. But also for ‘Real Life’ English. You can also learn more about other countries cultures.
A World of Accents
English is spoken in a wide variety of accents. All of these accents add a different flavour to the English language. And as English is the language of the world it really doesn’t belong to any one country.
So we have British English, American English, Australian English.
But we also have accents within one country. London, Birmingham and Manchester accents in England. New York, Boston and Chicago in America.
But there is also English spoken with a Chinese accent. English with an Indian accent. And also used by French, Italian, German.
The list goes on and on and not one of these accents is better than the other or wrong. They are all used and we have to adjust to the sound and make sure we can understand it when we hear it.
This is another way that movies can help you.
It would be too much to expect your teacher to try and voice all these accents. He just simply would not be able to do it.
But by watching movies you can hear all of these accents used with ease.
You watch a movie set in India and you might see an American man having a conversation with an Indian person — but all in English. An American accent and an Indian accent right in front of you.
Or you are watching a movie set in London. You might hear some East End accents — the characters all talking at high speed and clipping their T’s.
You can learn all these accents by doing this one exercise.
In the classroom, we often learn lists of words in batches. Beside each word, there is often an example of the word used in a sentence. But that is all the context we are given.
The best place for you to learn English is in a real-life setting. You need real context and that will help you learn the vocabulary and key phrases of a particular topic or theme.
This is why many teachers like to take their students out to locations where you can see and talk about the things in that place. Using the nouns and verbs that you need for that place.
For example, if you go to a supermarket you would learn the names of things — the food, the different places in the supermarket such as aisle or shelf.
But it’s not always possible to visit places. Or the locations might be too far.
This is where movies can help you learn English in a real-life context.
Imagine you are watching a movie set in a law firm. You hear legal terms such contract, attorney, lawyer, breach, etc. But you also hear these words used in context.
The dialogue could be:
- We need to rewrite the contract
- You better hire a new attorney
- Goddamn lawyers are all the same!!
- That is a breach of contract
This is much more useful for you and you will find that you can remember nouns, verbs, entire phrases much more quickly.
The kind of English that we learn in an English textbook often has a very ‘stiff’ and overly formal tone to it. It features dialogue and conversations that are rarely used in the real world.
Students learn English from these books that may sound strange to native English speakers as it is old-fashioned or too formal.
While it is necessary to learn the basics from our English textbooks we also have to learn English as it is spoken in real life.
One of the top benefits of watching movies is that you are hearing real-life English. Movies have to replicate real-life situations. The actors spend years honing their craft to ensure that they can become the character we see on the screen.
This is a great opportunity to hear real English spoken in a very natural way.
A movie set in New York might have very strong Italian-American accents. There’s no need for you to travel all the way to New York City. You can hear the way New Yorkers speak just by watching the right movie.
The same applies to a movie about Californian surfers and the laid back So-Cal accent. Or a movie about a middle-class suburb in London — all the actors speaking in a cut-glass English accent.
As you listen you can become accustomed to all these different accents. You learn the phrases they use, the kind of vocabulary they use in everyday speech.
The world is made up of thousands of accents and they add colour to our lives. You can study this all from the comfort of your own living room.
Another useful thing about hearing real-life English is you can hear native English speakers breaking the rules of grammar.
For example, native English speakers rarely say “I should have” or “I would have”. They say shoulda, woulda, coulda, etc.
In a movie, a character says “I shoulda gone back to the office”.
It is very useful to hear these kinds of phrases spoken in a real-life context. It is good for your listening and you can learn key phrases used by native English speakers.
Native English speakers use English in a lazy way when talking to each other. In writing, someone may write “I have just received your email”. But in spoken English, he would more likely say “I just got your email”. Native English speakers all do this and it is vital for you to understand how English is spoken this way in a real-life context.
Learn the Culture
The final thing that you can learn is the culture of another country.
When producers make movies they want it to have a great attention to detail. If anything is wrong you can be sure that someone will notice it and write about it online.
The producers spend a lot of time ensuring that every detail is exactly right.
And this comes down to the culture of the place they are portraying on screen.
In a movie set in Italy, the actors cannot portray the people as stock characters. They would appear as cartoon-like and unreal.
The same with the environment and the inside of people’s homes. The food and the way people greet each other.
As you watch the movie you are witnessing the real-life culture of that place or the people all on the screen.
It is an education all in itself before you.
Now we know what we can gain from watching movies, how do we do it?
Below are a few steps to show you how to gain the most in your English when watching a movie.
1. Be Prepared
Before you even start to watch the movie make sure you are prepared. You should have a pen, a notebook and a dictionary in front of you. You will use these throughout the exercise so make sure they are with you.
2. Choose a Movie You Like
Of course, the movie you choose must be a movie you like. If it is the kind of movie that you don’t enjoy then this exercise will be hard work. The emphasis is on fun.
3. Choose a Scene
Then select a scene from that movie. Make sure it is only about five minutes long. Any longer than that and it becomes too difficult to follow.
4. Watch the scene in English with subtitles
If you are more advanced you can skip this step. But for beginners it is important. You need to know what is happening in the scene. First, you should watch it with subtitles in your own language so you can follow what the actors are saying. Watch the scene a couple of times if you need to. But you must know what is taking place in the scene.
5. Watch the scene with English subtitles
Now you know what the actors are saying you need to follow what they are saying in English. The great thing about modern technology is that it can help us pause videos. If you are using an app like VLC this can help perfectly.
Pause the video as many times as you need. Write down any new or difficult words in your notebook. Use your dictionary when needed. But you have to make sure you know exactly what the actors are saying.
Play the scene over and over until you can follow what the actors are saying.
6. Watch the scene — no subtitles!
Oh, the horror… But this is your goal. You need to reach a point where you can watch the entire scene with no subtitles at all. You can hear and understand every word the actors say. The scene makes perfect sense to you as you know every line that comes out of the actors’ mouths.
Play the scene over and over until you can follow what the actors are saying.
If you can do all of the above steps with one scene you have done very well. Give yourself a pat on the back. You can now try with other scenes. Each time you will find you are using your dictionary less and less. The words start to sound familiar to you as you recognise all the sounds.
That is all you have to do!
You will find that at the beginning it is a little hard to go over each scene. But as you progress you will use your dictionary less and less each time.
Your vocabulary will grow and your listening comprehension will get stronger each time. Soon you will be watching large scenes and you will understand 70% of what the characters are saying.
That is when you need to choose a movie with more advanced dialogue.
But you might want to take it a little further…
If so let’s take a look at the following steps.
7. Speak out loud the entire scene
You have followed one scene over and over again. You know exactly what the actors say, how they say it, the little intonations here and there.
Now play the scene and as the actors speak their lines you should speak at the same time.
This is difficult the first time. You get the lines wrong or you mix up the words. Try again. Each time you play the scene you will become more confident. Your pronunciation of difficult words gets better each time. You copy the way the actor’s voice rises at the end — or drops. This is all important and great value to you.
8. Speak out loud — with friends
If you are doing this with a friend you can speak out the entire scene together. For example, you watch a scene with two people talking. You can follow everything they say.
Now try to ‘act’ the scene out with just you and your friend.
How did you do? Did you manage to get all the lines right?
Doing this exercise with a friend can be much more fun.
9. Write or speak the scene out
A very useful exercise when watching movies is to watch a scene and then relate that scene to others.
Watch a scene from a movie. What you have to do is then tell a classmate what happened in that scene and what the actors said. You need to use key vocabulary from the scene and the kind of phrases that the actors said to each other.
This is a great exercise where you have to use the English from the movie.
Or write out what happened. Make it into a story where you introduce the characters. Try to use some of the dialogue from the scene using all the key vocabulary.
Show the writing to your teacher for him to check.
The main five rules you should follow are:
1. Only watch movies you love.
It might sound like common sense but only watch movies that you really want to watch. If you don’t enjoy watching the movie you are not going to gain much from it. This is supposed to be a fun exercise!
2. Do not watch movies that are too difficult.
This is obvious. If you are watching movies and you can understand 90% of what the actors are saying to each other then you are watching something that is too easy for you. Equally, if you can barely understand a single word then you are watching something much too difficult.
There should be a balance here. You should aim to understand about 70% of the dialogue. That way you can push yourself a little without it becoming a tedious chore. For beginners choose an animated movie — Toy Story is a very popular choice. These movies have an easy to follow story and the dialogue is not very complicated.
3. Try to speak out some of the dialogue.
Watching movies is great for your listening comprehension but you need to improve your speaking too. You should try to speak out some of the dialogue. One exercise that can be great fun is to act out the scene with a group of classmates.
4. Use subtitles in the correct way.
Use the subtitles to make sure you understand what the actors are saying. But do not rely on the subtitles all the time. You need to reach a point where you can listen and understand most of what the actors are saying without using the subtitles.
YouTube has a great subtitles application that you can use.
But an even better app is VLC. This is a free media player that you can download. You can adjust the subtitles using VLC so they are delayed. That way you can watch a scene and check if you understand what the actors saying as the subtitles appear two or three seconds later.
Some Popular Movies to Watch and Learn English
There is an unlimited choice. This is not a complete list by far. Below are a few movies that seem to be popular for English learners.
The main purpose of this exercise is to have fun while studying English. If you have had enough of staring at the pages of your exercise book then this is for you. There are not many people that hate watching movies – most people love to watch at least one kind of movie.
This exercise is best done with a classmate or two as you can help each other with the dialogue. Plus it is more fun to do with others. Good luck with it and keep trying.