“Is Watching Foreign Language Movies a Waste of Time?” from Fluent in 3 Months – Response

I recently read through a post about foreign language films from Fluent in 3 Months (run by the legendary Benny Lewis; you can read it here). In this post, I’m going to address points made in the post, as well as discuss the worth of media in general as a foreign language tool. With that, here we go!

Movies/Media have to be studied actively. Passive watching is unproductive.

I’ve paraphrased it, but this is a very big point, and is true of most media in general, when you’re using it to learn another language. Even though I’ve watched Bollywood films for a good part of my life, why isn’t my Hindi-Urdu really good? That’s because I’m not paying attention to what the actors are actually saying. By focusing on subtitles, you’re tuning out anything you can possibly learn.

It’s a good idea to have the remote with you while you watch. You should find yourself pausing and rewinding a lot, to closely examine what they’re saying. If you’re watching something on YouTube, you can slow down the video so the speech is slower and easier to understand. Writing down the words will help immensely for remembering what you hear.

However, even though the post breaks down the method into, “Focus”, “Segmentation”, “Repetition”, “Engagement”, and “Subtitles”, I think one more thing should be added: “Searching”. In almost every movie, song, TV show, or whatever it is, there will be words or phrases that are repeated over and over again. Look for these! It will make your life so much easier when you can pick out what you have learned and what you haven’t.

I find the tip about trying to respond in the role of a character by pausing before the character answers really interesting. I’d never really considered it before, and it’s a great way of practicing synthesis, putting sentences together by yourself, rather than using set phrases.

Warning: the media method isn’t for everyone.

I’m sure that Benny Lewis is aware of this, but using media such as television and music is inadvisable for people who are starting out. This is especially true of music; languages such as Hindi-Urdu and Mandarin use vocabulary that is exclusively poetic, literary, or figurative. This isn’t helpful for a person who doesn’t already know a lot of basic vocabulary and grammar. You can read my views regarding this phenomenon in Bollywood cinema here.

Even for television, which is more likely to use mundane or everyday words, cannot be of use to a person who’s not familiar with the language at least at an intermediate level. For example, I wouldn’t recommend watching a Spanish telenovela when you don’t know all the tenses and moods in the language. For a language like Spanish, more complicated structures involving the subjunctive are commonplace in everyday speaking, and are essential to certain nuances that people wish to convey.

Currently, I’m studying the Italian text of a video game, Final Fantasy X (you can read Part 1 of the analysis here), and I have to pause through a 2-minute cutscene several times from time to time because there are words that I don’t understand. It also helps that I did the blog post, actually. But the point is that it doesn’t matter what media form it is, you you have to be able to understand 40% of the text/speech from the start (most of which is grammar and basic vocabulary), and the other 60% (more advanced/specific vocabulary) will come in time. I might be over/understating the the ratio, but it just goes to show that prior knowledge is necessary.

Pick a movie/form of media that you like.

I also have some reservations about using films that you know. Depending on the film, your target language’s dub either uses cultural contexts and expressions that are completely foreign to itself, even if they’re totally normal for you. This is a problem because it will present situations that the language isn’t built for. Unless the societies of two languages have a lot in common in other ways, it is unlikely that the dub of a film that was originally in another language can fully render all the intricacies of the original language. I’m not saying don’t watch the French dub of Disney movies to practice your French; just don’t depend on it as your sole source of foreign language media. Watch a film that was made in France/Canada for French speakers. As the original post points out, these authentic films will give you a glimpse into real cultural situations that the language was made for.

This is where we have conflicts over the question of fictional works. By which I mean, films/books such as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a prime example of an unhelpful text for learning a foreign language, at least at lower levels. The Lord of the Rings is highly literary in its style, and consists of fictional cultures and languages that may or may not have anything in common with real world ones. The point of this warning is for you to have some variety in what you learn from; venture from your comfort zone (media you’re familiar with and understand on a basic level anyway) into the depths of authentic, original foreign language material made for the people who speak that language. It’s not to say that reading The Lord of the Rings in Russian would be entirely unhelpful; it would be, but it would give you only insight into how a Russian native might perceive the Tolkien’s fictional universe, which is not unhelpful in and of itself.

My experience with Final Fantasy X in Italian is another example of this predicament. The universe of the game is not Italian, and so it doesn’t give me any insight into Italian culture, not much anyway. On the other hand, it does let me see how Italian translators choose to render fantasy, which is still a useful thing to know. I get my dose of Italian culture through what I read on occasion (Italo Calvino in Italian is pretty helpful), so I’d like to think I’m not deficient. You should have a healthy balance of both in order to understand a language.

I realize that might have been a lot to process, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll answer them as best and as quickly as I can!