Let’s Go to the Movies…in Another Language

Episode 33 of the America the Bilingual podcast

IMDG/Warner Brothers image

Immersion, say many who’ve done it, is the best way to learn another language. But moving to Florence or Fez isn’t the only way to achieve it. Movies, especially with the help of new streaming services and à la carte language options, offer a virtual language immersion where you can choose how deep to wade in — from just dangling your toe to diving in head first.

In Episode 33 of the America the Bilingual podcast, we venture into the four stages of movie immersion. I use the point of view of an English speaker learning Spanish, because that’s what I am, but you can substitute any other languages in which films are produced and translated.

Stage One: Sticking your toe in

Stage One is when you watch the movie in English but select subtitles in Spanish. At this stage you can enjoy your movie with no work at all, but sneak in a little (or a lot) of pleasurable learning. In the magnificently musical Mambo Kings, a young Antonio Banderas, with a pained expression on his face, is pleading, “Enough! Enough!” while the Spanish subtitles read, “¡Basta! ¡Basta!”

Stage Two: Standing with both feet in the water

Stage Two is the reverse of Stage One: listen in Spanish, but with English subtitles. Now you’re hearing the music of the language — the tone, the rhythm and the beauty of it, spoken by either the actors themselves or voiceover artists. You’re easily reading the English subtitles, so you can learn Spanish from the context. In the darkly beautiful sci-fi thriller In Time, we hear Justin Timberlake tell an annoying kid, “¡Largate!” and see the English subtitle: “Get lost!”

Stage Three: Up to your chest

Wading in deeper, you arrive at Stage Three. Now you’re hearing the movie in Spanish and seeing subtitles also in Spanish. Since most of us read better than we can hear and understand, we’re likely to lean on the subtitles, but we’re getting constant reinforcement of what the words sound like, plus how they are written. Yet there’s a surprise awaiting you in Stage Three: the words you hear and the words you see may be different — sometimes markedly so.

Stage Four: Diving in head first

You turn off the subtitles and just watch the movie in Spanish (or whatever language you’re learning). You’ve taken the plunge. Gone is your safety net, your water wings. Now you have no choice but to try to figure out what people are saying with your ears.

Body language, facial expressions, and all the action help immensely, as they do in real life. But in the movies, you can hit rewind.

The disadvantage of Stage Four is you may miss some, or even a lot, of the nuance of the film. The advantage is that you’re simulating real life but in a safe, no-stress imaginary world. As your hearing and understanding improve, so will your confidence to speak.

I don’t mean to imply that once you get to Stage Four you’ll never go for less. You may find yourself about to enjoy Stage Four for an animation but return to Stage One to enjoy a serious film that you’re watching with a friend.

Like that good feeling we get after a workout — or a satisfying swim — watching a movie in your adopted language, at the intensity that’s best for you, is a great reward.

Hear the story

Hear more on language immersion through movies in Episode 33 of the America the Bilingual podcast, “Let’s Go to the Movies…in Another Language.” Listen on iTunes by clicking here: America the Bilingual by Steve Leveen on iTunes. Or on SoundCloud here. I comment on Twitter as well.

And read the complete episode notes, including links to films for every stage, on America the Bilingual.