How To Learn English as a Second Language With Movies
Become a better speaker and writer in a second language—and enjoy it—by using entertainment to boost your learning
Growing up, I loved watching movies. As a kid, I could tell you every program showing on TV and what time to watch it.
My parents weren’t exactly thrilled with my obsessive watching, but they didn’t complain much, as I still came out top of my class each term. On the downside, it had become an addiction.
In my third year of university, this became a problem. I didn’t have time for casual movie watching, but I had fallen too in love with them to quit now. One Friday evening in my third year, it dawned on me that I was watching movies for the wrong reasons. I needed to not just watch for fun, but to learn. From then on, I started paying more attention to the dialogue in the movies I watched. I was surprised to realize that I’d been learning from movies all along without knowing it.
I grew up in a country where English is an official language, but it isn’t the main one. Speaking and writing English was a necessary skill in the corporate and freelance world, not just a fun skill to have. As a software developer, I have to be able to communicate effectively with different teams in different parts of the world, working on projects such as Octonius and Food4Needy.
In preparing this article, I decided to try my own version of one of Michael McIntyre’s games called Send To All. I messaged some of my friends asking them to tell me some cool phrases they’ve heard me use.
They reminded me of telling them things like “I wouldn’t dream of lying to you.” Or asking “Who does that?” when someone does something unbelievably wrong. Or encouraging someone with “it’s not rocket science, you can do it.” These are common phrases to native English speakers—but not so commonly used by speakers who have learned English as a second language.
Eighty percent of the responses I got were lines I picked up from movies. As it turns out, I’ve been using cool phases since high school, courtesy of movies. Movies influenced my everyday speech and writing and helped me to connect with people.
Now, when I watch movies, I mindfully look for words and phrases that grab my attention. I learn completely new words and phrases from movies, and I learn idioms and figures of speech that are rarely conveyed by traditional language learning systems.
In this guide, I’ll show you how I transformed my addiction to movies into becoming a better speaker and writer by:
- Not letting movie watching be a distraction
- Supplementing watching with reading
- Using subtitles
- Learning to pause
- Taking notes (mental or written)
- Sharing what I learn
Not Letting Movies Be a Distraction
At university, movies had become a key part of my daily routine. It was as though whenever I got back from lectures, I had unfinished business: movies to watch. When one movie ended, I would start another, and another, and yet another.
On a Friday evening when I resolved to do something different, I had books spread on my bed. My laptop was on. I had opened a Word document and typed a few words for one of my lab reports. I had three to do before the week ended. I remembered what happened in the course of the week and the weeks before that. I had spent all the time after lectures watching movies.
If I’d started these lab reports earlier, I would’ve had little or no work to do on the weekend. It dawned on me that I was always doing these important things at the last minute. I needed to adjust my schedule. That night, I asked myself these two questions:
- How much time am I spending watching movies?
- Is it blocking other important things I had to do?
I was obviously spending too much time on movies every day. And yes, it was getting in the way of me writing my lab reports and assignments.
The solution was to create a priority list and to know where movie-watching fits in. I listed the things I needed to do during the week. I placed watching movies at the bottom of the list, next to playing video games with friends.
Then I decided how much time I wished to spend on movies. I decided I was going to watch only two movies that weekend, and take it from there. It was a hard decision. I wanted to watch five. But, I thought about it, and I realised that there’s a good movie available at any point in time, and I couldn’t possibly watch them all.
To avoid being tempted, I needed to get rid of the source of movies. So, I took the hard road and transferred all my movies to a less accessible source. At the time, most of my movies were directly on my laptop’s internal hard drive. I transferred all except two movies to an external drive. Having that drive with me at all times was still not a good idea, so I let a trusted friend keep it for some time, only going for it when I really needed to.
Supplementing Watching With Reading
So I was without an abundance of movies. When I finished my school work for the night, I still had to decide what to do with my relaxation time. I was determined to try something other than movies.
Just then, I remembered having a friend who grew up with her grandparents and who once told me how her grandfather encouraged her to read newspapers every day. The granddad would use his failing eyesight as a way to get her to read the papers to him. When she encountered any word she didn’t understand, he would give her the correct pronunciation and meaning. That night, I called this friend of mine and asked to get one of her favourite novels. The next day, I went over to pick it up. I spent the entire afternoon reading the book. And I loved it. Now I had something else besides movies in my toolbox.
From then, I kept a book with me at all times. Later, I started downloading eBooks on my smartphone and reading when I had free time. And, as I was doing with movies, I didn’t just read: I observed how words and phrases were used and what I could borrow in my speech and writing.
There were times I would come across a word or phrase I didn’t understand. I would go online and search for its meaning and usages. In fact, it was around this time that I started paying attention to online blogs. Some blogs I visited were written well, so I picked up a few new phrases there, too. Basically, I looked for catchy phrases from any source available to me.
I couldn’t finish every book I started, though. But just as with movies, I wasn’t going to beat myself up because I couldn’t finish one. The most important thing is that I started, and I learned at least one word or phrase from it.
Recently, I joined Medium, where I get to read high-quality content daily on the go. I read both fiction and non-fiction. The point is to open myself to other avenues of knowledge.
If you find you’re spending too much time watching movies, try switching to reading books. If you aren’t in the habit of reading, it might be difficult at first, but with time, you’ll maintain interest. I tend to feel sleepy faster when reading. Usually, that signals to me that the book might be a boring one, or too serious, and needs to be replaced as quickly as possible. Sample through several genres until you find one you are most interested in and keep it.
That first weekend, I watched the two movies. But since I was determined to get something besides fun out of it, I decided to watch all the movies with subtitles turned on. I already knew the benefits of watching movies with subtitles, but didn’t always use it—I knew enough to get the story regardless. But this time, I was more interested in paying attention to the dialogue from the story.
This was like learning a new language in itself. I began noticing cool phrases one after the other. Before using subtitles, only one or two new words and phrases would catch my eye. Now, I didn’t miss a thing — the subtitles were there to help me match what I hear with what I see on screen.
Now before watching any movie, I first search for and download the subtitles. This makes it much less likely that I’ll miss something in the dialogue. Subtitles also saved me from having to playback movies just to hear something better—I had words on screen now. Hearing something was one thing, but seeing it in writing was another. Using subtitles, I could now hear a word or phrase being spoken and immediately see it on screen. This helped print new words and phrases in my head and gave me mental pictures of them.
There was a challenge, though. In the beginning, I felt a little distracted having to balance attention between seeing images on-screen and reading at the same time. If you find this a problem too, I suggest keeping your eyes on the images on screen and not on the subtitles. That is, don’t try too hard to keep your attention on both. After a while, your eyes will find balance between the two automatically. Give yourself time.
Learning to Pause
Since I had decided to pay closer attention to the dialogue, I found myself pausing the movie a lot. When I come across a word or phrase that I like, I pause and repeat it verbally, then think about how cool it is. Sometimes, I smile at how it was used in the movie. I make mental notes of words and quickly think of how else it could’ve been used outside the movie. I resume only after I’d soaked in what I’d just heard.
I realised that without pausing to think of something I’d just heard, it was easy to forget. Pausing allowed me to block all other things out and focus on just that one word or phrase that caught my attention.
The other time I hit that pause button is when I have to go do something quickly, like take a phone call or perhaps look up and read a little on the plot online. Instead of trying to multitask, I pause the movie again. This way, I am less likely to miss something important.
You might initially find it annoying having to pause and resume movies frequently. But again, the focus is on the dialogue. If you can get everything without the frequent pausing, that’s okay. But, if you need to take your time, that’s okay, too. Practise what works best for you.
Taking Notes (Mental or Written)
Now that I was getting words and phrases worth noting, I needed to keep them somehow. Keeping them would give me the ability to pick one up and use whenever there’s the need for it. I could commit a few to memory, but I knew I couldn’t save everything that way.
I took out my smartphone and started typing each word and phrase into my notes app. I wanted to have a permanent source of cool words. I wanted the chance to swap what I usually say with something cool.
I browse through the notes during the week to help remember them. During breaks in my day, I go through them and remind myself that I have some cool words and phrases that I can use.
In addition, I started a practice of watching for opportunities to use a new phrase each day. I pick one from my notes in the morning and then try to use it during the day. This helps make it stick better. As I get new ones, I put them down and try using them.
I found that it didn’t matter which ones I use — what mattered was that I had them somewhere and could always go back for any when the time was right. Since they are from a source I own, I could reuse them anytime.
If you are going to keep notes on your phone, I would advise having a backup. You wouldn’t want to lose your words and phrases when you lose your documents or phone. If a diary is more your thing, go for that instead. The aim is to keep it somewhere you can easily access.
Share new words and phrases with your friends in conversations and on social media. I knew social media was good for sharing content and for tracking how many people like something. I was already active on Facebook, so I grabbed the opportunity to share what I learn.
In the course of the week, during breaks, I would pick one line from my notes and post it on my wall. I got a few reactions and it helped me know what others thought about it. Any time that a line caught people’s attention, they would comment on it and sometimes share. These engagements showed up in my notifications. And as I saw them, I would also see the line over and over again. This helped keep it in memory. Whenever I saw the need for such a line in my speech or writing, I could easily remember it and use it.
Initially, I shared the exact line from the movie. But after some time, I started posting my own lines. And I saw a great improvement in my speech and writing at that point. I practised using them in my conversations whenever possible. The aim was to put the focus on something I liked to help me remember. All that mattered was that I kept using the cool words and phrases that I found. Just having them show up every time I go through my timeline helped me to remember them.
Look for opportunities to share your words and phrases with others, and even to discuss them. It’s another way to reinforce your memory of them.
In the End…
I still love watching movies, and I still love learning from them. I just had to transform my thinking from watching movies for fun to actively learning from them.
I did this by simply taking lines I could use from the dialogue. I found that conversations in movies are models of what happens in real life. And I could learn from that. As a nutritionist and software developer, I have used this knowledge to effectively communicate with different teams in different parts of the world.
Have you ever heard someone say something in a movie and can’t help yourself but clap? If it was that good, you shouldn’t stop at that—perhaps you should use it in your conversations, too!