How To Watch Movies and Learn a Language (Will’s Movie Study Technique)

My Technique For Studying Chinese Via Chinese Movies

Watching movies in Chinese is a great way to improve your fluency in the language.

Similar to learning a language through immersion, this technique forces you to progress via context and setting. If used effectively, this technique will not only increase your listening comprehension, but will also increase your vocabulary and cultural knowledge.


How I Use Movies To Study Chinese

As many of you know, my current target language is Mandarin Chinese. As part of the “campaign to increase the development and prosperity of my language learning efforts”, I have begun to incorporate the practice of watching Chinese movies into my weekly study routine (approximately two nights a week).

This past weekend I finished the classic To Live (活着) by Zhang Yimou (张艺谋), based on the novel by Yu Hua (余花). The movie portrays a man and his wife as they live through 20th century China; a country torn apart by war, politics, and ideology.

Beyond the benefit of immersion, those who make use of movies as a language learning resource also gain valuable cultural knowledge. With each Chinese movie I watch, the deeper my understanding of Chinese culture becomes. In Yimou’s To Live, for example, I contemplated the narrative of a layman’s family during the Chinese Civil War, The Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward.

This type of knowledge is useful to both understand colloquial sayings (whose roots are in cultural events) and the psychology of Chinese citizens today. Remember, communication is both verbal and nonverbal.

There are many ways to use movies as a language learning resource. However, I find this practice most useful when I use my movie study techniques. Perhaps these can help you make use of movies as a language learning resource as well.

I have broken down my movie study technique into five simple steps below.

Will’s Movie Study Techniques

  1. Use Target Language Audio and Subtitles

Make sure to use your target language for both audio and subtitles. Watching a foreign movie in your native tongue may add to your cultural knowledge, but it will not improve your language level. The audio improves your listening comprehension. The subtitles improve your reading comprehension.

  1. Create a Vocabulary List

Keep a pen and pencil close by to record any words that you don’t know. After the movie you can copy the list down again and translate any words which are unclear. Make sure to label and date your vocabulary list.

  1. Watch Movie Alone

Watch the movie alone to increase your focus. Refrain from inviting a friend or significant other to the viewing. While movies are most often used to relax, don’t forget that this is a study session and it should be taken seriously.

  1. Utilize Context and Plot to Learn Words and Phrases

It is almost 100% guaranteed that you will not understand everything in the movie. That’s ok. The point of this exercise isn’t for total comprehension. The point is that you are focused on understanding. Use the actors body language and scenery to understand what is happening in the movie.

  1. Read Reviews and Plot Summaries in Your Native Language After Watching

After the movie is over read some commentaries and general overviews in your native language. This will reinforce a lot of the cultural points which you might have noticed but are still a little confused about. Allow yourself to consider the main idea of the movie, its plot, characters, and political slant.

Final Thoughts

Watching movies is a great language learning technique that is underutilized by most language learners. While it cannot replace the heavy lifting required of grammar study and raw vocabulary accumulation, it is an effective method learners at any level to increase their fluency.


Below you will find six movies that have stuck in mind ever since watching them. Each is special to me for a variety of reasons, but have mainly served as good resources for studying Mandarin. Perhaps you can find some use in them as well.

  1. Movie: To Live
  2. Movie: Black Snow
  3. Movie: Keep Cool
  4. Movie: Saving Mr. Wu
  5. Movie: Raise the Red Lantern
  6. Movie: Beijing Bicycle

2 thoughts on “How To Watch Movies and Learn a Language (Will’s Movie Study Technique)

  1. labrador716

    thanks for such a good list! watching in chinese subtitles might be a challenge for me… need some serious concentration there! do you know what kind of level these are at?


    1. Will Dyke Post author

      Lab, yes it is difficult but don’t worry about it. A big part of learning any language is spending the time listening to it, even when you don’t don’t understand.

      As for the levels, well, I think most of these movies are pretty advanced. In fact, most movies for adults are going to be pretty advanced. But I think you will find that you can pick out some word clusters and the like. Try using some of my suggestions for how to study the movie, I think they might help!

      If you are interested in something a little bit simpler check out the CCTV series “Happy Chinese” on youtube ( I used to watch that program a lot when I was first getting my chops on lunch breaks and after work 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s