When I think of “Il Bel Paese”, many things come to my mind. For starters, the food, music, and operas. I also think of the Colosseum in Rome. But one thing I also think about are Italian films, because of their interesting plot lines and vibrant characters. You may even know a few Italian films!


There’s “Da Grande”, about an eight year old boy named Marco. He wishes that he was big, and he suddenly turns into a grown man. If this storyline sounds similar, it probably is; it is rumored to be the inspiration behind the Tom Hanks’ hit “Big”.


Also, there’s the film “I Vitelloni”, about five young men who are at a crossroads in their lives. As young adults, they must grow up, from being childish, immature teenagers, to adults with respectable jobs and independent from their families.


In this article, we will take a look at:


  • What type of film you should learn Italian with.
  • Whether or not you should use subtitles.
  • The difference between studying and watching films.
  • How to get the most out of your film session.



Italian Films vs. American Films


In deciding which film to watch, you should take into consideration the origin of the film. For example, the two examples listed above, “Da Grande” and “ I Vitelloni”, were both produced and made in Italy. They probably have many cultural references to Italy, a higher use of idiomatic expressions, and generally a more “native” feel to the film.


Dubbed films have their advantages as well.Although there may not be many cultural references to Italy, the translations are usually pretty good, and so are the idiomatic expressions. Since we are more familiar with films within our native language, like English, we can anticipate what is going to happen,which can aid with learning new vocabulary.


For example, in the film “The Terminator”, Arnold Schwarzenegger's most memorable line is “I’ll be back!”. This is a pretty useful phrase if you are looking to be out and about in Italy. This phrase can be roughly translated to “Tornerò”. So if you like this film, and this famous line is coming up, you can memorize it because you know when it will be said. The same goes for other parts of the film. If you can get the general gist of the movie, you can watch it several more times to understand the entire meaning of the scene/dialogue, and you can pick up even more vocabulary and grammatical structures.


So, which type of films should you choose? For beginners and intermediates, I recommend dubbed films. I remember my first film (“Ritorno al Futuro”), or “Back to the Future”. I absolutely loved it, and learned many new vocabulary words and expressions.


It also worked because I knew the plot line, the characters, and what was going to happen. This maximized my potential for learning new words, because I knew what was going to happen at any given point in the movie.


However, this film wouldn’t necessarily work for advanced learners, because the vocabulary I learned was relatively simple and wouldn’t be of much use to B2 or above learners. Instead, use authentic films from Italy to learn more about specific cultural references, certain mannerisms (like hand gestures), and other things specific to Italy.



The Problem With Subtitles


As you seek to learn Italian through movies, one thing I would recommend is viewing the film without subtitles. When faced with situations in foreign languages and subtitles, I often find myself drawn too closely to the subtitles. Halfway through any given clip, I am alerted back to reality, realizing that I had been simply reading the text the entire time. Instead, when there is only the audio, I feel the difference. I am more tuned into the audio, and I am more focused.


A simple strategy for studying a film is as followed:


  1. Choose a scene to study. The scene should be anywhere between 5 to 10 minutes long. If it’s any longer, you risk losing interest and burning out. If it’s any shorter, there might not be enough dialogue for you to study.
  2. Once you’ve chosen your scene, listen to it. No subtitles, no help, only the video and the audio. Listen for the words you know, and get the general idea of what is being said. Also, use visual clues and audio clues to help you. Anywhere from 60% to 90% of communication is nonverbal. This not only includes hand gestures and posture, but also features like intonation and other vocal components. Use these to help you figure out the meanings!
  3. Once you have listened and watched the scene a few times, and absorbed all that you can, then turn on the subtitles. Try using the subtitles in your target language to get a better meaning of what is being said.
  4. If you feel like you can get more out of the scene by using English subtitles, then that should be your last step. However, this step should be used sparingly, as previously stated, you can lose interest and simply read the words.


Also, an additional step would be to find keywords and phrases in your movie, such as “Tornerò” in the Terminator movie. The selected keywords could then be put into a spaced repetition system (like Anki) to help you memorize your vocabulary more effectively and faster.



Study, Don’t Watch


When I tell people how you can learn lots of new information through a movie, they can’t believe it. They see it as the perfect way to learn languages; by watching films. Contrary to what is normally perceived, however, if someone plans to utilize movies as a language learning tool, the movies should be studied.


Even though you may think that these two mindsets don’t make a difference, they do. Reading can be used as an example. For instance, you may read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for fun. On the contrary, the European history book A History of Western Society is read with intent to be studied. Even though if you are a native English speaker, and you will understand virtually everything in the books, the context is different.


Harry Potter is more of a book to enjoy. Why would you study it? The whimsical adventures allow you to read with pleasure, enjoyment, and with ease. Even if you have been reading lightly you can still understand the plot and where the chapter is taking place, etc.


I wouldn’t read A History of Western Society for fun. As a textbook, it contains historical dates, figures, and events that can and will be tested on, normally at the university level. While everything in A History of Western Society is written in English and you understand the contents, there are intense themes, connections, and human interactions which make it far more difficult to comprehend. A higher level of focus is needed to understand everything.


The same is true for movies in our target language. We may unconsciously understand movies in our native language, because we have been exposed to the language for so long. However, you will have to deliberately put in the work to understand the film in your target language.





The film industry is one of the biggest in the world. Why not tap into this resource to learn Italian? From American to Italian films, from no aids to subtitles, films are a great way to learn Italian. Let me know what you think in the comments!


Hero image by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash