My first contact with foreign languages was at the age of two when my mother taught me “Je m’appelle Laura.” She speaks Romanian, Italian and understands some English, French and Spanish, but at that time she was only a beginner in English and French.


Still, she was my first contact with a foreign language and I enjoyed the sounds so much that I started learning more and more phrases, up to the point when I was actually begging my mother to teach me more.


At the age of six, the Latino soap operas were very famous in Romania. I was too little to be able to read the subtitles and my grandmother had to read them for me. It was quite an adventure. However, she sometimes skipped lines, which I didn’t like. So I had two options: learn to read faster, or learn the language of the soap operas so I could understand the original dialog. I actually took both options. I learned to read fast, but also I learned Spanish pretty well. It was so automatic that I didn’t think of it as anything special until later on. I now realize I found a new mechanism that blends learning the language in the context and the gestures.


As I’ve analyzed how new language learners learn a language from movies, I’ve discovered five techniques to fast forward your learning.


1. Easy language


At first you may find it hard to watch a full two-hour movie that isn’t in English, but later on you’ll get used to it. But until then, why not choose shorter, easier material? Start your journey with a mini-series, catch new words, not whole sentences, and practice the pronunciation.


You may want to pause the movie and repeat after the actor and then go back and hear it again. That’s why I recommend you rent, buy, watch online movies or record movies rather than watching them in the cinema or as part of TV broadcasts.


You can start with cartoons. As they are made for children, the language is simple and they talk slowly. If you feel confident you can also start with 20 minute episodes. I remember my journey with English. I probably watched Friends four or five times in its entirety. The language is easy, they speak slightly fast, but I focused on words and short phrases rather than on whole sentences and tried to pick up the girls’ pronunciation.


2. Start with shorter phrases


And this gets me to the second technique. Focus on high-frequency words and phrases rather than on long and complex sentences. Try and understand their meaning from context. What is the character doing? Is he or she pointing to somebody and saying “She is my girlfriend?” Well, that obviously is a way of introducing someone. Do they hold hands? Well, they’re close friends. You get the bigger picture.


You need to focus on placing the words and phrases in context to understand their meaning without translation. If that’s not possible, it’s alright to use a dictionary.


 (Fabrizio Zago, CC BY-SA 2.0)


3. Pay attention to context


Can you see how one technique leads to another? The simple and short words and phrases are understandable from context. So, pay attention to what happens. Who are the characters? What are they wearing? Where are they at? Some words have a way of jumping and sticking with you and those will be the words that will help you most in communication. They are familiar; you know when to use them and how to pronounce them.


4. Use subtitles in the target language


Hearing the words combined with seeing them is one of the oldest and most productive language learning techniques. Luckily for you, it is easy to do when watching movies by turning on the subtitles. Instead of using subtitles in English or your native language, use subtitles in the target language and see what happens. You get to hear and see the words, you can fix them in a context and understand them without translating to your native language. How great is that?


5. Identify “double-meaning” phrases


Last but not least, the fifth technique is to identify the words and phrases that seem ordinary, but that also imply something else when used in a certain context. As in English, or any language, you can find words that are used to imply more than one meaning. These kind of phrases are sometimes hard to translate and they might get lost in translation. If you translate them word-by-word, they might not mean much in your native language, but you can find their meaning in the target language by examining their usage.

Native speakers will appreciate you trying to learn the spoken language. And you’ll appreciate it too when they tell a joke that is based on these dual meanings!  


Hero Image (Euskara takigrafiatua) by xuriken (CC BY-SA 2.0)