What most Italian learners do, at the beginning of their studies, is check out all the movies and TV series they could possibly watch and make sure to spend some intense couch potato sessions in the hopes of magically learning their target language.


When you do this, you are faced with an avalanche of words and sounds and you can end up just feeling overwhelmed. You get discouraged, you turn on the subtitles, (but that helps very little), and without even knowing it, you have stopped listening and you are reading your way through the movie.


I have done this whole process myself when studying other languages and I can guarantee it doesn't lead anywhere and never will.


The whole notion that you can lie somewhere and passively soak in a language is ludicrous, though admittedly quite fascinating.


That said, there is a lot that can be done at many levels with movie and tv watching. This is all the more necessary as Italian has very little listening and video resources compared to other languages.


The Most Important Tool


Listening is an odd skill. You can have an advanced level and still not be able to follow the latest TV series. Our ears need training.


But with the right techniques you can put that DVD collection of Montalbano to good use and improve your other skills in the process.


The first tool that any student, regardless of their level needs, is a headset. This is because when you watch something, there is some loss of sound. It has something to do with acoustics.


If you don't get all the sounds in your language, there is no real damage done, your brain can fill in the gaps of what you haven't actually heard. Plus, you have the capacity to predict what words might be used given the context.


With a foreign language, all that background information is lacking so you will be hearing less. This is why headsets are so important; you want to be able to hear every single sound.


Can I Watch Films if I am Elementary or Pre-intermediate?


Movies can be daunting. I suggest them only as an inspirational tool.


Picture this. You are watching Ieri, oggi e domani, you look at Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in Rome and you think, “That's it, that is what I want to see, that is the language I want to speak and that is where I want to go.”


If that is what you get watching Italian movies, that is great. They are not only providing entertainment, they are inspiring and motivating you.


In learning a language, we need all the motivation we can get. But, at this level, I would stick to shorter and less daunting things for your language workout.


Advertisements Can Be A Great Resource


Your best choice, at this stage, is short movies like, for example, Notte Sento or advertisements. You can find many of them on Youtube playlists.


As an example, let’s use an advert like this one for Trivago.


First simply watch it, just letting it wash over you. Enjoy the experience.


The second time you watch, grab pen and paper, and take note of what happens and what actions take place.


For example:


  • What does the guy look like?
  • Describe him.
  • What are the main characters doing?
  • Are they are going to the pool?
  • Are they are taking the elevator?


These are actions that have to end up on your list. Then, translate that list into Italian. Search for the right vocabulary and associate it to the actions you saw in the advertisement.


This way, you are creating a mnemonic device and you are making that vocabulary memorable. If you want to overdo it, you can use the vocabulary for Quizlet or your Anki flashcards.


At this point, you should to write everything down as a story. The finishing touch should be scheduling a session with your tutor to check and practice by making a presentation.


Not so passive right? See how many skills you have practiced at once?


I personally did this last year with my Spanish and I bookmarked the advertisements. Just recently, I watched them again and it amazed me how effortlessly I could follow them.


I suggest you do the same. With language learning, it's so hard to see actual progress with your own eyes.


What To Watch If You Are Intermediate


At an intermediate stage there are even more things we can do, but we have to be just as careful.


In Italy, everything on television is dubbed in Italian and Italy has some of the best dubbers in the world.


See if you can find some TV series online. Friends is one good example, but it can actually be anything. Just choose carefully; think about what the dialogue is like, for example, if there are a lot of puns that will make following it more complicated. The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, for example, might be off limits as there are too many language puns which require a higher level of knowledge.


The good thing about dubbed material is that everybody speaks a tiny bit slower than they would speak in real speech, and that split second is one that we really need.


It takes some getting used to, seeing an actor you know well dubbed in another language. But, once you get over it, it pays back that uncertainty with interest.


Another reason why I mention Friends is because each episode is the ideal length, which is twenty minutes. That is enough to keep you focused, but not so much that you start tuning out. Of course, if you have something longer in mind you can always divide it into multiple sessions.


Look for episode summaries on Wikipedia, in Italian if possible.  You have to know what the topic will be, so that your brain can start finding the possible vocabulary that will be used.


When you watch, take notes of the words you recognize during the episode, pausing if necessary, and by the end of the episode, you will have a list.


You may have not understood every word, but you will have something. Make sure you associate the words with who said them.



For example when Ross says “C'eravamo presi una pausa di riflessione!” (“We were on a break!”) about his break up with Rachel, make sure you associate his face with the expression. How are you going to forget what pausa di riflessione means after that?


Then, recap what happened and try telling the story of the episode. I would suggest writing this as a summary. This is simply the best way to go over the vocabulary. If you do this on a regular basis, after a month or two, you will notice yourself understanding more and more.


Don't be hard on yourself if you notice that in the first ten minutes you are struggling. It usually takes some time for the brain to figure out what you are up to and retrieve all the information it has in Italian.


Use Old Movies


Another thing you can do is look for old Hollywood movies from the fifties, dubbed in Italian, as the elocution is quite good in these. If it is a movie that you are familiar with and that you like, all the better.


A couple of tips:


  • If you see your attention flagging, divide up the movie and watch it in multiple sittings.
  • Always make sure you are taking notes and adding the vocabulary to your own.


This, done with consistency, will get you ready for the next level of activities for advanced learners.


Advice for Advanced Learners - Yes, They Need it Too!


At this point you can move to native movies or TV series.


Make sure you always have either a friend or a tutor to double check the language with you, in case characters are using dialects.


It's OK to use subtitles, just make sure you use them in a constructive way.


For example:


  • When you are taking notes, double check how particular expressions are translated.
  • Try to turn the subtitles off every now and then; try making a deal with yourself and alternate them every fifteen minutes


One thing about subtitles is that they are written with screen space in mind, so don't be surprised if there are some radical changes.


Personally, I find them quite distracting in any language, so make sure you are very honest with yourself on how much they are actually helping you.


Final Suggestions


When you notice particular expressions that you want to learn, make sure you read them out loud slowly before building up speed. Then, try to repeat it after the character, possibly also working on the tone of voice. This exercise is priceless.


Now might be a good time to learn something about Italian gestures, too. Every actor highlights everything he says with a lot of gestures. You can't learn all of them, but try to start noticing them and find out what they mean, either with your tutor or from the Internet. This can actually help you understand more, even when the language is obscure.


If there are any references to culture or historical events, make sure you double check them. It's a great way to learn more about the country, and it also makes the information more memorable.


Remember how at the beginning of this article, I said you can't learn a language with movies? What I meant was that you can't learn Italian by just lying on your couch with your remote control and expect to magically learn it.


But, as a matter of fact, I’ve shown that you can learn Italian just by watching movies! Just remember that before you get on the couch you should:


  • Check out the plot on Wikipedia.
  • Put on your headset.
  • Use your remote to pause often.
  • Scribble notes as you listen.
  • Make it a unique experience that will push you, entertain you and motivate you.


Motivation is the most important tool of all, so do make sure you invest your energy in preserving it.


Who would have thought being a couch potato could pay off so well?


You can also have a session with me while lounging on your couch after watching a movie. Check out my 'Better Italian through discussing film - 10 hours course' here!


Image Sources


Hero Image by Luke Wisley (CC BY 2.0)