Films and series as learning tools

Some obstacles that stand in the way of understanding

As I often say, if the process of learning a language took the shape of a high-rise building, understanding movies/series with ease would be at the very top floor.  Admittedly, it takes time to accomplish.

Having said that, if you are prepared to put up with a certain amount of confusion and lack of understanding and spice up your watching experience with a bit of imagination, nothing can stop you from starting now, regardless of the level you are at. Bear in mind that, the lower the level, the fewer demands you should make on yourself. 

To start with, let’s analyse several factors that get in the way of full comprehension.

Cultural references*: The temptation to find out about all the cultural references may result in a long painstaking process. I suggest being selective and let go of the rest if they don’t stop you from grasping the main ideas. Trying to discern one hundred per cent of what it is being said can spoil the fun for some English learners.

Definition (n.) ideas that relate to a specific culture; things that only someone who understands a specific culture could understand. Examples Most of film director Spike Lee’s movies have cultural references to New York City. (Definition by

Image result for stick person walkingGo the extra mile: if you are inclined to do so, you could do some research before watching and find out details about the historical/cultural/social context the film is set in. For instance, if you are about to watch “The darkest hour”, having a reasonable understanding of the political landscape at the time when Churchill took office, could come in handy.

Image result for the darkest hour

Irony: If you find yourself at that point where you know irony is being used but it is completely lost on you, there are at least two courses of action: you can just accept it and keep going (in the hope that as you progress, you will improve in this regard) or you can try to figure it out (resort to subtitles, have several watches of that scene, see how these lines were dubbed).  It’s up to you to decide whether this system may spoil the watching experience or on the contrary, enhance it.

I would say that as a rule of thumb, the higher the level, the more you can get away with being meticulous about details like this. Nevertheless, for the time being, give yourself some permission to miss out if your level is intermediate or lower.

Names and places: These can be particularly hard to identify. You can get around this by doing some previous research to get familiar with at least the main characters and film settings. Make the internet your ally.

Case in point. Say, you’d like to watch The king’s speech in English. 

You could browse this web first:

Image result for the kings speech

Say you aren’t sure of how some of the main characters’ names are pronounced, like the unconventional speech therapist who helped King George VI deliver his speech. You can look them up here:



Mumbling and other ways of speaking: Films portray conversations and as in real life, characters don’t always speak in a clear articulate way as a news reporter would do. On the contrary, some lines are whispered, some are shouted, some are snapped,  … you get the picture. Take it in your stride and be prepared to lose a few lines here and there. It’s part of it.

Image result for mumbling in films

Have realistic expectations

Unfortunately, I have come across a good number of low-level students who had been advised to make fast progress by watching films in their original version when they could barely understand the listenings in an A1-A2 students’ book. This lead to frustration as it turned out to be a poor use of their time and was undermining their confidence.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe films constitute a great learning tool but you need to have realistic expectations and define some parameters based on your level and your attitude to lack of full understanding.

Everything has its own time.

Personally, I consider the “power of learning English” that has been attributed to watching films is overrated. While it is true that some people obtain great value from films, it’s not a generalised learning style that suits most students. 

If you feel deflated after some unsuccessful viewing, maybe you should use other systems to improve your listening, such as podcasts.

Be selective in your choices.

If you are keen on action movies, be aware that some if not most of the scenes are fast-moving and therefore, the dialogues have to keep up with the frantic speed. Other elements that may stand in the way of proper understanding are background noises (explosions, car chases…) shouting, panting, short speedy utterances, and not exactly the everyday language you may be more familiar with. That’s to say: drugs, weapons, explosives, plotting, violence and crime, etc. All in all, not ideal for language learning purposes.

On the other end of the spectrum, genres like period drama, romance films or documentaries give you more time to assimilate the plot as you go along.

If your level and motivation are high enough there no stopping you watching anything and everything you want, of course.

Image result for to be continued

On my next blog post, I will give you some actionable ideas to make your watching experience a learning activity, touching on aspects such as subtitles, note-taking and repetition to name but a few. Till then, happy watching!


Films and Series as learning tools

(Part 2 – Actionable ideas – Play with the use of subtitles)

Subtitles, yes or no? Spanish or English?

Image result for subtitles?

I would say, yes, no and it depends.

As a rule of thumb, my advice is: be open to all the options and see what works best for you. Adopt a method of watching that is in line with the time you have, the effort you are willing to put in, the kind of movie in question and other factors.

Let’s consider some of the pros and cons in each case.

Watching with subtitles in your first language

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  • Suited to all levels.
  • Can be the first step that gives you momentum into further watching.
  • Helps you make associations between phrases in your first language and their translation.
  • Contributes to a more laid-back watch which can, in turn, spur more language acquisition.


  • However, there is a risk of becoming too reliant on subtitles.
  • Getting so involved in the story that you end up reading and neglecting the listening.


Warning: beware of some very poor subtitling on the web. Surely, you will be able to pick up on that and if so, get rid of the subtitles.



Image result for ideaExercise: ASSOCIATIONS

If keeping your concentration up for the whole duration of the film seems daunting, try at least tackling this over the first 15/20 minutes.

Pen in hand: jot down some associations you are making between what you read and what you hear. Using this technique regularly enough will improve your listening over time because you will find yourself forming those associations long after you have put down your pen.

Watching with subtitles in English

Image result for subtitles in English


  • First and foremost, learning pronunciation as you are coupling the way words are written and the way they are uttered.
  • Secondly, if you are a visual learner, chances are that you will memorise more easily what you can see in the written form.
  • Additionally, you can make more sense of some pronunciation features that tend to go unnoticed, like connected speech and the use of intonation.


  • As with subtitles in Spanish, one can become too dependent on them. Ideally, it should be interspersed with watching stretches without them. 

Image result for ideaExercise: PHRASE* HUNT

(definition of phrase:

Decide on the time you want to allocate for this exercise. Don‘t go overboard with it, shorter spans can keep the fun going.

Pen in hand: hunt down as many phrases as you can. The ones you find useful, that is. Not sentences but groups of words and collocations will do the trick. 

Image result for stick person walkingGo the extra mile: It would probably be best if at this point you just jotted them down as a first draft. Later on, create a notebook where you can collect phrases from different films.

As always, having a context works wonders when it comes to memorising words. 

Watching without subtitles

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  • Taking your eyes off the text leaves more space for observing other details such as body language, which can speak volumes.
  • Your undivided attention is on listening now.  Try to lay back, enjoy it and take in as much as you can.
  • Turns out to be a big booster when your level of understanding improves.


  • The risk of losing track and zoning out is higher without the help of subtitles. Make a point of rewinding and finding your way back in.
  • Missing out on parts of the conversations may make the plot confusing to follow. But then again, this is a necessary step in the right direction. Sooner or later, it will pay off. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day!.


Image result for ideaExercise: Did I get it right?

During a twenty-minute interval, test yourself on your comprehension ability.

  • Watch five minutes without subtitles. Pause and recollect what you have understood. (Orally or on a piece of paper)
  • Play the same five minutes with subtitles in English. Were you close? If not, why not? Work it out.
  • You get the picture. Keep going with the next five-minute bit and follow the same procedure.

Once you’ve done this for a reasonable time, you can reward yourself by watching the rest of the film without interruptions and in the format, you find more pleasurable. Remember you don’t want to run out of steam. This is supposed to be fun!


A combination of them all

Image result for my favourite movies

My following suggestion is going to demand a lot of your time but it is also bound to be fruitful.

Select a film in English that you would like to delve into.  Your cult film, so to speak, if you have one. Alternatively, choose a film which sounds appealing enough to watch several times.

Given that you are familiarised with the plot, watching it in English with Spanish subtitles should present no difficulty. Tune in your ears and try to draw a parallel with what you are reading.   

A few days later, watch it again, this time with subtitles in English. Now you can focus your attention on how utterances are pronounced. Notice the intonation, the connected speech and the accents.

One last watch without any subtitles will round it off. If you have been paying attention this should be a walk in the park. Pleasurable, stimulating and confidence building. And you will have taken in a great deal of language.


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