Can Movies and Music Really Help You Learn a Language?

This is why you can't learn a language from music and movies
 

Many reputable authorities on languages and language learning have been stating for countless years that watching foreign language films and listening to music in your target language is a great way to help yourself to learn a new language.

But is this actually true? The short answer is no. You cannot learn a language by watching movies and listening to music.

I know I’m going to catch a lot of flak for saying this, and the long answer is a little bit more complicated. Don’t worry, it’s not a total waste of your time, but you will not learn a language from movies and music. Sorry.

Why can’t I learn from movies, TV and music?

If you don’t already know a significant amount of the language you’re trying to learn you’re going to struggle to understand anything just by listening. You may be able to pick up on the context. You may experience that fabulous little jolt of excitement when you understand bits and pieces of your chosen media, but unless you’re somewhat advanced already you’re not going to get past a Dora the Explorer level of competence.

You could make an argument for note taking. Sit there watching your movie and try to take notes on key elements. Write down the bits you understand. Or something? Really, what are you actually accomplishing here?

  

By taking notes you’re not really paying attention. What are you even taking notes on? The movie premise? If you’re anything like me you’re going to lose sight of the story, miss things – if you even caught them to begin with – and end up kinda wasting your time more than you should.

If you spend your time taking notes while watching your movie there’s a good chance that you’re going to lose track of the plot and drift off into a realm of pure imagination!

All fun and games, but not really helpful when it’s progress you seek.

If you’re watching a movie for adults (not that kind of film, you dirty minded person, you!), you’re going to have to keep up with some seriously rapid conversations. Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. If you can this article really isn’t for you anyway.

Not only will the conversations be stupidly fast for realistic learning they’re also likely to use a lot of idioms, slang and other colloquialisms that you’re really just better off leaving alone for the moment.

You could maybe use subtitles, but I find that they turn into a crutch for me. When I have subtitles I stop paying attention to the language and start focusing on those instead. Sure, I get through the movie and know what happened, but I don’t learn anything, so why bother?

Music is similarly difficult to use as a substantial resource.

Listening to foreign language music certainly has its value and its place, but you’re not going to actually learn much raw material from it. You’re just not. Sorry.

Music introduces similar issues. You’re not going to take notes on your music. If you have the time and interest in taking notes on something like that you’ve probably got the time to devote to a more reliable and practical learning system.

You’re going to encounter the same issues with music that you do with movies. They move fast, they’re full of slang and 95% of you are just not going to take the time to break them down into the details necessary to learn something significant.

Going beyond this, with music you often encounter some pronunciation oddities that can surpass those in movies. Musicians are – by nature – often forced to manipulate their pronunciation and emphasis to suit their music which can and does lead to false information.

But why have I recommended them before?

Don’t despair. You can keep listening to your Rammstein and watching your classy French films. And you should.

I’ve recommended these things in the past in articles like this one about creating an immersion environment and this one about resources you can use while you work out.

Music is an integral part of familiarizing oneself with the cultures to which your language is intrinsically attached. The language is a huge piece of the cultural experience and can and often does play a vital role in motivation in the learning process.

You don’t need to stop listening to foreign music, I simply want us all to be realistic about our expectations when it comes to these resources.

What is foreign entertainment of this sort good for?

Immersion, plain and simple.

You may not be able to learn an awful lot from films and music in and of themselves but what you can do is use them as a tool to help foster an immersion setting for yourself. This can only help.

By utilizing these tools you’re helping to reinforce the language in your mind. You want to surround yourself with it – whether you understand it or not. Just hearing the sounds will help keep your head in the game. It’ll keep the accents fresh in your mind.

Furthermore, music and movies can serve as a sort of motivation to continue learning.

You know that when you can understand the majority of a movie without difficulty that you’re really starting to succeed with your language learning project. The same is true of music.

What about video games?

I would make the argument that video games are actually a pretty good tool for learning – vocabulary at least.

While a large portion of the vocabulary you encounter may be totally irrelevant to every day life – I mean did you really need to know the Czech word for battering ram?-  video games come with the unique attribute of being interactive! You won’t get this from music or television.

In games you have to make decisions and understand story lines and items in order to progress or, you know, not die a horrible death at the hands of that dragon. And don’t even get me started on what can happen if you confuse the “save” and “load” game buttons…

But even video games probably won’t serve as a substitution for real conversation or more strict language learning systems. I’d make the argument that games serve primarily as a fancy, interactive deck of flashcards and games with lots of items and quests and dialogue are going to be your best options.

You can read about a few of my favorites here.

Conclusion

I’m really not trying to burst your bubble. When you’re learning a new language you should utilize every single tool at your disposal. Milk it for all it’s worth and surround yourself with things you enjoy.

But let us please be realistic. Don’t invest all of your time and energy into movies and music as a serious resource because you may be disappointed with the outcome.

By all means use them, and I hope that they work better for you than they have for me, but I remain highly skeptical

So what do you think? Do you use movies and music, or video games for that matter, as aides for language learning? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

 

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  • Ute Bretschneider

    I agree you can’t learn a language merely by film and music, but I also agree with the immersion idea – the more frequent, the better, especially music for sentence patterns and phonetics/ pronunciation. Films more for cultural background/ history: I usually only show them in native tongue with subtitles, and really enjoy it when they get hooked up on single words or short sentence intonation and repeat them correctly.

  • StellaBarbone

    I can easily understand French when watching or listening to the news or when a French person is speaking directly to me. I can also understand most slower movies and TV ads (love them!), but not fast paced movies. Lately I’ve been watching French sitcoms on YouTube. They have simple plots and dialog and I’m hoping that they will help me learn to follow rapidly paced, informal speech and not just teach me vulgar French.

    Of course, watching a movie with English subtitles isn’t at all helpful, but after a lot of searching for sources with French subtitles, I’ve discovered that my oral comprehension is actually better if I don’t use subtitles at all. My old brain can read in French or it can listen in French, but not both.

  • Axel Howind

    Well, you probably cannot learn a new language just watching movies and listening to music. But it can help a lot. Get the lyrics for a song you really like, try to read while listening, look up the vocabulary that you don’t know yet – this can greatly improve your vocabulary. Watching movies can also help – turning on subtitles in the foreign language helps, even if words are not rendered exactly as they are spoken.

    I learned one language (indonesian) just by listening to friends, then trying to talk myself, and much of the vocabulary from song lyrics and movies – the rest by trying to read (and understand) articles on the web, and texting with friends. I never visited a language course for indonesian or read a book about it. But I also have to admit that it is an easy language to learn because of its simple grammar and pronunciation, and the latin alphabet.

    The key is trying to use a new language in every day life, and to get honest feedback when you make mistakes. But movies and songs can certainly help.

  • ChrisGerding

    In my experience, movies (and some music) have been helpful when I already have context clues before I consume the content. If I’ve seen a favorite movie a hand-full of times in my native tongue, then watch it in my target language, I find myself trying harder (in a good way) to make parallels to the parts of which I’m already familiar–I’m more aware of the target language dialogue (and to your earlier point, it’s more exciting, because watching movies in your target language is SO challenging!).

  • Anthony659225

    I enjoy watching movies and tv shows in English, but with foreign subtitles. It’s fascinating to see what choices the translators make, translators who are presumably experts. There is a Simpsons episode, for example, where Sideshow Bob, a convicted felon, is released from prison. Bob claims to be rehabilitated (he’s not), and Lisa says that it proves that our “revolving door” prison system works. Revolving door was not translated in the Spanish. It said only that our “efficient” prison system works, which completely misses the joke. I think this is one additional way to add movies and tv shows to one’s language learning experience. You get to really dig deep into not only linguistic differences between English and the target language, but also cultural differences. I assume that the expression “revolving door,” in this context, is simply not used in Spanish. Translating is indeed a tricky and quite challenging activity.

    Good article, Brian.

  • JessDR

    You definitely can’t learn a language primarily by watching/listening to media, but is anyone (reputable) actually saying that you can? The advice I always heard was to use media as a supplement.

    For me, movies, music, and especially TV are good learning tools because they’re really *memorable*. When I try to recall something that I learned that way, I’m not just remembering an arbitrary fact (ex: “yassak” = “forbidden”), I have a whole rich memory to draw on (the actor’s voice, the actress’ bewildered reaction, how I felt while watching the scene, what was happening in the story, the line it was said in, etc.)

    Another strength of media is that it’s a huge source of examples. Watching Turkish TV has helped me pick up on patterns that my teacher and grammar books never mentioned, just because I kept hearing them. And since it’s entertaining, you’re more likely to use it often.

    Even watching with subtitles can be helpful. Sometimes I watch with English subtitles and compare what I hear to how I would have translated the subtitle. That’s a great source of correction. It has helped me not only identify mistakes, but also to learn more natural ways to phrase something that I can already express “correctly”.