By Cath McLellan

19 Nov 2019 - 09:44

Learning English though watching films

"I learnt all my English from Tarantino''

One of my students once gave this reply when I asked how he had such an excellent grasp of colloquial expressions.  Watching films can undoubtedly be a great way to hone your language skills, and is now easier than ever with online streaming services and digital TV. In my experience, students who regularly consume authentic English - especially through films - often feel more confident with the language, but for some, the step to original version is a big one.  Here I'll guide you through the What, How and Why of watching films in English to improve your language skills.


Often students ask 'Which films are best for improving my English?', which is an understandable question, but remember: watching a few films will not automatically turn you into a native-like speaker, and films are not designed as language study aids, they are primarily entertainment. 

A better approach to choosing a film is to watch something that you will enjoy and are interested in, as your motivation to persevere will be higher. Having said that, our understanding of films can be facilitated (or made more difficult) by the understanding of the culture it comes from and by the type of film you choose.  If you love Spanish comedy, it doesn't necessarily mean that a British or Australian comedy will be easy to follow (or to laugh at!)  Equally, if you enjoy moody art house cinema, the chances are the opportunities for learning informal expressions from snappy dialogue will be limited.

So, think about the type of film you choose - many films these days are (unfortunately) quite formulaic. But the positive side of this is that you are probably already familiar with the typical story type - particularly in the case of rom-coms, action or police films. The benefit of watching films like these is that you can focus more on the dialogue than the complicated plot, meaning you might be more likely to pick up on expressions and interesting vocabulary.

For the same reason, another good idea is to watch a film that you have either already seen in your own language, or are familiar with the story (perhaps you've read the book?) Again, this means that you won't be struggling throughout the film to work out what is going on, but will be able to focus on other things.


A common complaint from my students has always been that they find it difficult to enjoy a film whilst trying to read subtitles at the same time. I always tell them that this is just a question of getting used to it. In many countries all over the world people regularly watch foreign language films with subtitles. Watching films in original version has so many advantages, and there is a reason why countries that always show original version films in the cinema and on TV generally have higher levels of English fluency. 

One option is to start with the subtitles in Spanish, but with the original English sound. This might seem like 'cheating' to some people, but actually this is a great way to begin to get an 'ear' for a language.  If you listen to a foreign language radio station, even if you don't understand a single word, you can normally imitate the intonation and you quickly become familiar with the common words and sounds of that language. This is a great first step to improving many aspects of pronunciation. This is also a good way to start watching original version films when your English is at a more elementary level, as you will still be able to follow the film. Later, you can put the subtitles in English.

Another good way to prepare for watching a film is to read a short review or summary of what it is about before you watch. I know that the idea of spoilers might not appeal, but it might help to clarify the plot and characters before you begin. IMDB is a very useful site which has plot summaries that you can read as well as a list of the main characters.

If you don’t have much time, why not start with short films? These will require less concentration, and there are some excellent short films available online on sites like Vimeo, or live screenings of award winning shorts from the BAFTAS.


Watching films and TV in English is not a miracle learning method which means you will never have to pick up a grammar book again (sorry!), but it can help you improve lots of aspects of your language learning.

Pronunciation: remember that pronunciation isn't just how words sound. A key part of English is the intonation. English is a stress-timed language, which means that some syllables are longer, and others are shorter. Spanish is syllable-timed, which means words and sentences have a more a regular rhythm.  If English is spoken in this way it can sound very awkward. One of the best ways to get better at this type of intonation is by listening to native speakers, and obviously films are a great way of doing this.

Vocabulary: often course books focus on lexical sets (for example 'language at the airport' or 'parts of the body'). This can be a really useful way to categorise vocabulary, but hearing words as they naturally occur is often more engaging (and memorable). When you watch a film with subtitles, you are essentially combining both reading and listening skills. Often in films the same words will come up again and again, and this can really help them to stick.

Another fun part about watching films is learning all those informal expressions (and all those that are inappropriate for the classroom!) that real people use. Language is ever changing, and there are so many varieties of both formal and informal English, that branching out from the standard 'Queen's English' can be very liberating (and perhaps more useful when you find yourself in a real life situation). It’s also a good insight into the many different registers of English.

Culture: It is almost impossible to learn a language without also getting to know something about the culture or cultures it comes from, and for many people the cultural aspect of language learning is just as important as conjugating verbs.  Films are a great way to become more familiar with different aspects of culture - be it American, Australian, British or any other English speaking nation.  Being exposed to different accents and dialects will also get you ready for the different types of English you will encounter in the real world.

As you get more confident with your English, try watching some classic films as these will also give you a great insight into the cultural history of the country they are from.

So, put on the popcorn and start watching original version English films as soon as you can!