I can’t count the number of movie or TV characters I’ve run into in American or international films or TV who explain their flippant fluency in American English with the line, “I learned it watching Hollywood movies.” It’s an accepted truism, considered proof of Hollywood’s broad cultural reach.
And it’s not just American English that can be absorbed via this idea that if you’re exposed to a language by hearing it and reading subtitles.
That’s one of the reasons I review so much international cinema here, why I coined the phrase “Around the World With Netflix.” Films and TV series can teach you about a culture, prep you for travel there, and they can serve as a primer in the language they’re spoken in as well.
Put your pandemic binge-watching to good use. Turn the subtitles on and watch every film from every place you’re dying to visit in its original language.
I’m not likely to pick up much Mandarin, or Swedish or Russian just from watching films in those languages. But as part of a more concerted effort to pick up a little Portuguese, Greek, German or French, immersing yourself in films and TV programs in those languages is a great way to speed up the process of learning how to listen and interpret as you do.
I watch all my futbol on Spanish language TV, and if you see a LOT of Spanish language films reviewed here, that’s one reason for it. Language learning for many of us has a big visual component, and apps and downloadable audio tutorials don’t give you that. Mastering Spanglish is a must in North America. Going deeper into it is not just common sense. It makes travel easier, to say nothing of improving your appreciation for Spanish language cinema and TV.
And if you’re starting from square one with a language, it makes sense to begin with shorter shows aimed at younger viewers, shows like the futbol-oriented “Hollie e Benji” (Italian), the wildly popular “Les Aventures de Tintin” (French) or “El Chavo” (Spanish) have a decent sized vocabulary and plenty of repetition, just the ticket for assembling those first building blocks in a new language.
There is a LOT of this content, if you know where to look. For instance, Spanish cartoons for beginners are everywhere.
It can be a challenge, even if you’ve studied a language in school and been exposed to it off through friends, travel and film over the years, to make out what native-speaking characters, speaking at the normal or sometimes manic speed of “real” conversations, are saying. Eugenio Derbez enunciates like a professor of languages, Catherine Deneuve has the plummy locutions of an upper class grande dame and Marion Cotillard practically translates every word she speaks with her expressive face.
But the best children’s programs compensate for that, especially those from the various public broadcasting services around the world. The French and Spanish are fanatics for fluency, recognizing it as the ultimate building block to a happy, fulfilling lives and cohesive societies.
So whenever you’re taking an “Around the World With Netflix” or Topic or Amazon streaming trip, turn those subtitles on. The dubbed versions of films and series miss the nuances and idiomatic colors of a language. And if you’re not picking up words, sentences and distinct turns of phrase yet, dig around for online language instruction with a video element. There’s a lot to be said for the teaching possibilities of your average foreign language cartoon.