I know what it feels like to put on a movie and understand ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. That’s why I decided to do a step by step guide on how I approached it.
This is what worked for me with some added steps, but as usual, feel free to take what you want and make adjustments to get a method that suits you best.
1. Watch a movie that you like and have already seen in your mother tongue.
If it is your first time, I suggest that you start with a movie you already know to make things a bit easier. It doesn’t mean that it will be super easy right from the beginning. When I started doing this, I tried watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I have watched the Harry Potter saga more times than I can even count. Yet, it was really hard for me. I knew what they said in French, but I just couldn’t grasp how they said it in English except a few words and sentences here and there. This is totally normal, your ears and brain have to get used to it. Do not let it discourage you from keeping at it.
As tempting as it is, I highly recommend NOT using the subtitles in your mother tongue.
2. Watch it with target language subtitles.
You’d be surprised of how much more things you understand by seeing the actual words. Even though I’d recommend making your way up until you don’t need them at all, at first, subtitles can help immensely on several levels.
a. you’ll associate written words and their spoken equivalent
This is so much more important than you can imagine. Let me tell you about the time I was an English teacher in Japan. I was a kids teacher, but once in a while I would help with adult classes.
And they were good. Don’t get me wrong here, they had a good level. They could write well and understand complex texts. The problem was with speaking and listening.
One of my Japanese teachers told me that, in school, they focus on writing and reading, but they barely ever speak when they learn English. And because of that lack of training, oral expression is very hard for them. And it’s absolutely true.
So what does this have to do with watching movies?
I want you to know that if you struggle to understand what is being said, it comes from a lack of training, not a lack of skills. And by listening to what is being said and seeing the visual transcription of it, your brain will start establishing links. It will remember the sound a certain word is supposed to make, and you will recognize it way better next time you hear it.
I would suggest that if the language you are learning has different accents, focus on one at the time (at the beginning at least). For example British English and American English, etc. Some languages have pronunciation variation that aren’t too dramatic but some words may differ (like Latino Spanish and Spain Spanish) so keep this in mind.
b. You still learn new words but, by seeing them written, you avoid remembering a wrong spelling.
This is part of the number one reason people make grammar errors (even in their mother tongue!!). A whole article dedicated to this is coming soon, and, in my opinion, it is THE huge thing that would make people’s writing 90% better. Hands down. Stay tuned for this (I’m thinking about starting a Youtube so comment below if you want me to make a video about it!).
3. Watch without any subtitles.
The first time you do this, if you still are not very confident about your comprehension skills, then you can watch movies you’ve already seen in your mother tongue as well.
I would still highly recommend you don’t watch the same movie again and again and again for every step I explained. And the reason is simple : by the time you reach this step, you will have seen it and heard the dialogues so much that you will already know it, a bit like a song. You brain will recognize the sounds but it will not make any conscious effort to understand the meaning because it will have become automatic by then.
4. Watch a movie/series/TV show you have never seen, without subtitles of any kind.
I won’t lie, this will be frustrating. Especially if you’re super curious like I am. Because at first, you will only get the big picture of the story, the bare bones, the essential plot line. Sometimes the characters will laugh about something you didn’t quite get, they will talk for several minutes and you won’t have any clue of what they just said, you will totally miss some details, but it’s okay. It will come with time !
As your listening skills get better and better, as you vocabulary and grammar knowledge grows and as you learn more and more cultural facts (so that you can understand some jokes and crucial references!) you will get there.
coming soon : why you should never neglect the culture when learning a language
And one day, you will find yourself laughing at the TV and you will realize that you were understanding all along without making a conscious effort for it. That is a huge sign you improved : when you get absorbed by what you are watching without even knowing it.
December of last year I was taking my JLPT exam. When I reached the written comprehension part, I read the questions then started reading the first text. It was a text about how humans wouldn’t be able to fly even if they had wings. When I was done, I realize I didn’t even pay attention to the answers because I was so amazed by the piece of information I was reading. Of course, I didn’t understand every single word, but most of it.
That’s one of the good signs you’ve improved dramatically. When the content catches your attention more than the process of understanding it, you’re good.
5. Watch a movie you’ve never seen, then watch it again in your mother tongue and compare.
The comparison will help you to see what you got, what you didn’t and what you almost understand. If you notice that you keep making the same mistakes, it will give you a starting point for improving.
Coming soon : how to use comparison to improve your translation skills
6. Diversify (but have fun) and repeat any step as necessary.
When you are comfortable enough, you can skip to movies, series or TV shows that you haven’t seen and without any subtitle. You can read a synopsis beforehand, if it helps.
A word of warning though. Some will be more difficult than others, that’s just how it is. I’m fluent in English, yet sometimes, I still struggle to understand what Norman Reedus says in The Walking Dead, or to catch all the information that pours out of Spencer Reid’s mouth in Criminal minds. One day, I watched a Scottish movie and understood almost nothing. You have to get used to different accents, ways of talking and subject matters. It doesn’t mean your level got worse, if anything, it means you are still learning and improving.
Good luck !