9 tips how to use French language movies to improve your beginners French
Are films a good way for beginners to improve spoken French?
Before we moved to France full-time we were regular visitors with holiday-level spoken French. On the last few days of a visit we’d feel like we’d started to tune in to real spoken French, but at the start of the next trip we’d be out of practice and have to rebuild our confidence.
To stay in touch with the sound and speed of French native-speakers we bought a lot of French-language films on DVD. They also gave us insight into French culture and attitudes, and introduced us to French celebrities and even new vocabulary.
To keep up the habit of thinking about French vocabulary and grammar we started a monthly French conversation group. It was helpful, but because everyone was English speaking in a second language we knew it had limitations.
We shared the pick of the library with the conversation group, who generally enjoyed the choices. At least everyone had heard of Jean Dujardin long before “The Artist”.
If you’re thinking of trying to use films to improve your French these are the pick of the tips and pitfalls from our experience at home and with our French conversation group
1. Enjoy what you do
If watching films is your idea of fun, it’s win-win. You’re exposed to spoken French and improve your language skills and there’s a built-in reward to keep you motivated.
If you don’t enjoy films, and in particular if you don’t like to watch them more than once, this may not be the ideal activity to help improve your French.
2. Don’t be put off by preconceptions about French films
The first contemporary French films I saw painted a pretty bleak picture. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s a second French New Wave swept through English art-house cinemas and video rental shops. It didn’t matter if you were a painter going blind, the widow of a famous composer or a junkie turned secret agent. Everyone’s relationships were terrible, and nobody was having a good time.
Ten years later, sprawled on the bed of an Hérault gite in front of a tiny portable TV, the scales fell from my eyes. I discovered the French film industry makes Hollywood style action films and comedies too!
Suddenly there was a new world of films worth knowing, and I had a goal to understand French well enough to watch them.
We already had shelves of English-language films on DVD so adding a collection of French-language films was inevitable, and watching them fairly regularly was very natural.
3. My own copy
I like to own films on disc.
A legitimate DVD copy of a film should also be a good quality viewing experience and give you added value, starting with sub-titles.
Accidents aside, a film on DVD should always be there. DVDs are also self-contained. They don’t need an Internet connection, and you can share them with anyone without giving away a password.
Netflix and other online services seem to offer lots of content at low cost, but you can’t rely on access to the content you want or the features you need. Online service catalogues are subject to geographical and licensing restrictions, and films do just disappear.
4. I’ll buy that for a euro!
When foreign language films reach the English-speaking market they’re tailored to suit local taste.
UK films distributors seem to believe French films appeal to educated, art-film fans rahter than casual viewers. UK DVDs of French films tend to have the original language soundtrack with English subtitles switched on permanently, and no guarantee of an English-language dub.
The US seems to agree with France that there’s a casual audience who prefers their own language. French films on DVD in the US are more likely to be dubbed in English.
To use a film as a language learning tool I like to have the original soundtrack and French subtitles, which I can turn off or on. The best place to find these will be on original French DVDs.
It’s frustrating, but subtitles are the weak point of French DVDs. English language is rare, but French isn’t guaranteed either. This is especially true if a film didn’t do well in the cinema and the DVD was put together cheaply. So if you’re buying DVDs in France it’s important to have your glasses and read the packaging.
I generally avoid new releases. In France anything new is expensive and discounting is almost against the law.
These quibble aside, it’s a good time to create a cheap library of French films. A huge back-catalogue of great films is almost constantly available in deals in supermarkets and dedicated media outlets like fnac.
If you can’t travel to France, you can order from the French amazon or fnac websites, although postage costs obviously make things more expensive.
If you only visit France occasionally you may worry about packing a huge pile of DVDs to bring home. Remember, you don’t need all the packaging, just the disc and maybe the paper liner for reference. I don’t keep the outer cases for my DVDs any more, I store them in a DJ-style library box.
You can pack a lot of discs in a CD travel wallet, although I’m not sure how easy these are to find these days. You may also be able to buy envelope-style slip cases from a stationery or computer shop.
5. Training wheels
As a beginner you can’t expect to watch a French-language film without support.
A good quality French DVD release should include French subtitles. An English soundtrack and subtitles are a useful bonus.
You’ll quickly discover that French subtitles are different. Sometimes they’re not an exact transcription of the dialogue. You’ll often see a paraphrase or even a completely different version of what was said. Sometimes they’re colour coded, to distinguish between song lyrics and voices on the radio or TV or off-screen.
The features you turn on will depend on your ability. An English soundtrack, or English subtitles, will get you through the first viewing and help you with the plot. French subtitles will guide you through the original dialogue. If both sets are available you can switch between them, at least from time to time, to translate on the fly.
The main reason I don’t like UK DVDs is that when I’m ready to turn subtitles off I probably can’t. They’ll always obscure part of the screen, and they’ll always be a distraction.
6. The butler did it
Relax and shake off your fear of spoilers. To use films as a language learning tool you have to be happy to watch them more than once.
Some people even argue that it’s always better to know the ending before you see a film, or read a book.
As a beginner who wants to use films to improve your French, make the most of the the first viewing. Enjoy the plot, the twists and the final reveal. Then come back again to concentrate on the language.
If it’s any consolation, the French films we enjoy most and come back to time and again usually have very few surprises on the story side, even on the first pass.
7. Loud and clear
We wanted a TV in our house in France, but we were only going to use it for a few weeks a year, so we bought something cheap. It was almost impossible to watch anything in French on it because the built-in speakers were terrible.
To work around the problem we plucked up the courage to see a new French film at our local multiplex. We had no pause button, no rewind, no subtitles, but we were surprised at much we understood.
The cinema had a state of the art digital sound system.
If you want a film to be any use as a learning experience you have to be able to hear the dialogue as clearly as possible. A Dolby surround DVD soundtrack is no use if you don’t have a TV or speakers to do it justice.
8. Learning aims
Watching a film isn’t a typical learning experience. It’s also not a substitute for blackboard-and-textbook, notes-in-your-notebook classwork. We had other activities too, like our conversation group.
You should know know what you expect to gain.
Films won’t help you with basic grammar and conjugation, but they will give you an idea of normal speech rhythms and pronunciation, and introduce slang and everyday vocabulary. Our aim was always to keep our ears tuned to the sound and speed of “real” spoken French.
We always watched films more or less uninterrupted. We made our first attempt with French subtitles, and tried not to rely on English audio or subtitles.
Other people advise a more forensic approach. Use your DVD remote to advance the film line by line with a notepad and dictionary close by. We certainly made use of the pause and rewind buttons and a dictionary to check occasional words or phrases, but we never expected to be completely word-perfect.
9. Not a magic pill
When I first heard about French classes at school I thought they would teach us to “solve” French words into English, like anagrams. Once you’d learned to do the conversion, everything would be easy.
When we first started teaching English in France one of our beginners suggested they didn’t need the class-work, they just wanted to listen to us speaking English until it “stuck”.
We hear take-no-prisoners French spoken almost every day. Our confidence and French vocabulary improve all the time. We still make mistakes because our brains are hard-wired with English sentence structure. We see it in our English classes when someone converts the French phrase they have in mind word for word.
Watching a film won’t teach you conversation. Even on a second viewing the dialogue doesn’t just fall magically into place. You need to do the class-work too.
What can I expect?
Alongside other learning activities, watching films will give you a way to measure your progress. And you don’t have to keep watching the same film over and over to see the effect.
Films can help you to pick up more realistic speech rhythms, turns of phrase, and help vocabulary to stick. You’ll also begin to absorb other information. What is 36 quai des Orfèvres? Why is Benoît Poelvoorde singing the wrong words to “My Way”?
We still can’t claim to be fluent. It’s still a challenge for us to watch a French TV drama or film start to finish. But how much more we understand is a good measuring stick for how much we’ve improved.