I’m excited to feature a guest post from felow language blogger Diego Cuadros who teaches at Spanishtomind.com. In this post, he shares his experiences of learning English through movies – and failing, and trying again, and failing, to eventually becoming proficient in English. Here he graciously shares his mistakes and successes so you can learn from his process. If you’ve been following my work for any length of time, you’ll see similar advice coming through. But I always think it has more impact when someone who learned English as a second language shares their story. Over to Diego.
There I was during was my first visit to the United States. I was about to go into an Imax theater for the first time in my life.
A friend had invited me, my dad, and my brother to the movies because back in Colombia (the country I’m from), we never had the opportunity to see an Imax movie.
“Are you sure you guys can understand a fully English movie? We can wait another hour to see it with Spanish subtitles if you want,” my friend had said because he wanted us to understand the movie well and have a good time.
We were seeing the 2014 film Transformers: Age of Extinction. My brother and my dad said they didn’t have a problem with it, and me?
Well, for me, the challenge was on.
The journey of learning to speak English and fighting to understand movies without subtitles on had been long and frustrating at times. I had to say “yes, only English, please!”
I needed to prove to myself that my training was complete.
The truth was that I had made a lot of mistakes throughout my learning period, as I had been trying to learn English from movies.
In this article, I want to share four lessons I learned from those mistakes. That way you don’t have to lose any time engaging in trial and error because you’ll know what works and what doesn’t.
I wanted to have superpowers
Thanks to my father having taken an English course when I was a child, I always wanted to learn English.
I’m a native Spanish speaker by the way. ¡Mucho gusto! (Nice to meet you!)
To me, anyone who could speak more than just Spanish had a superpower. If that extra language was English, then that person would trigger a “wow” in my young mind.
I wanted that superpower for myself, and because of that, my parents put me through an English course when I was 10 years old.
It was all about learning the traditional stuff, like…
- Conjugating “to be,”
- Learning the parts of the body,
- Colors, and
- How to order food.
The course was comprised of all the classic material you find in traditional educational settings. It was nice for my grades at school because I had to take English during high school, but it wasn’t as good for my speaking skills.
Worst of all, I couldn’t understand “gringos” (slang for “Americans” in Latin America) when they spoke.
I had a bad advisor
When I got to the sixth grade, the newest kid in the class was a Colombian guy who had lived a couple of years in Florida, USA.
His English skills were awesome, he was fully bilingual, and he spoke like an American. He was even better than the teacher!
Of course, I wanted to know the secret to becoming such a fluent English speaker, so I asked him what he did in the US to learn.
Now that I think about it, his answer was really naive. He said:
“I just watched a lot of TV, man. That’s all I used to do back in Florida. If you do the same, you can learn too. You’ll be forcing yourself to learn, you know?”
True, he probably watched TV in English, but he didn’t mention how much influence his teachers, classmates, people around him, and books in school had on his language skills before coming back to Colombia.
He assumed that TV was the reason for his success with the language, and I believed him.
The same day we had that conversation, I went home and switched my TV to English using the SAP mode, which was a function my TV had by which you could hear the original language of shows instead of the Spanish dubbing.
I was ready for English fluency to magically and automatically enter into my mind, so I tried watching Kenan & Kel on Nickelodeon (yes, I’m a 30-something millennial now).
I tried doing this several times, but suddenly realized that although I liked the shows I was watching, I was bored to death because I couldn’t understand anything.
Heck, I couldn’t catch a word of what the characters were saying, and I had already taken an English course!
I was constantly thinking:
“What is wrong with me? Seems like my parents lost all their money in that stupid course.”
Lesson 1: Watching Movies Passively Won’t Do Anything
Here’s your first takeaway from this article:
Don’t expect that sitting down and watching a movie in English (without doing anything else) will make you learn instantly.
That is just an unrealistic way to learn, and you waste your time hoping to get “automatic” or “lazy” results.
I tried doing that, and I found that no matter how many movies you watch, if all you hear is noise, all you learn will be nothing.
You need to do more than that. Notice that when I tried to watch shows in English, I got bored because all I was doing was hearing an undecipherable TV show and imagining what the characters could possibly be saying.
If you want to learn English effectively, you need to have fun. The language must be fun for you. After all, that’s one of the reasons why you turned to movies as a language learning resource, right?
You want to enjoy your learning time, watch or listen to a good story, hear real English, and get away from textbooks and stressful tests.
But, let me tell you what else happened to me during my learning journey….
My second try to learn English
Fast forward to my last year of high school. I was completely fluent in English and my classmates and I were extremely good at music and dancing, so Disney offered to make a movie with us called “High School Musical”.
Just kidding, I’m terrible at dancing and I hated “High School Musical” ever since my sister made me see it for the first time.
To be honest, that year was super stressful to me because I was in a new school, and they required I take extra English lessons in order to graduate.
So, in the morning I went to school, and in the afternoon, I had to go to an English academy to complete the number of language hours my school needed me to have in order to graduate.
It was the same thing I did in the course I took when I was younger:
- Useless songs in English I didn’t like,
- Fill in the blank activities, and
- Describe your daily routine activities.
You know what I’m talking about, right? I learned a lot, but I couldn’t speak fluently or understand English speakers spontaneously.
That course was great because I completed my school requirements and then graduated.
However, the following month, I met two of my cousins who lived in the US and came to visit family. That’s when I faced the truth:
I had spent my entire young life studying English, and yet, every time they spoke, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I was really frustrated!
I committed to success
Even though my cousin’s visit was a time of stark realization, it was really motivating as well. They were two young little girls of 10 and 6 years old, and they were able to communicate in both English and Spanish.
When I would speak English to them, they laughed, corrected my pronunciation, and taught me phrases they used. They repeated things I couldn’t understand.
I realized that I was learning more English and having more fun with them than in the courses I took.
It was great. I loved learning the language from them, and when they left, I was super motivated. I promised myself that English was something I had to learn.
I wouldn’t take any more courses or study grammar rules. Instead, I went online and began to do research on how to learn more effectively.
Lesson 2: Listening Is Essential To Learn English Effectively
During my research, I found that listening was essential to learn any language effectively. I read about professor Stephen Krashen’s theory, which states that “humans acquire languages when we understand messages.”
In other words, if you really want to make progress, you need to listen to easily-understood things in English. I also found some English stories to listen to online that were super easy to understand.
I tasked myself with listening to these stories every day. Of course, I didn’t only use these stories, but also tried to surround myself with as much English as I could.
Sometime after that, I turned on the SAP mode on my TV, and found a channel in which they were broadcasting “Dora the Explorer”.
Yeah, I was a little old for that, but I just wanted to test my skills.
I was super happy to realize that I could understand the show in English (not 100%, but maybe 70% of the show).
That was huge progress for me, compared to all the time I invested in courses without any results.
The lesson for you? Take listening to English seriously.
The more you listen to English, the better. But remember, whatever you listen to, it must be appropriate for your current level. If it’s just noise, you won’t make any progress.
Pride gets in the way
After knowing that I could handle TV shows for kids in English, I turned to the TNT channel looking for a regular movie.
Surprisingly (for me at the time), it wasn’t as easy as understanding Dora. I could catch a couple of phrases here and there, but most of the film was just noise to my ears.
“I gotta keep listening to the stories,” I said to myself, and I did. I continued to stick to my listening routine. Every day, I would listen to easy stories in English.
Over time, I got better at understanding movies, but it wasn’t enough, as I couldn’t actually enjoy a whole movie or a TV show that wasn’t for kids.
A friend who lived in the states (he wasn’t a native speaker) told me that he always watched movies in English and turned on the subtitles in English too, just for the sake of “learning a little more.” At least that’s what he said, even though he already spoke with an almost American accent.
To be honest, I didn’t want to use subtitles. There was some kind of stupid pride in me. My thinking was that I had to learn like a native.
“I have to understand without subtitles, just like native speakers do, I want to be like them!”
The thing that destroyed my pride was a friend who came to my house. He turned on the TV, and the SAP mode was on. “Fast & Furious” was being played on the channel, and since it was only in English, my friend said to me:
“Alright, time for a test, translate to me what they’re saying.”
I heard the movie for a couple of seconds, and I realized the hard truth: I couldn’t translate because I didn’t know what they were saying!
“They’re speaking too fast,” I told my friend, trying to hide my frustration behind the first excuse that came to mind.
I had to learn more. I needed to feel that I could understand movies in English, so I gave in: I began to use English subtitles.
Lesson 3: Make Things Understandable
There I was, hearing what the actors were saying in very spontaneous English, along with subtitles on the screen.
Subtitles had become my best friends because now, I would only watch movies in English.
Literally, the only language that my TV would play was English, and subtitles had become a blessing.
Now I could know exactly what the characters were saying. I learned that:
- Native speakers mispronounce lots of words,
- People in real life shorten words, and
- They pronounce phrases as if they were only one word.
A big advantage for me was using Google Translate. Every time there was an unknown word, I would pause whatever I was watching and look up the meaning.
Another thing I did (I still do it, even though I’m advanced in English now) was Googling phrases.
For example, every time I see a phrase that the translator can’t translate or something that I suspect is an idiom, I go to the Internet and perform searches like:
- What does [idiom or phrase I don’t know] mean in English?
- What does it mean when someone says [idiom or phrase I don’t know] in English?
Thanks to the Internet, you’ll find forums in the search results or even blog posts that will clarify things for you.
So, what’s the lesson?
Make sure that whenever you watch a movie, you understand it. Don’t assume that because you’re watching it in English, your brain will learn just by itself.
- Use a dictionary.
- Go to an online translator.
- Ask a native speaker friend for the meaning of words if you can.
- Ask a tutor to watch a movie with you and help you understand the movie.
No matter what you do, make the movie understandable.
Lesson 4: “Are You Watching That Movie Again?”
I can’t remember how many times my family said the words that you just read.
And they were right. I would watch movies or play the same TV show episodes many times if they were in English.
In the beginning, I did it because I just liked the movies, but over time, I realized that repetition was helping me internalize English.
I still can recall phrases from movies like:
- The Matrix trilogy
- 50 First Dates
- Star Wars
If TV channels broadcasted a movie I liked, I would watch it again, and that was great because I started to notice that understanding these movies was getting easier and easier.
The lesson? Repetition is a must in order to learn a language. Don’t overestimate the power of watching the same films over again.
Something really useful I did back in those days was mimicking characters saying phrases. I would imitate everything:
- Their facial expressions,
- The intonation, and
- Their emotions.
It was fun, and since most of the time I would watch movies in English alone, nobody would laugh at me for looking weird.
I did so many things to learn English, but movies were one of the things that helped me progress the most. They were useful in aiding me with the following:
- Learning how to understand native speakers,
- Learning how people talk in real life,
- Improving my pronunciation,
- Getting to know idioms and slang, and
- Having fun.
After a long journey learning to speak this language, I had the chance to visit the US for the first time in my life.
Yes, the very same trip in 2014 I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
For me, that was like graduation, the high-stakes medal round that would let me know if I was already fluent.
I didn’t have any communication problems with anyone, and if you’re wondering how it went during the movie my friend invited me to watch, it went really well.
I can’t say that I understood 100% of it, but rather 90% to 95%. Really good, considering that it didn’t have subtitles, and it was the first time I saw that movie.
I hope you take some good lessons out of my experience. As a summary, the lessons I learned when I tried to learn English through movies were:
- Don’t watch movies passively.
- Listen to lots of English.
- Make what you hear understandable.
- Repetition is a must.
A final lesson is to have fun. Learning a language shouldn’t be stressful or frustrating, and movies might become one of the most fun ways to learn English if you do the right things.
By the way… remember I mentioned some of the movies I enjoyed watching? What are the movies you’ve learned English from?
Let me know in the comments below.
About the Author:
Diego Cuadros is a blogger at Spanishtomind.com and a Spanish online teacher. He learned to speak English effectively using stories and He uses them now to help Spanish lovers understand fast-speaking native speakers, so they don’t freeze and panic in conversations.
Subscribe To My Newsletter To Get Your Free Guide
Want to use your favourite movie or TV show to understand native English speakers when they talk fast? Download your free guide, Understand Movies in English.