Approaching Language Learning Through Movie Genres: A Guide
Movies can teach you a lot.
They can show you how to fight for what you want.
They can help you learn magical spells to fix your glasses and/or make your nemesis suffer.
They can even teach you how to destroy evil jewelry (thanks for that, Frodo).
But there’s one thing that watching movies can teach you that will benefit you more than any adventures through Middle Earth or to any wizarding school ever could.
Watching movies can help teach you languages.
Yes, real-world languages, not just Elvish or parseltongue.
Whether you watch them online, on DVD or with your Roku, movies can pack the learning wallop you need to take your language skills to the next level.
The first hurdle you encounter, though, might be which type of movie to choose for this purpose. After all, movie genres are just as diverse as languages themselves, and if you’re not already familiar with the film scene in your target language, you might not have any clue where to start.
Luckily, each movie genre has something to offer the language learner, and furthermore, you can actually use movie genres to target specific skills and vocabulary sets.
You can’t go wrong when you watch a movie in your target language, but selecting the right genre can help you zero in on exactly what you want to learn.
So lights, camera, action! Here’s all you need to know about taking a genre-based approach to improving your language skills with movies.
Why You Should Learn Languages Through Different Movie Genres
First of all, movie genres provide thematic vocabulary. Since different genres have different focuses, they also have vocabulary that matches their unique focuses, giving you access to tons of thematic vocabulary on practically whatever subject you can imagine.
Secondly, you can easily guess what sorts of thematic vocabulary will be used based on genre, so it’s easy to anticipate what you’ll get out of watching. For instance, if you’re enjoying cartoons, you’ll get a lot of basic vocabulary that’s good for beginners. If you’re watching a martial arts film, you’ll get plenty of action vocabulary. Just read any movie’s description and you can guess what sort of vocabulary it will include.
Learning with different movie genres is also a more entertaining way to go about learning with movies. If you use different genres to cover a wide breadth of material, you can use movies for learning material whether you’re in the mood for action, romance or laughs. And since you’ll enjoy a sense of satisfaction from targeting your learning needs successfully with content you like, you’re much more likely to do it enthusiastically, which will help keep you learning with very little effort.
Plus, watching different movie genres will expose you to authentic, native-level speech in different contexts. Practicing your listening skills not just with different speakers but also in different scenarios will help prepare you to understand real speech in context.
Finally, watching genre-specific movies is easy to pair with additional activities to maximize your learning. In fact, ideally, you should pair it with other activities. FluentU, for example, can help both structure your movie learning and provide a fun method of study to alternate with it.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Just watching movies without engaging with them can be one of the pitfalls to learning a language with movies, but luckily, there are plenty of great activities you can do to get more out of your movie watching experience. Just read ahead for some fun ideas!
Action! Comedy! Drama! Learn Languages Through Movie Genres
Below, we’ll look at what each movie genre can do for your language learning, along with at least one activity and a couple of recommendations. Of course, the ideal thing will be to pinpoint films for a given genre in your target language, so we’ll also show you some general lists of great films for learners of different languages along the way that you can use to find the genres of your choice.
About the Genre and Benefits
Drama has a more serious reputation—this is the genre you’ll generally see nominated for big awards.
Movies in the drama genre can cover a wide range of topics, making it easy to select a film based on what vocabulary you want to learn, but that may mean you need to look beyond the “drama” categorization. For instance, you might find romance, history, crime and more within this genre, all with their own topical vocabulary sets.
Big-deal dramas are usually written about extensively. Critics (both professional and amateur) want to put their two cents in to assess and analyze the latest, most anticipated offerings.
For language learners, all the reviews, accolades and criticisms can be learning gold, since there’s a good chance many are written in your target language.
After watching a critically acclaimed drama film, go online and search for the film name and “review” or “analysis” in your target language. Then, you can read what others have said about the movie you just watched, working a little thematic reading practice into the mix.
You might even try writing your own reviews in your target language at IMDb to reinforce the vocabulary you learned in the film and practice your writing.
Below are just two examples of dramas from a couple of languages that could be used for this exercise—go out and find your own!
“قضية رقم٢٣” (The Insult)
“The Insult” is a Lebanese film that features the Lebanese dialect of Arabic. In this Oscar-nominated film, events snowball and two men, a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee, end up on opposite sides of a court battle. While there’s some “inappropriate” language (in fact, the titular “insult” itself), the film also features plenty of court scenes to help you perfect your Arabic legal vocabulary.
Looking for more Arabic movies in different genres and dialects? Here’s a drama-heavy list of movies in Levantine Arabic, and here’s a varied list of highly-acclaimed movies spanning multiple Arabic dialects.
“Una mujer fantástica” (A Fantastic Woman)
This Spanish-language film out of Chile won an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, and from watching it, it’s easy to see why. It follows a young trans woman whose older companion dies unexpectedly. In the wake of his death, she must confront grief, prejudice and the accusation that she is responsible for his death.
You can find more Spanish-language movies of different genres on Amazon Prime, on Netflix and on other streaming sites.
About the Genre and Benefits
The main focus of comedy is obvious: it’s funny.
The humor can vary between dark, goofy, slapstick or even a combination, but you can expect to laugh.
One unique feature of comedies is that they’re more likely to feature wordplay than other genres, which can be helpful for advanced learners to really test out their skills. After all, understanding wordplay in your target language is a great sign that your skills are very advanced since it often doesn’t translate directly or literally.
For anyone with a funny bone, activities associated with the genre come like second nature: just memorize jokes.
You can use jokes as models for grammar rules, to help you memorize vocabulary or for speaking practice. Plus, you can go ahead and share them with your language-learning friends as a fun way to liven up your conversations.
Another activity that you might try is to attempt to mimic the humor of a film. Based on the general tone and language of the film, you might also try making up your own jokes in your target language. What punchlines can you come up with that the protagonist failed to deliver? What funny scenarios could they have added to the film? Describe them in your target language for a little extra language practice.
“Er ist wieder da” (Look Who’s Back)
Okay. Before you read any further, please swallow any beverages that are presently in your mouth to avoid spit-takes.
Got it down?
Good. “Look Who’s Back” is a German satirical comedy in which Adolf Hitler awakens from his bunker in 2014, is mistaken for an actor and starts shooting YouTube videos, all while adjusting to the modern world.
Are you laughing yet?
For more comedies and other genres in German, you can once again look on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
“Il a déjà tes yeux” (He Even Has Your Eyes)
In this French comedy, a French-African couple finally gets to adopt a baby. There’s just one little surprise: the baby is white. The family must struggle with relatives who don’t want to accept a white baby as one of their own and a racist social worker. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the film is categorized as a comedy and takes a more lighthearted approach.
For French-language movies in this genre and others, check out Netflix, more Netflix and Amazon Prime.
About the Genre and Benefits
Ah, romance. It’s the genre that makes you long for long walks through the park with your beloved and/or Ryan Gosling’s cell phone number.
However, the romantic genre generally overlaps with other genres, like comedy and drama. Still, films in that fall clearly into this genre usually feature romantic vocabulary and flirty interactions, so it’s an ideal genre for anyone looking to prepare for romance or just interested in learning more dating and relationship vocab.
Inevitably, heroes in romantic films face constant romantic setbacks. Think of pickup lines, declarations or explanations in your target language that could help them land their beloved or at least get out of trouble, realistically or not. Shout them at the screen as the protagonist flounders. See, you totally have more game than that silly protagonist.
In this whimsical French romantic comedy, a shy, naive Parisian woman secretly affects the lives of those around her based on what she feels they deserve. But along the way, she also falls in love with a mysterious stranger. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards and received widespread acclaim, and anyone who watches it will understand why. It has undeniable charm.
“Bianca come il latte, rossa come il sangue” (White as Milk, Red as Blood)
Perhaps this Italian film could be better described as a “romantic dramedy” since it has aspects of romance, comedy and drama. But whatever you call it, Italian learners can fall in love with the movie. It follows a boy enamored with a girl who has cancer.
For more Italian movies that fall into romance and other genres, check out this Netflix list.
About the Genre and Benefits
If you’re an adrenaline junkie and Black Friday shopping just isn’t enough of a rush for you, action/adventure movies might be just what you need in your life.
This genre offers edge-of-your-seat action. Action and adventure films can also include some sub-genres that you may not immediately associate with the genre, including war films, fantasy and sci-fi.
While films in this genre may feature more specialized vocabulary, which can prove challenging, there are also more breaks in dialogue to give you time to think about what you heard.
For language learners, the action sequences will provide plenty of breaks in which you can easily work in a little speaking practice.
Whenever the dialogue stops and action occurs, try to narrate what you’re seeing on screen. Give as many details as you can. You’re only limited by your own vocabulary, so it’s up to you what you say, but narrating will help you practice using your vocabulary in context, giving you speaking practice. You might just want to look up “car chase” ahead of time in your target language, because chances are, you’ll need it.
“功夫瑜伽” (Kung Fu Yoga)
This movie may be in Mandarin, but that doesn’t mean that English speakers won’t recognize a familiar face. That’s because Jackie Chan stars in this high-grossing action-adventure comedy.
In it, Chan plays an archaeology professor who teams up with another professor to find Tibetan treasure. Though they manage to find it, a team of mercenaries stand in their way. You never know where mercenaries will crop up these days.
Here are 7 more Mandarin movies on Netflix, and a list for Amazon Prime as well.
“Elite Squad: The Enemy Within”
This popular and acclaimed Brazilian crime film follows a special operations force. Rest assured, there are plenty of intense situations that will get your blood pumping. And the increased blood flow to your brain must be good for Portuguese learning, right?
Here’s a list of Netflix movies in both Brazilian and European Portuguese.
About the Genre and Benefits
If you can’t resist a good scare, horror is definitely the genre for you.
Horror movies are designed to be frightening. Rather than leaning heavily on language, horror movies generally lean more on visuals (and, of course, gore). Still, you’ll get plenty of creepy vocabulary words, which you can study to distract yourself from the intense, quiet scenes where you just know someone or something is about to scare the living daylights out of you.
The creepy, prolonged silences that are so standard in the genre provide plenty of opportunities to insert additional learning opportunities during a horror flick.
All you have to do is exactly what you do with any horror movie: shout advice to the protagonists. In this case, just try to do it in your target language. This will give you some speaking practice and the opportunity to use whatever vocabulary you’ve learned from the movie so far.
“부산행” (Train to Busan)
I’m sure all Korean students are eager to learn the word for “zombie.” Well, now’s your chance! “Train to Busan” is a horror movie that features a father desperately trying to take his daughter to reach the one city that’s safe from a zombie outbreak. But first, they must survive the train ride.
Plus, with an American remake slated for the not-too-distant future, watching the original Korean movie might help you anticipate some of the twists and turns.
Here are 7 more Korean movies on Netflix spanning various genres that you just might love.
In this Japanese horror flick, a bizarre school bus accident leaves just one teenage girl alive. However, she’s transported to a different high school in a strange, parallel universe where violence abounds.
It’s bloody. It’s weird. And it just might be any horror fan and/or Japanese student’s favorite thing ever.
Japanese and horror movies might seem to go hand in hand, but this list of Japanese movies on Netflix goes a lot further, genre-wise.
Looking for horror movies in other languages? You may want to check out these 10 scary Spanish flicks and five German fright films. Some of these French sci fi features may also do the trick.
About the Genre and Benefits
Whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart, children’s movies can be fun to watch. And let’s be real—some of their jokes are clearly intended for adults, anyway.
While children’s movies are obviously intended for children overall, they’re also great for beginning and intermediate learners since they tend to rely on basic, general vocabulary and dialogue is usually spoken more slowly and clearly than in other films. So if other genres seem a little too daunting, this is the genre for you!
Since children’s movies usually feature slower, clearer dialogue than other film genres, they provide a great opportunity to fine-tune your pronunciation as you watch.
To get in some pronunciation, just repeat lines whenever there’s a pause in dialogue. If the pauses aren’t as long as you’d like, you might even try pausing the movie while you repeat the same line over and over again until you’ve nailed down the nuances of the pronunciation.
If the movie inspires you to fully embrace your inner child, you might also try making well-decorated flashcards of vocabulary words you learned from the movie (glitter glue is optional). Then, you can study these words so that the next time you watch the movie, you can understand it with less effort.
Children’s Movie Recommendations
“Anina” is a Spanish-language animated movie from Uruguay/Colombia.
It follows a girl who gets into a spat at school. She receives a punishment that propels her into various adventures that teach her about herself and the world around her.
This live-action children’s film from Switzerland uses Swiss German. It’s based on the classic novel of the same name, in which a young Swiss girl moves to the Alps to live with her grandfather.
Plus, as an awesome learning bonus, you can also read the original German-language book for free from Project Gutenberg or listen to it for free from LibriVox.
For more animated movies in the above and other languages, you can check out these lists:
- 5 Animated Movies That Will Help Teach You Chinese
- 10 Spanish-language Animated Movies That Illustrate Different Accents and Dialects
- 8 Must-see French Animated Movies You’ll Absolutely Love
- 10 Must-see German Animated Movies You’ll Absolutely Love
- 6 Japanese Animated Movies to Bring Your Learning to Life
- The 15 Best Animated Movies for Learning and Improving English Skills
With so many useful movie genres out there, no one will ever yell cut on your road to fluency!