Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Our Assistant Manager, Madeleine, gives the low-down on the best foreign films to watch.
Learning a language can be tricky - studying the ins and outs of grammar, memorising vocab and perfecting pronunciation are all difficult tasks which can be difficult to practise regularly. One of the hardest things is that when you learn a foreign language, you often don’t hear the language spoken in context, and have to use materials specifically designed for language-learning to practise your comprehension skills.
However, there actually is an easy way to get exposure to foreign languages within a more natural setting - watching films and TV series in the target language! Some may scoff at this as not real practice - but if you listen out, replay parts you don’t understand, and watch regularly, then soon you’ll start picking up vocabulary via osmosis and will discover how the language is used by native speakers.
But where to start? I’ve compiled a list of movies (and the odd TV show) from a few different countries which could act as entry level viewing material, with some more adventurous picks thrown in for good measure...
Luckily for French-learners, there is a vast amount of French cinema which is readily available to watch in the UK. Some French films even have a fairly large cult status on this side of the channel, such as hipster-favourite Amélie or the works of New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Goddard. However, I think a good place to start is with Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, a semi-autobiographical tale of the director’s experience as a young French boarding-school lad who has to help hide his Jewish schoolmate from Gestapo forces in the middle of World War Two. The film is touching, elegiac and a brilliant introduction to the French experience of the Second World War. As a result, for any GCSE and A Level students who have to write coursework on or discuss French works in exam situations, the film is a great help and gives the opportunity to discuss artistic as well as historical issues.
For French-learners who aren’t taking exams, or those who want something slightly lighter, there are many French comedy films which act as great comprehension practice - especially for those wishing to pick up colloquial terms. One of the classics of screwball French comedy is Brice de Nice, starring a pre-Oscar, pre-The Artist Jean Dujardin as a surfer dude who just can’t catch a good wave. It’s highly entertaining, and ultimately completely ridiculous.
Similarly, Italian cinema has had a very warm reception in the UK and a massive collection of films can be found in your local Fopp, if they aren’t already on Netflix. Of all of the Italian classics that I’ve seen, the closest to my heart is Cinema Paradiso. It’s a nostalgic tale about the evolution of culture and the declining popularity of a local cinema in a small Sicilian town, run by a loveable older man and attended by an incredibly cute little boy who will steal your heart. If you learn any Italian by the end, it will surely be the phrase “Alfredo, è bellissimo!!!” (You will get the reference upon watching.)
In stark contrast to the wholesomeness of Cinema Paradiso, Italian cinema has a history of gory horror which may suit the older language-learner looking to learn how to express terror in Italian. The giallo genre generally refers to Italian horror of the mid to late 20th century which contained a mystery element to it, with one of the most famous directors to produce such films being Dario Argento. His 1977 film Suspiria is a visually kaleidoscopic film with some rather terrifying twists and turns (an American dancer may have waltzed her way into to a black magic-supporting dance school) and although there’s a fair amount of English spoken in it, horror fans will get a brilliant introduction to a well known Italian genre.
One of the most famous German films of all time, Downfall, is a must-see for any student of German. Like Au Revoir Les Enfants, the film is an excellent choice for students who need to discuss German media in exams, as it is a historical film which would give room to discuss German politics and history as well as the artistic side of the film. Detailing Hitler’s last days and eventual failure, the film is a masterclass in acting from Bruno Ganz, who reminds us that one of the most evil men in history was indeed a real person, and that such characters, rather frighteningly, often do not appear different from other humans on a superficial level.
If any older German student is looking to venture beyond the classic German titles and into more obscure territory, then they’ll find some great horror films to sink their teeth into. One Austrian horror film in particular has been pretty successful with horror fans internationally: Ich Seh, Ich Seh. It’s a classic creepy-twin horror flick, and upon viewing German-learners might even learn how to sing a couple of creepy German nursery rhymes.
For my degree, I had to really work hard to improve on my aural comprehension of Japanese. This was often difficult in the UK, where there aren’t many Japanese speakers at all. Watching films and TV programs in Japanese was invaluable for this reason.
Some of the most popular Japanese films, for completely understandable reasons, are the films of Studio Ghibli and creative director Miyazaki Hayao. These animated marvels are incredibly drawn films which range from fantasy to family drama, but all carry with them a certain je ne sais quoi. The most well-known is probably Spirited Away, which is an utterly beautiful film about a young girl who must work in a bathhouse for spirits in order to save her parents (who have been turned into pigs) from being eaten. The film is the second highest grossing film of all time in Japan, and if you watch it you’ll understand why. The animation is breathtaking, the story is equal parts oddly creepy and wholesome, and the musical score adds a nostalgic tint to every frame. Plus, the keen viewer will pick up on extra niche vocabulary related to spirits, bathhouses and magic, which I’m sure will be very handy in exams...
If anyone is looking to pick up more colloquial, every day speech then they need look no further than Terrace House, which is kind of a Japanese big brother. The series sees young professional Japanese live together - honestly not much else happens, so it’s basically just a great chance to eavesdrop into Japanese conversations for the sake of your own language learning. And it can be found on Netflix!
In recent years, Korean arts and media have had a massive surge in popularity all over the world. K-Pop and K-Drama are so big right now, and so potential language learning materials are quite readily available over here. Plus, with Korean media gaining much international traction, there’s never been a better time to learn Korean.
If you want to get some practise listening to the language then you can go down a couple of different routes. On one hand we have the Korean blockbuster which can be found in your local DVD store (if you’re old enough to know what a DVD is...). These are the mainstream films which are popular enough to be sold internationally. I think that one of the most important and interesting of these films is Park Chan Wook’s Joint Security Area, which is a touching film about a forbidden friendship between North and South Korean soldiers who are posted on the Korean border. It’s a must-see for those interested in Korean politics and history, and offers a complicated and nuanced portrayal of the conflicted relationship between the two Koreas through its main characters. For these reasons it’s yet again another great film for students to discuss in an academic setting. What’s more, upon release it was the highest-grossing film in Korea, so it really is compulsory viewing for those interested in the country.
On the flip side, students of Korean can choose to watch hours and hours of K-Drama. These constitute Korean TV series, many of which have quite outlandish storylines... take, for example, Full House. This is the story of a young writer who lives in a house inherited from her father. The writer goes on holiday, only for her “friends” to somehow sell the house to a pop star (played by real life pop sensation Rain), who she finds living there on her return. In order to get her house back, the writer has to act as the pop star’s maid, pretend to be his wife, and generally do a whole host of bizarre tasks. It’s incredibly entertaining as long as you ignore the fact that there is no way the main character’s friends could have sold her house without her permission. Plus, you’ll pick up easy everyday phrases in no time!
So, do any language students have any suggestions for their own language of study? If so, sound off in the comments and help a budding linguist pick up some comprehension skills!
If you agree that films can be a useful way to spice up your learning, you may wish to check out our article on watching films for Shakespeare revision.
Blog Post Crafted by Madeleine
Madeleine helps to run our Admin Team. Despite the fact that she read Japanese at university, Madeleine’s main passion in life is opera and she hopes to become the next Maria Callas some day...
Madeleine manages the staff on our Admin Team, liaising with tutors, clients and applicants. She is responsible for processing the ID, Qualifications, DBS Check and References for all our newly joining tutors.