Learn French watching films


Watching films is beneficial to picking up vocabulary idiosyncracies and behavioural tics that a textbook might struggle to provide. Find out Graham Smith’s top recommendations for French films…


Learning to speak French, as with any language, is usually presumed to involve burying your head in a textbook accompanied by endless, and expensive, tutoring.

While that tried and tested method still comes recommended, regular exposure to the French language is essential for a decent learning curve. To this end, watching films is beneficial to picking up vocabulary idiosyncracies and behavioural tics that a textbook might struggle to provide.


Taking an interactive approach to learning a language is nothing new; teachers have long recommended listening to French radio stations to fine tune the ear. Likewise, films can be used to the same effect, the added advantage being you also get to see how people carry themselves while conversing. This should not be underestimated— how people express themselves, predominantly through hand gestures, is something that can never be taught, only picked up.


Little preparation is needed to get started. Aim to watch between one and three French films each week. Whether or not these have subtitles is debatable, but doing without will encourage you to listen more intently. Bear in mind that this is not a quickfix solution to fluency in another language. On the contrary, progress is likely to start off slowly. But in a few weeks you should notice your vocabulary beginning to expand through understanding a new word here, a new word there.


Although next-to-nothing needs to be done in advance of sitting down to watch a film, there are a few tips which can help you get the most out of the exercise. Firstly, consider the movie you are about to watch. If you know nothing about it, then it may help to do a bit of research first. Find out what the plot outline is and the approximate age of the film. This will help your understanding of what is happening on screen, thereby allowing more time to be spent concentrating on what the characters are saying.


Secondly, know what genre the film falls into, and look up some appropriate phrases in a dictionary. For instance, if you are planning to watch a police thriller, it will be useful to know the French words for ‘cop’, ‘internal affairs’, ‘corruption’ and so on. Nearly every movie will have slang in it, so try and preempt what this might be. Obviously if you view a film about a specific youth culture, such as La Haine (1995), then trying to pinpoint slang in advance will be difficult—most of the time this shouldn’t prove a problem though.




The vast library of foreign language films now available on DVD means it has never been easier to seek out French cinema to watch in the comfort of your own home. Not only that, but the format has the advantage of being able to remove and reintroduce subtitles at will. This allows you to test yourself, or catch up with dialogue you may not have understood. Just rewind, turn the subtitles on and discover whether what you thought was being said is correct.


You don’t even have to watch a French movie to pick up the language. Such is the technology of DVD many English language films can now be watched dubbed into French. So should you, for some masochistic reason, prefer The Assassin (1993), the Hollywood remake of La Femme Nikita (1990), to Luc Besson’s infinitely superior original then you can try watching it dubbed into French.


Of course, that is a provocative example, but it illustrates how DVD has forever changed the possibilities of how we can view films—watching an American remake of a French film, dubbed into French. Sitting through your favourite English language movies dubbed into another language isn’t as ridiculous as it first seems. For starters, you’ll likely know the script like the back of your hand. This gives you the freedom to concentrate on what the characters in the French dub are saying, while knowing exactly what they are trying to get across. And taking notes of how your favourite catchphrases translate into French will soon reap rewards.


Above all though, it is important to continue regularly watching movies. Keep an eye out in your local press for screenings of French films or festivals celebrating French cinema.


Should your local video shop not stock an extensive range of French DVDs then renting discs online is the obvious answer. Simply, if it’s available on DVD in the UK, it’ll be on an internet rental site. It’s also important to remember that French DVDs are region two, meaning they can be played on all UK DVD players. However, beware that many do not have English subtitles, and if they do these might not be removable.


Of course, all this is not to suggest that traditional methods of learning a language should be bypassed. On the contrary, nothing can replace a textbook, dictionary and regular classes. However, the relatively effortless task of watching films can improve your French. Whether this is by going to the cinema or using the technology offered by DVD, one thing is clear—it is now easier than ever to submerge yourself in another language. And that is a vital step towards fluency.




Here are Graham Smith’s top recommendations for French films…


Classical French:

La R�gle du Jeu (1939)

Pickpocket (1959)

Nouvelle vague:

Le M�pris (1963)

La Peau Douce (1964)


Romantic comedy:

Am�lie (2001)

Cyrano De Bergerac (1990)



Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

36 Quai des Orf�vres (2004)



Les Yeux sans Visage (1959)

Haute Tension (2003)

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