Does Watching Movies in English Really Improve Your Listening Skills?

If you think so, well, listen to this…


As teachers, we know that only part of the work necessary to improve students’ language ability takes place in the classroom. We encourage our students to study on their own, and do our best to foster their autonomy as learners even when they’re in the classroom.


As our learners’ awareness of the importance of taking control of and driving forward their learning increases, there comes a point where our students, almost without fail, will tell us proudly that they now watch English-language television series and movies. And, being the supportive and excellent teachers that we most certainly are, almost without fail, we will respond with a single word: bravo!


Is Watching Listening or is Watching Watching?

Obviously, we should be applauding initiatives our learners take to increase contact with the language they are learning outside of the classroom. The question we need to ask ourselves, though, is how much contact is there with the language when learners are watching TV or movies in English.


Let’s not forget that we get at least 80% of our sensory input from visual stimulus. Indeed, the cinema was “silent” for decades, and the only words used to propel the story forward appeared occasionally on the screen between scenes. Regardless of the language being used, it’s not clear that it is a central aspect of the TV or movie-watching experience.


Furthermore, in a classroom setting, teachers set listening tasks in order to make sure that students are actually listening to audio or video texts. There is a clear incentive to focus on their listening skills. Given that students are watching movies mainly for entertainment purposes, without a task, how likely is it that they are paying any attention to the language at all?


The answer will depend on one thing: subtitles.


Subtitles, from Fun to Frustration.

By using subtitles, our students can nudge and adjust their viewing experiences in either direction on a scale that runs from frustration to fun. As with most things, the point of maximal efficacy is somewhere in the middle, where challenge meets entertainment.


Here is a summary of their options, and the resulting impact on their language-learning journey and motivation:


Based on the above, we can see that students’ language skills improve the most from watching with subtitles in English—but even then, not by very much. This is because what is missing from our learners’ interaction with the screen is precisely what we celebrate when they take the initiative of interacting with English outside of the classroom: autonomy.


TV, the Great Passifier (no, that is not a spelling mistake)

The problem with using movies or TV to improve listening skills is that this is a medium that people tend to use passively. However, we know that language skills really improve when we are self-aware, reflective, and purposeful in our approach to learning. Even if learners watch English-language shows specifically to improve their English, it is more than likely that, as soon as the opening credits are over, they are reverting to the same passive approach to viewing they adopt when watching in their mother tongue.


Tips to Use TV and Movies to Improve Listening Skills

This doesn’t mean that we should discourage our learners from consuming audio-visual content in English. On the contrary, we should encourage them, but also let them know that in order for them to actually improve their English while doing so, they can’t remain passive. Learning a language is hard work—and, more often than not, it should actually feel like work when you’re doing it.


So here are a few techniques and exercises you can suggest to your students, as well as the level of student the techniques will typically work with, and why they work. The disadvantages represent potential pitfalls that you can help your students avoid by making them aware of them.


Working on the Movies

These are only a few of the many activities we can encourage our learners to use to help improve listening skills while watching content in English. There are lots more—but the key is for students to feel that this is work.


This may sound counterintuitive, since it is fashionable to think of learning as fun. But language learners are generally smart enough to know that nothing comes for free, and that learning a language takes effort. In fact, many of them expect to make an effort, and will (rightly) distrust activities where no effort seems to be involved.


However, our learners will indeed enjoy these activities, because by taking an active role in their own learning, they will become more aware of their own progress. The pleasure of watching their favorite shows will be amplified by the knowledge—and the resulting pride in the fact—that they are using this enjoyable pastime to improve their language skills.


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