How to Improve Your French with French Movies 🎬

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Lots of students seem to believe that watching French movies is a great way to improve their French. It can be, but only if you have the appropriate level of French. You should be ready to “work” with the movie, not just casually watch it with the English subtitles on.

Watching a French movie in French with English subtitles while relaxing is not going to be bad for your French: it will certainly not do any harm…

However, it’s unlikely you’ll significantly improve your French by leisurely watching a movie in French.

There is however a method to study French with French movies: it’s a lot of work, it’s tedious and time consuming, but you will learn a lot!

You may also enjoy my article about French movie vocabulary and expressions

Now let’s see how you can efficiently study French with French movies.

6 Step Method To Learn French With Movies

So now here is my step by step method to study French with movies. You’ll need a remote control!

My method to study French with movies

  1. Put the movie on, without subtitles (if you only have a version with subtitles, take a plastic bag and put it against the TV screen: it will stick and hide the subtitles).
  2. Listen to a sentence or 2, and try to write the dialogue down.
  3. If you succeed, great! Move to the next 2 sentences.
  4. If you cannot do it, rewind and repeat at least 4 times.
  5. If you still don’t get it, write what you hear, phonetically.
  6. Then check the French subtitles, or the English ones if that’s all you have, and figure out what they said. If you only have English subtitles, you might not be able to do it for every single word, but with the help of a dictionary, you should be able to translate most of the dialogue.

Now, what should you do when you don’t understand part of the French dialogue?

Analyze why you didn’t Understand in the movie

There are two main reasons why you couldn’t understand what was said in the French movie…

You didn’t know the French vocabulary.

  1. OK, you didn’t get what the French actor said. But did you get the sound right?
  2. If you did, that’s already a victory!
  3. Can you guess what it means within the scene of the movie?
  4. If not, go check the English subtitles (or use a dictionary).
  5. Repeat the sentence out loud, trying to mimic the actor.
  6. Write down the new words of vocabulary in a notebook, in 2 columns: French on one side (don’t forget the article if it’s a noun), English on the other, or make French flashcards
  7. Later, test yourself: look at the English word and see if you can come up with the French.

Here is the other reason why you may not have understood:

You couldn’t understand the French actor.

  1. Then listen to the sentence very carefully, and repeat out loud, trying to mimic the actor exactly.
  2. Figure out how you would have said it, and compare it to the way he or she said it.
  3. If it’s a common word/sentence, write it down in a notebook and try to write how the actor pronounced it in French.
  4. Later, test yourself to see if you can read the word or combination of words correctly.
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⚠️ Pick an Appropriate French Movie!

The most important thing will be your selection of an appropriate French movie.

To pick French movies suitable for working with, consult my list of 10 top easy-to-understand French movies

Sound Quality and Enunciation Matter

Many people think they don’t understand the movie in French because they don’t know the French vocabulary.

It may be the case if you are a beginner in French, or if you have selected a movie with a lot of slang and expressions that are not common.

However my experience is that most of the time, the culprit is not so much the vocabulary as the sound quality.

Students don’t understand well because they cannot hear well; either the actors mumble… (my English actor nemesis is Patrick Dempsey, alias “Dr Mac Dreamy” in Grey’s Anatomy… I can only understand 10% of what he says…. It is soooooo frustrating) .

Sometimes, the actors speak all together, or there is a noisy background, or it’s an old French movie and the soundtrack is not crisp…

So take all this into account when you choose your movie, and select slow-paced stories with dialogues between 2 actors indoors, people whose French accent and enunciation you understand.

You may still love the other French actors, but just accept they won’t be adequate French language trainers.

The Movie Doesn’t have to be a French Movie

As long as the movie comes with a French soundtrack, the movie you pick to study French doesn’t need to be a French movie… Many Hollywood movies do have a French soundtrack.

Actually, picking a movie you already know will help you understand the French better, so it’s not a bad idea to pick a favorite movie of yours… not matter what is original language is.

Beware of the Date and Genre of the French Movie

It’s important to study with French movies that match the kind of vocabulary you want to learn.

You might love “Les Quatre Cents Coups” (Truffaut 1959), but please be aware that French expressions have evolved since the sixties…

In the same idea, a movie like “la Haine” (Kassovitz 1995) taking place in “the French hood” may not teach you the vocabulary you need to communicate in French in everyday conversations.

If you’d like to know more, you may enjoy reading this blog to understand why you should be cautious with French slang and idioms.

Pick A Movie With English or Even French Subtitles

Choose movies with French soundtracks, English subtitles, and if possible French subtitles. That’s the very best.

However, don’t get frustrated: often the subtitles don’t exactly match the dialogue.

It sure is annoying… yet all things considered, the ill-matching represents only a very small percentage of the dialogue.

Learning French With French Movies – Conclusion

Many students of mine have used this method and made great progress. It’s a lot of work, but the results are outstanding!

If you feel that movies in French are too hard, start by challenging your understanding with longer audio recordings: check out my French audiobooks, featuring my unique level adapted audio novels translated in English and recorded in French at several speeds and levels of enunciation.

They are the best way to gradually work your way to understand real French people when they speak among themselves like they do in French movies!

And take it all with a grain of salt. Chances are that a lot of actors will elude you. I have many “Mac Dreamy’s”, and it’s a pain, but I have no choice but to stop the movie and ask Olivier “what the heck did he say?” And Olivier (who has been in an English speaking environment since he was 12) repeats for me.

The good thing is that when we watch a movie in French, sometimes the same thing happens to him (I understand and he doesn’t), although he is perfectly bilingual.

And sometimes, we both have no idea… And then we put on the subtitles – in French !!

So, what I mean here is that you are not alone, and it’s essential to pick the right audio tool to STUDY with… there are many good movies that should be enjoyed for the story and the filmmaking, with the subtitles on – and which are not best suited for language learning purposes.

There is work, and there is leisure. You should have both in your life.

Now that you know how to study with French movies, go consult my list of 10 top easy-to-understand French movies

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Please react! Leave a comment, make a suggestion, share this article… Your engagement really encourages me to create more free French lessons!

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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