I sometimes hear people say “I’ve learned French by watching French movies and series in OV.” Audio-visual medias are a great tool to learn French and it would be a shame for you not to use them, but it’s important to know how to use them properly. The purpose of this article is to help you efficiently include them in your learning process. I also want to talk about wrong ideas about the impact of movies and series if you want to learn French.
1) Original language adaptations: an excellent material to learn French
The debate between audio dubbing and subtitling
I don’t want to get into this purely cinematographic debate opposing audio dubbing and subtitling. I believe anyone is free to like one way or the other. Some people consider audio dubbing a disgrace, while at the same time some movie directors like Frederico Fellini would use it for his Italian actors! Each to his own, let’s say. I don’t really like when people criticize audio-dubbing, which is a difficult field requiring a lot of work and talent. This being said, let’s move on.
Why you should choose OV
Whatever you preference is, yet I recommend you to watch French movies and series in OV. There are multiple benefits, and it would be a shame to miss them. First, concerning artistic advantages, very quickly: you have the opportunity to hear the real voice of the actors, and you won’t have this strange feeling of hearing the same voice with different actors from a movie to another…
Next, watching the movie in French provide another obvious advantage: effortless immersion. Practicing French while watching TV is quite pleasant, isn’t it? When you regularly watch this kind of French content, you keep a constant contact with the oral French language, which is a great thing.
It’s a great opportunity for you to hear French conversations in various contexts, with many different intonations, at least much more than in a course method.
A linguistic, but also cultural immersion
More generally, French movies and series give you access to French culture, or at least a sample of this culture, without having to “distort” it because of bad translation. Indeed, audio-dubbing tend to modify jokes, cultural references, and local accents of the original version. This problem is even more present than with novels and other written texts because translators must deal with specific media constraints, such as the pace of the images or the actor’s lips movement.
One more personal opinion, sometimes audio-dubbing doesn’t really fit with the actor’s body language. Since this physical language represents an important part of our communication, it shouldn’t be neglected.
2) Original version is a form of passive learning: not so sure about it!
What I want to warn you about, it’s that the person I talked about at the very beginning of this article seems to believe he learned French simply watching TV, without additional effort. In fact, it’s not that simple.
Watching a French movie doesn’t mean “learning French”
The simple fact of hearing French, even on a daily basis, won’t make you learn it magically. For sure, there are beneficial effects: your ears get used to the rhythm and the sounds in French and you are even able to recognize some recurring words. However, that doesn’t mean you are learning to speak French. For example, I happen to watch Chinese movies from time to time, and apart from “ 好 hǎo” (good), I’m completely unable to understand a single word.
So be wary of too optimistic people who say it’s possible to learn French just by watching French movies and series or French youtubers… It’s not true.
A more complete learning remains necessary
You must consider this audio-visual material as precious and motivating supplements of your learning, but as supplements primarily. They will never replace a more theoretical study of French, based on a French class or a French course. So please, don’t become a couch potato watching French movies and series all day.
3) How to use movies and series to learn French
Here are a few advices allowing you to include this great material in your learning process.
Regularity, again and always
It’s always the same rule: you improve faster by watching movies or series regularly. With their episodic form, watching a French show is a good idea which matches perfectly this time fragmentation. Regarding movies, you would better watch them when you have more spare time, during the weekend for example.
I don’t recommend binge watching if you want to learn French. This activity consists in watching a considerable number of episodes in a row. It’s not a clever idea for two reasons: your brain gets tired, and it doesn’t provide its regular reminders to efficiently memorize information. Be patient and limit yourself to one episode per day: you will just have to wait one day to find out what happened on the next Les Revenants or Plus belle la vie…
Subtitles: start with English
During your first views, start softly and put English subtitles. While you will be able to immerse yourself in French, you won’t get frustrated because you don’t understand anything as well. If you are not used to watch with subtitles, it might be a bit annoying at the beginning because the text will distract you from the images. But trust me, it doesn’t take much time until you get used to it.
Next level: subtitles in French
Once you feel comfortable enough, you can upgrade by putting French subtitles. There are no ideal moments to make this transition, it depends on you. However, I suggest not to wait too long since French is pretty similar to English (if you were learning Chinese, that’s a different story…).
Because of this change, you will probably feel a bit lost at the beginning and you will need some time to get used to it. But don’t give up and accept that it’s impossible to understand each word.
The benefits of the written / oral duo
The combination of dialogues and subtitles is an interesting association. Indeed, hearing a word and reading it in the subtitles create a repetition. This association between the written and oral components combined with the context provided by the images is an excellent thing for your memorization.
But be careful because subtitles don’t always transcribe the dialogues properly. So this combination doesn’t work all the time.
This phenomenon also works on a larger context: you learn a word in your lessons and you identify it in a dialogue, which grounds it even more in your memory. In the same way, if you recognize a term in an episode, you can use it in the future, whether by writing or speaking it. Don’t forget that the different components of your learning process work symbiotically and enrich each other.
The final level: watching without subtitles?
When your listening ability is good enough, you can try to watch your series without subtitles. Once again, don’t let yourself discouraged because of the inevitable lead time. You will get used to it at some point.
You might be surprised, but I’m not a big fan of watching movies in OV without subtitles, at least in some cases. First of all, if the movie contains a lot of technical vocabulary, you can easily get lost and miss the most important parts of the movie. For example, when I watched The Big Short of Adam McKay with all these financial terms I’ve never heard before, I was happy to have English subtitles to help me.
Moreover, the voices are not always clearly audible. This happens a lot in English movies (I guess especially for non-natives like me…). But you will probably think the same about French movies if you want to learn French. It’s also particularly true with action and war movies: the voices are covered because of sound effects, some are generated through loudspeakers, which make them hard to understand.
If you want to give up the subtitles, start with movies and series where the characters speak clearly, with a standard accent.
4) Regarding your pronunciation… don’t expect much
To conclude, I can only recommend you choose the OV to learn French. However, don’t rely only on these audio-visual material. I would just like to warn you about the pronunciation. It won’t improve much, even by watching hundreds of movies and episodes. Take the opportunity to hear some well-pronounced French, and don’t be afraid to speak it afterwards. It’s the only way to efficiently improve your accent in an enjoyable manner.
If you are looking for ideas of movies in French, the blog of MosaLingua offers quite a few good ideas.