How to use movies to learn Chinese

We can learn a lot from watching a movie, and we usually have fun watching it. 

A good story, good-looking actors and actresses or the not so good-looking ones, stunning special effects, mood swaying music, unexpected settings, props, even camera angles can be something to pay attention to. But none of these can be compared to dialogues between characters, or a monologue which gives us special insights to the story. To a good extent, language discloses what a character is really thinking or hiding, and gives us cues for the plot. Even the “unspoken thing” needs language to support.

From a Chinese learner point of view, movies are a good resource for Chinese language input. It is full of daily conversations, slangs, idioms, social languages, business languages, historical knowledge, and accents. Many Chinese teachers love to use movies in their classes.

The only problem is that people speak Chinese too fast in movies that they are difficult to follow. What are the best ways to use Chinese movies to learn Chinese?

Lower level students

Movies are tall orders for lower level students. Targeted drills are the best, fastest and surest way for them to improve their Chinese listening skills. But movies are not totally useless if we know how to fit them in a desired environment. 

For lower level students, it is the best for them to have a controlled Chinese language environment, so that they can gradually develop their listening abilities without being stressed out. This environment includes: (1) listening exercises which come with the textbooks and work books; (2)  moderated and authentic communications between students and teachers; (3) communication oriented exercises among peer students. 

On top of these, teachers can locate a certain segment of a movie, which contains the targeted language which are clearly enunciated, and use it in the class. This kind of segment of a movie is good for students to understand the language in a context. It is also good for students to listen to different people speaking. If necessary, teachers can produce script for students to study.

Higher level students

As students is making progress in their Chinese study, the following resources gradually become more and more important for them to learn Chinese.

With some help from Chinese teachers, students can: (1) take a learning tour to China, or practice Chinese using a virtual tour instead of a real one; (2) watch YouTube clips in Chinese; (3) watch Chinese movies and TV dramas; (4) listen to Chinese news and other TV variety shows. 

In this list, understanding Chinese movies is means for students to achieve exceptional Chinese listening skills. Moreover, it is also a goal for students to achieve. Watching a Chinese movie with ease while enjoying it is every student’s dream. With enough practice, they can certainly achieve it. 

Chinese teachers are no longer limited by small segments of a movie. They can show the entire movie and open the floor for discussion. 

There are some criteria which could help teachers make better choice of movies. It is better to start watching movies with Chinese subtitles, and gradually shift to the ones without subtitles. Subtitles are of great help, and enable students to read, listen and try to understand at the same time. It is also better to start with the movies where people speak more or less standard Mandarin than the ones which feature local dialects. Also, my observation is that contemporary Chinese movies are easier to watch than Dynastic ones. 

Class activities can be arranged before and after the movie. Background information can be presented as reading exercises before watching the movie. After the movie, students could have role plays based on the movie, or could alter the ending and act out in front of the class. 

Watching a movie could be a lot of fun while learning Chinese!


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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