There are many people that try to use movies as a resource when starting to learn a language, and, generally, that is a good idea. But a lot of them end up feeling that they’re not really improving at all. In today’s post, I want to throw some light on the issue. In reality, the answer is quite simple. Learners are either not using the right tools or they’re using them the wrong way.

But first, one must become aware of the problem.

The Misconception

So you have just started your adventure to the land of learning German with a coupon for the many emotional rollercoasters and now you are sitting in front of your laptop after successfully downloading your first movie in German. Soon you realize you don’t understand a single word.

But, don’t despair, you tell yourself. You just have to get accustomed to the sound, right?

After doing that a few times you realize that your listening isn’t really improving, but, who cares? It surely won’t hurt to keep doing that. After all, you have to surround yourself with the language and create an immersion, right?

Well, not really. You don’t want to just waste your precious time watching stuff that you don’t understand and hope that you will somehow, miraculously improve your German. That’s not how it works. You’re losing your time. You want to actually improve your German. There is no doubt that movies are an incredible resource if you use them right and the only mistake worse than using movies the wrong way would be not watching them at all.

So let me tell you exactly which are the 6 most common mistakes people are making when trying to watch German content and we are going to start with the biggest mistake ever:

Mistake 1: Not watching dubbed versions

I don’t know where or when our general aversion against dubbed content originated. Why on earth would you not watch dubbed versions?

Is it worse? No. Is it bad German? No. Is it boring? No. Is it easier? Hell, yes.

So in short, your depriving yourself of an easy German resource that you are already familiar with just because it’s not original content?

Don’t get me wrong, original movies are great and an important learning source but after you have seen a few dozens of dubbed movies a few times, so in a more advanced stage.

Original movies are tough: They have slang, they sometimes require a knowledge of culture and context, they have puns and jokes and they include acting. People are constantly sighing, moving or getting short of breath. They want to give drama to their character so they speak, well, dramatically. I can’t even understand that in my native language sometimes. How am I going to understand it as a beginner in a new language?

So there is a whole chest of precious audiovisual content that will be so much more accessible for any level because it is just way easier to understand.

Mistake 2: Not starting with your favourite movies

So you have a set of favourite movies that make you go all fangirl and you are just ignoring them on your quest to German Mastery?

Let’s make a test.

Imagine a pretty redhead on the bow of a very big ship. She extends her arms and exclaims in awe:

“Jack, ich fliege!”

Now, imagine a scary midget-sized mass of mud rolling its eyes, lifting its reindeer finger and with a creepy voice saying:

“E.T. telefonieren nach Haus”

(that is, of course, grammatically incorrect, just like the original version)

Back to the very big ship. Now we can see two young guys. They appear happy and excited about their journey. One of them extends his arms and screams:

“Ich bin der König der Welt.”

Now back to creepy creatures. This time imagine a little being, it seems kind of human but it also looks as if it hadn’t seen the light of day for a couple of centuries. He crouches over something, fiddling something shiny between his fingers and whispers:

“Meeeeeein Schatzzzz.”

Now imagine a psychopath behind bars in a small cell. He’s talking slowly measuring every word. He also seems smart, which makes the situation even creepier.

“Einer dieser Meinungsforscher wollte mich testen. Ich genoss seine Leber mit ein paar Fava-Bohnen, dazu einen ausgezeichneten Chianti.”

And now he makes a very strange sound with his mouth, apparently to indicate that he finds something tasteful.

Last one. Imagine a guy that doesn’t seem to dress well for his age, sitting on a bench and holding a box in his hands.

“Mama hat immer gesagt das Leben ist wie eine Schachtel Pralinen. Man weiß nie was man kriegt. “

No matter your level of German, I’m pretty sure you got all of them. These might not be your favourite movies, but they are famous enough for everyone to be able to recognize well. Imagine what you can do with your favourite movie. There are parts that we can recite entirely by heart.

This can be useful both for intermediate speakers that want to sound more like a native but also for beginners that are learning grammar basics and are still figuring out how the language works. For example, Rose doesn’t say “I’m flying” in German but, “I fly”. Of course, there is no continuous tense in German.

So, again, there is a ton of invaluable material for you.

Mistake 3: Not increasing the difficulty slowly

Start with those Disney movies you have seen 562 times in your childhood.

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If you’re a beginner you first want to get accustomed to the sound of the language and you can be happy to just get a few words and sentences.

Children’s movies are perfect because they tend to have simple dialogues and, again, if you have watched them often in your childhood many dialogues will be magically stored in your brain.

This means that in certain parts you will understand everything without actually understanding anything. That’s a great effect you can use for your advantage. You will slowly increase your ability to discern words and learn new ones.

Mistake 4: Not watching Sagas and TV Shows

Another great source are sagas or sets of movies. The nerd factor makes it really enjoyable to watch, but that’s not the only benefit of these movies. The length of sagas let you get accustomed to the franchise’s unique universe. This also happens with TV shows.

Each of them has a particular style, a specific set of vocabulary, recurring voices that use a particular tone. As these elements keep repeating it makes it so much easier to get used to the language and adapt your hearing to them.

After 2 episodes you start to enjoy the process, after 5 episodes, you start to relax that furrowed brow (you know what I’m talking about) and after 10 episodes you might forget that you are watching it in German even if it’s only for a few seconds.

Any kind of Saga that tickles your nerdy side where the voices are the same, and the vocabulary keeps repeating, will be a great learning source.

And of course, TV shows work just as well. Don’t you sometimes think, man it would be great to watch the eleven seasons of *insert favourite TV show*, but you know that you’re going to feel guilty for not doing something more productive. Well, now you can happily and guilt free indulge in the fine art of binge watching. In German.

Mistake 5: Not doing active listening

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If up until this point you have been violently nodding your head in agreement, you might get slightly disappointed with what I’m about to say now. Yes, of course, there is always some work to do! No learning without a little effort.

So there is practice and deliberate practice. Practice is just doing something over and over again and you might get better. Deliberate practice focuses on the practice being useful, i.e. by measuring if you are getting better at a particular subskill, focusing on problem areas, paying attention to detail, writing things down, etc. Active listening is deliberate practice and means paying attention to what you are hearing.

We should all know by now that’s all those “Learn German overnight” don’t work, because our brain only works if it is engaged. The more conscious the process, the more you learn. The more you are actively participating in the listening, the more you learn. If you are never going to pause a movie whenever you don’t understand something, then how are you supposed to learn anything?

So do yourself a favour and stop the video to hear something you didn’t get (sometimes you will end up understanding, sometimes you won’t). Pay attention to words and sentences. Take notes. Look up words. Search for a word in a different context (with Google images for example). Just try to make a conscious effort.

Of course, you don’t have to do this throughout the whole movie but this can actually be a fun thing to do if you are not still making mistake number two.

Mistake 6: Subtitles in your native language

Last but not least, trying to have subtitles in your native language so you can actually understand what is being said is a disaster.

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I understand the good intentions, of course, but that’s really not how it works. This method would only work if you paused the video after every sentence because the movie is going so fast you’re not paying any attention to the spoken language at all.

I could start watching some Korean TV shows with subtitles today and by the end of two years, I won’t be able to speak Korean. That’s because these are two different tasks for or brain. One, reading what is being said, and two making sense of the German gibberish you’re hearing, where you don’t even know where one word ends and the other begins. That sounds like two completely unrelated tasks to me. Why would you try to do them together? You think there is a connection between the two tasks. But believe me, for your brain, at that moment there is none. You will just be reading the subtitles of a movie that is in a language you don’t understand.

I hope you have enjoyed these six tips for making use of movies and TV shows to learn German.

And what is your biggest challenge when watching movies in German? Have you made any of these mistakes before? Let me know in the comments.