Using Movies to Increase Fluency and Cultural Knowledge

Watching movies in Chinese is a great way to improve your fluency in the language.

Similar to learning a language through immersion, this technique forces you to progress via context and setting. If used effectively, this technique will not only increase your listening comprehension, but will also increase your vocabulary and cultural knowledge.

How I Use Movies To Study Chinese

As many of you know, I have been learning Mandarin Chinese since the summer of 2013. As part of the “campaign to increase the development and prosperity of my language learning efforts”, I began to incorporate the practice of watching Chinese movies into my weekly study routine (approximately two nights a week).

This past weekend I finished the classic To Live (活着) by Zhang Yimou (张艺谋), based on the novel by Yu Hua (余花). The movie portrays a man and his wife as they live through 20th century China; a country torn apart by war, politics, and ideology.

Beyond the benefit of immersion, those who make use of movies as a language learning resource also gain valuable cultural knowledge. With each Chinese movie I watch, the deeper my understanding of Chinese culture becomes. In Yimou’s To Live, for example, I contemplated the narrative of a layman’s family during the Chinese Civil War, The Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward.

This type of knowledge is useful to both understand colloquial sayings (whose roots are in cultural events) and the psychology of Chinese citizens today. Remember, communication is both verbal and nonverbal.

There are many ways to use movies as a language learning resource. However, I find this practice most useful when I use a few specific learning methods. Perhaps these can help you make use of movies as a language learning resource as well.

I have broken down my movie study technique into five simple steps below.

Will’s Movie Study Technique

1. Use Target Language Audio and Subtitles

Make sure to use your target language for both audio and subtitles. Watching a foreign movie in your native tongue may add to your cultural knowledge, but it will not improve your language level. The audio improves your listening comprehension. The subtitles improve your reading comprehension.

2. Create a Vocabulary List

Keep a pen and pencil close by to record any words that you don’t know. After the movie you can copy the list down again and translate any words which are unclear. Make sure to label and date your vocabulary list.

3. Watch Movie Alone

Watch the movie alone to increase your focus. Refrain from inviting a friend or significant other to the viewing. While movies are most often used to relax, don’t forget that this is a study session and it should be taken seriously.

4. Utilize Context and Plot to Learn Words and Phrases

It is almost 100% guaranteed that you will not understand everything in the movie. That’s ok. The point of this exercise isn’t for total comprehension. The point is that you are focused on understanding. Use the actors body language and scenery to understand what is happening in the movie.

5. Read Reviews and Plot Summaries in Your Native Language After Watching

After the movie is over read some commentaries and general overviews in your native language. This will reinforce a lot of the cultural points which you might have noticed but are still a little confused about. Allow yourself to consider the main idea of the movie, its plot, characters, and political slant. If you’re at the intermediate level or above, try and read commentary in the target language.


Watching movies is a great language learning technique that is underutilized by most language learners. While it cannot replace the heavy lifting required of grammar study and raw vocabulary study, it is an effective method learners at any level to increase their fluency.

Below you will find six movies that have stuck in mind ever since watching them. Each is special to me for a variety of reasons, but has mainly served as good resources for studying Mandarin. Perhaps you can find some use in them as well.

Movie: To Live

Movie: Black Snow

Movie: Keep Cool

Movie: Saving Mr. Wu

Movie: Raise the Red Lantern

Movie: Beijing Bicycle

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