An introduction for ESL learners

I remember a few years ago when I was teaching English in France, slowly but surely working my way toward competence in French. About nine months after I arrived in Paris I decided I was “fluent.” I could pretty much say anything I wanted to (with a ridiculously charming American accent), and I was getting close to understanding most of what people said to me. As far as I was concerned, I had almost accomplished my goal of true bilingualism. How wrong I was!

The movie as teacher

The fact is, I didn’t recognize just how little I understood until I began going to French movies. I felt lost and humbled. And what I quickly realized is that while you may fully comprehend what your native friends and acquaintances are saying to you, it’s quite possible that these same people are often dramatically more difficult to follow when they are speaking to each other, especially outside of your presence.

People will often modify their communicative styles when speaking with foreigners, both by talking slower, and much more importantly, by reducing the range of colloquial vocabulary they use. As an ESL student, you’ve probably noticed this phenomenon. And as your English has improved, many of your friends and acquaintances may have sub-consciously responded by conversing more quickly and increasing their level of vocabulary.

All of this may be helpful, but in the real world, not everyone is so accommodating. To put it bluntly, actors and screenwriters couldn’t care less that you’re a foreigner! Nor should they. Indeed, movies are difficult to understand precisely because they are so “real world,” at least from a linguistic perspective. This may make watching them incredibly frustrating, especially if you’re at that level where you feel fluent, but still can’t follow a lot of the dialog. And yet, the fact remains that there is probably no better source of linguistic input than a good film, if, paradoxically, you could just understand what is being said! It is for this reason that I created The English Learner’s Movie Guide.

A tool for fluent students

Before continuing, I should clarify that these guides, or synopses, were ideally written for those English language learners who fall into the linguistic zone of “frustrated fluency” discussed earlier. In other words, they are designed for upper level ESL learners, for the simple reason that they’ll be most effective as learning tools if you can already understand English well enough to generally hear where one word ends and another begins.

Of course, the more vocabulary you study and the more English you listen to, the faster you’ll reach a point where individual words become discreet sounds and meanings in your head. It is at that point on the learning continuum where viewers can most effectively exploit the information in this website. In doing so, movie watching can become a much richer experience, where native levels of comprehension gradually fall within reach.

The best strategy for understanding movies

I remember back in the 1970s when my mom once asked what kind of car she should buy, and I told her to get a Honda Civic. She said that she had never heard of it, and so she was skeptical. I told her that they were good cars and even showed her what one looked like. The next day, she said, “You know, it’s weird, but ever since you recommended them, I’ve been seeing Honda Civics everywhere.”

Words and expressions are like Honda Civics. They often fly through the air with such overwhelming speed and variety that when you aren’t sure what a particular expression means, it’s possible that you may not have even noticed that the words have entered your ears. But, if you actively go out and memorize a word, you may suddenly realize that such vocabulary pops up all the time. It then becomes internalized, hopefully stored in your long-term memory.

The point of all this is to emphasize the most efficient way to use these synopses: Print them out and study them well, before you see the movie. At a minimum, the guides will give you a good feel for the major characters and plot development. Of course the words and definitions are the key. They are the “Honda Civics,” some of which you may encounter here for the first time in writing, before you actually recognize them in context. Actively review them. Take notes in the margins. Watch the movie. Listen for them carefully.

Most of these guides can probably be reviewed in about an hour. In order to maximize the ease with which you’ll watch the movie, you should try to know every word you read, including those in the plot summaries as well as the definitions themselves. The most efficient way to review would be with a good bilingual dictionary. While I’ve tried to explain the vocabulary with clearly written definitions, it’s OK to rely on an occasional bilingual translation.

Ultimately, you will be able to fill in the linguistic puzzle of each film with one of the most effective tools in learning: familiarity. Indeed, by viewing the accompanying movies shortly after studying the guides, you will be reinforcing your learning with rapid-fire efficiency. And if you’re especially motivated, you can go back over the new vocabulary you’ve learned after watching the film. After that, just keep your ears open.

The goal of the guides

The movie synopses on this website are not entire screenplays. They’re simply language guides, and as such, the words that are included are merely my best estimate of the vocabulary and cultural references that many advanced ESL learners would not fully understand. Obviously, every learner will have a different set of words that he or she already knows. And given this, I fully expect that many of the more advanced learners will already know a great deal of the vocabulary discussed.

If this describes you, that’s fine. But you may want to read the entire synopsis, anyway. In fact, I chose much of the vocabulary not so much because it is difficult, but rather because it is often said so fast during the film that it will still be hard to catch. By reading the guide completely, it will serve as a mental guidepost, allowing you to follow the film with a greater sense of context.

You should also be aware that these synopses are indeed selective, and thus I haven’t attempted to list every possible expression that may cause problems. I chose to ignore some unimportant words, simply because they are so rarely used that they aren’t worth your time to memorize. In any case, studying the synopsis should make the entire film more comprehensible, which in the end, is as important a goal as the internalization of any particular word or expression.

Obscenities, idioms and Hollywood

That being said, I should make a few more comments on the contents of these reviews. You may have already noticed that some of the vocabulary is considered crude, or even obscene. Certain people may not wish to study such language, and may even take offense at the idea. That’s your choice, but the material here is based on dialogue which reflects the way people speak in the real world.

While you may feel more comfortable in a typically sanitized ESL class, you should realize that overly sensitive ears impede real-world comprehension. No one is suggesting that you actually say things like “You’re such a son of a bitch!” However, if your American girlfriend does tell you this, it’s at least better to understand what she’s saying rather than just smile blankly, and then wonder why she’s implying that your mother is some sort of dog.

In any case, much of the vocabulary that you’ll learn is extremely useful, and indeed, I’ve specifically highlighted the words and expressions that I feel you might try to actively adopt in order to give your speech a more “native-like” feel. You’ll notice that a large percentage of these expressions are the phrasal verbs that foreigners often avoid because of their incredible complexity and subtlety.

Understandably, you may find it easier to say “He charged me a lot more than the fair price” instead of “He ripped me off,” but guess which one the native speaker will use! Personally, I think that these idiomatic verb+preposition combinations are your greatest barrier to native level speech and comprehension. By emphasizing them here, it’s my hope that these films will help you rapidly internalize as many of them as possible.

Of course the synopses review more than just phrasal verbs. They reflect the entire range of everyday conversational English. And thus, by mastering their contents, you will hopefully make the movies upon which they’re based as comprehensible as if you had spent several additional months “acquiring English naturally.” So study well, enjoy the films, and of course, don’t forget the popcorn!