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Learning Chinese Via Movies

How to learn Chinese by watching films you actually enjoy


Learning Chinese Via Movies

How to learn Chinese by watching films you actually enjoy


At the World of Chinese, we have introduced Chinese films in our Audio Visual World (视听空间). In these film articles, not only do we review the films, we also include movie quotes in both English and Chinese to facilitate language learning. Learning a foreign language by watching a TV series, or through movies and film is a method recommended by many. It is an engaging way for language learners to practice listening and study example sentences, phrases, and vocabulary simultaneously.

Alan from FluentU jots down his four reasons to use movies in language learning:

“1. The no-brainer reason is that movies are just fun and entertaining. The trick is to reserve them for times when you’re just too exhausted to do anything else (eg. talk to your language partner or do flashcards)…
2. Another reason is that movies tend to showcase natural conversational Chinese the most. This probably with other kinds of media like books, news, or music.
3. Also, movies are a great way to become culturally fluent. For me, talking about a popular movie like 非诚勿扰 (If You Are the One 2) has always been a great way to connect with my Chinese friends. Or to put it another way, just think about all the conversations you wouldn’t be able to have in English if you didn’t know any famous people who spoke English.
4. Finally, you get to pick the movie. This means that you can select for something that matches your interests and Chinese level.”

At a more basic level, you can purchase a textbook based on films. The advantages, as Alan points out, are the vocabulary lists of key words, and explanations of grammar. The disadvantage is that it still feels like studying from a textbook instead of fun learning.

Intermediate level learners have the freedom to choose from a wide variety of films, whether Chinese or English. When watching a Chinese film, one can turn on the subtitle (English, Chinese, or sometimes both). If it is a film that you love, you might even voluntarily want to study the quotes so that you could spurt out film references in conversations, or simply out of appreciation for the film. Neil from Confused Laowai tells from his personal experience that he finds it better to watch a Chinese film/tv show with Chinese subtitles, as well as Chinese-dubbed English films/tv shows. They may be more challenging than watching with English subtitles, but  more rewarding because of that.

Learn Mandarin Help recommends this process:

“Choose a movie you liked a lot but you haven’t seen for a long time and wouldn’t mind seeing again. Make yourself comfortable and follow this formula…

1. First view: turn on Chinese subtitles; let them speak Chinese

2. Second view: turn on English titles; let them speak Chinese

3. Third view: turn the Chinese subtitles back on; let them speak Chinese (just as first view)”

You may also pause and rewind to review your favorite scenes or favorite dialogs, or even repeat after the characters so you could practice speaking as well. You can use Audacity to perfect your pronunciation and tones.

Alan’s suggested movies are:

  • Shower 洗澡: probably my favorite movie for learning Chinese. At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s a moving story about a dad, and his two sons, who operate a bathhouse. The movie manages to capture a family drama inside a bigger community (the bathhouse) amidst bigger societal changes that are happening in China (destruction of the traditional hutongs in Beijing to pave the way for larger real estate development projects). The actors here are also household names in China (Zhu Xu, Pu Cunxin, Jiang Wu).
  • A World Without Thieves 天下无贼: star-studded cast (Andy Lau, Ge You, Li Bingbing…) in an action drama about expert thieves on a train who compete to steal an idealistic/clueless boy’s life savings.
  • Eat Drink, Man Woman 饮食男女: An Ang Lee classic about a dad and his 3 unmarried daughters, each of whom defy tradition in their own way. It’s hilarious even if you’re not a woman.
  • Shanghai Triad 摇啊摇,摇到外婆桥: Set in 1930s Shanghai, this will be the most beautifully filmed gangster movie you’ll ever watch. You’ll know who Gong Li is after you watch this one.
  • The Road Home 我的父亲母亲: this is the simple love story that made Zhang Ziyi famous. More beautiful cinematography from Zhang Yimou.
  • To Live 活着: actually, I want to warn you not to watch this one. It’s really famous and everyone might recommend it to you, but actually it’s painful to watch. A rich compulsive gambler loses his family fortune, his wife, and their unborn son, and it starts getting bad from there.
  • Electric Shadows: haven’t personally watched this one, but looks promising. It’s about a guy and girl who meet each other and discover they share a love of cinema — and it happens amidst the Cultural Revolution.
  • So Young  致我们终将逝去的青春: good, funny movie about university life in the ’80s. 

Also check out these films, where we have selected some of the best quotes from these movies:

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

The Grandmasters

Follow Follow

Let the Bullets Fly

Mr. Tree

The Piano in a Factory

The Flowers of War

And these recently popular Chinese TV operas, or more classic ones like these. If you are a film buff, the 50 Essential Chinese Films list is definitely worth your attention.