Watching films is a fun way to improve your English! In this ESL guide, we will show you 10 of the best movies for studying English and give you tips and resources to help you learn English through films. Ready? Lights, camera, action!
Watching films is a lot more fun than studying with a textbook! It can also be just as useful. Here is why sitting down with a movie in English will improve your fluency:
REAL ENGLISH – Textbooks are great for learning vocabulary or grammar, but nothing is better than listening to real native English. By watching British and American films, you can listen to native English actors speaking the language in a natural way. This will help you learn modern English and sound more like a native speaker in terms of vocabulary and style.
BETTER PRONUNCIATION – Sometimes it can be hard to know how an English word is pronounced. Hearing native speakers in movies will teach you the correct way to say things. Dialogues in films also provide good examples of how sounds in words change in connected speech.
LIVE CONTEXT – When you learn a word, it can be difficult to remember what it means or how to use it. In films, words are used as part of a story and this context helps you to learn and remember them more effectively.
NATIVE ACCENTS – Across Britain and America there are many different accents used to speak English. When watching films, you will hear many regional accents being used and this will help you to understand them better. Textbooks seldom provide information about English accents.
EXPLORE CULTURE – You can learn about the culture behind the language when you watch movies in English. Language and culture are closely connected. Why not study both at the same time by watching original films?
With so much choice out there, it can be hard to know which movies to use when learning English! Check out this top-10 list of classics that includes films in different genres. For each film, there is a description of the plot (story), an extract from the movie with an explanation of the language used, and a trailer showing a short clip of the film. Let’s take a look!
Animated films like Toy Story are a great way to improve your English. They are usually aimed at children, which means the vocabulary is simple. However, Toy Story has been written so that it is fun for adults too. It even includes some subtle adult humour that kids might not understand!
Toy Story is one of the most successful movies of all time, starring Tom Hanks as the voice of the main character Woody. There are three Toy Story movies, all of which are action packed, colourful masterpieces about the ‘secret life’ of toys that come alive when there is nobody around. In the first film, Woody meets a new toy, Buzz. All of the movies focus on friends Woody and Buzz as they go through various adventures together.
Woody: Hey! Who moved my doodle pad way over here?
Woody: Hey, how ya doin’, Rex?
Rex: Were you scared? Tell me honestly.
Woody: I was close to being scared that time.
Rex: I’m going for fearsome here, but I just don’t feel it! I think I’m just coming off as annoying.
One of the reasons Toy Story is such a good film to help you learn English is because it is really fun. In this scene, a dinosaur toy called Rex tries to scare Woody.
Lots of American slang is used in Toy Story. From the extract, you can see the phrase ‘doodle pad’, which is a toy that you can draw on. ‘Doodle’ is a funny word for casually drawing. Woody also says ‘How ya doin’?’. He is a cowboy toy, and so he often uses very American phrases like this one, which means ‘How are you?’.
From the extract, you can see how Toy Story uses quite simple language; making it perfect if you are trying to improve your English with movies. It does use some longer words, though, such as ‘fearsome’, which means something that is frightening or scary. You would expect a dinosaur to be ‘fearsome’, but instead Rex is just annoying!
What better way to learn English than with the King of England?
When the King’s Speech came out in 2010 it immediately became one of the biggest films of the year, starring Colin Firth as King George VI. The film follows King George as he tries to overcome a stutter before his first wartime radio broadcast. A ‘stutter’ is a speech problem when a person talks with repeated sounds or words.
This is a great movie to improve your British pronunciation because the whole film focuses on how to speak English correctly.
King George VI: Listen to me. Listen to me!
Lionel Logue: Listen to you? By what right?
King George VI: By divine right, if you must. I am your King.
Lionel Logue: No you’re not. You told me so yourself. You said you didn’t want it. Why should I waste my time listening?
King George VI: Because I have a right to be heard! I have a voice!
Lionel Logue: Yes, you do. You have such perseverance, Bertie. You’re the bravest man I know. You’ll make a bloody good King.
In this extract, King George is talking to his speech therapist, Lionel. A speech therapist is somebody who helps you speak correctly if you have problems with your pronunciation. You can see that Lionel calls King George ‘Bertie’. This is a nickname. These are often shorter forms of the person’s first name, but they can also be invented based on someone’s appearance or behaviour. Nicknames are common among friends in the UK and America.
The language in The King’s Speech is more complicated than in Toy Story. For example, you can see the phrase ‘divine right’. ‘Divine’ means godlike or holy, and so ‘divine right’ means that God has given the King the task of leading England.
As this is a film for adults, there is also some strong language (swearing). In this extract, Lionel uses the word ‘bloody’, a swear word used to emphasise something. Today, ‘bloody’ is commonly used, but in the time the film is set it would have been considered very rude.
Harry Potter is one of England’s greatest national treasures. Everyone loves it!
The movies are about Harry Potter, a wizard, and all of his magical adventures. The Harry Potter films are a must-see if you are learning English! All of the main characters go to a magic school called Hogwarts. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has its own animals and history, and it uses language from basic English to magical words made up by author J.K. Rowling. Some of these nonsense words are even used by fans! For example, ‘muggle’, which is an insult meaning ‘someone who cannot perform magic’.
There are eight Harry Potter films which are based on the seven books by J.K. Rowling, but it is best to start with the first (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).
Harry Potter: Excuse me, who are you?
Hagrid: Rubeus Hagrid, keeper of keys and grounds at Hogwarts. Of course, you’ll know all about Hogwarts.
Harry Potter: Sorry, no.
Hagrid: No? Blimey, Harry. Didn’t you ever wonder where your mum and dad learned it all?
Harry Potter: Learnt what?
Hagrid: You’re a wizard, Harry!
This famous scene is in the first film, and it is the moment when Harry finds out that he is a wizard. You might have noticed that in this extract Hagrid says ‘learned’, whereas Harry uses the word ‘learnt’. Both ‘learned’ and ‘learnt’ mean the same thing here. They are both the past tense of the word ‘learn’ and it is okay to use either. ‘Learnt’ is the original British English form, but ‘learned’ is preferred in American English.
Hagrid uses the word ‘blimey’, which is a British slang word used to express surprise. In this scene, he is shocked that Harry has never heard of Hogwarts.
Hagrid also says that he is the ‘keeper of keys and grounds at Hogwarts’. This means he is a ‘groundskeeper’, or somebody who takes care of the land. In the movie, Hagrid is played by famous Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane.
If you want to watch a classic film in English, try The Shawshank Redemption. Many people see it as one of the best films ever made and it is famous for its “twist ending” (unexpected finale).
The Shawshank Redemption is based on a book by Stephen King, and it tells the story of a white, educated man who has been sentenced to life in prison for murder. Over twenty years, he makes friends with a black prisoner called Red, who is played by Morgan Freeman.
Parole hearing: Ellis Boyd Redding, your files say you’ve served 40 years of a life sentence. Do you feel you’ve been rehabilitated?
Red: Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means.
Parole hearing: Well, it means that you’re ready to re-join society…
Red: I know what you think it means, sonny. To me, it’s just a made-up word. A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?
As you might expect from a film about a prison, there is lots of legal language in The Shawshank Redemption. In this scene, Red is at a ‘parole hearing’, which is an official meeting to decide whether a prisoner should be released early or not.
Notice the word ‘rehabilitated’. This is often used to describe people who have recovered from a drug addiction. It means you have been helped back to normal life after something bad, such as a serious illness or time in prison.
This movie also uses a lot of American slang. In this extract, Red calls a prison official ‘sonny’. This is an informal word for ‘son’, but can be used to address a person when you are underlining your superior age (and wisdom) or when looking down on them.
For fans of film, The Graduate is a must-see. Many people say it is one of the most important movies ever made due to its use of camera work. It also has one of the most famous endings in film history.
Starring Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate is not only a brilliant movie, it also has a fantastic soundtrack. All of the music was written by Simon and Garfunkel. Released in 1967, The Graduate tells the story of a young man who has an affair with a married woman, and then falls in love with her daughter.
Benjamin: For god’s sake, Mrs Robinson. Here we are. You got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and telling me your husband won’t be home for hours.
Mrs Robinson: So?
Benjamin: Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.
Mrs Robinson: Huh?
In this scene, Mrs Robinson, a family friend of the main character Benjamin, has taken him back to her house. He feels like she is trying to ‘seduce’ him, which means to try to sleep with someone. He says ‘for god’s sake’, which is an informal way of showing anger or shock. This expression is a little rude in English.
Mrs Robinson says ‘huh?’. People say ‘huh’ all the time in English. It is a colloquial way of saying ‘what?’.
Love Actually is a ‘rom-com’, which is short for ‘romantic comedy’. A lot of people watch this movie in the winter because it is a Christmas film.
This movie looks at eight different stories set in London, all of which are about love. This means that it is good to help you learn English accents as there are lots of characters, including Liam Neeson with an Irish accent.
If you are a fan of romantic films, Love Actually is a great choice to help you learn English.
Sam: There’s this big concert at the end of term and Joanna’s in it. And I thought, maybe if I was in the band and played absolutely superbly, there’s a chance that she might actually fall in love with me. What do you think?
Daniel: I think it’s brilliant! I think it’s stellar! Apart from the one, obvious, tiny little baby little hiccup.
Sam: That I don’t play a musical instrument.
In this extract, Sam is hoping to make Joanna “fall in love” with him. If you “fall in love” with someone, it means you are crazy about them and love them very much.
Daniel says that this plan is ‘stellar’, which means perfect or first-class. He then says, however, that there is a ‘tiny hiccup’. A ‘hiccup’ in this context means a ‘problem’. The problem with the plan is that Sam cannot play a musical instrument at all. This is actually a very big problem! When Daniel says it is a “tiny, little, baby little hiccup” he is being sarcastic. Brits are famous for this type of humour and it forms an important part of UK culture.
Forrest Gump’s entire life is shown in this film. Played by Tom Hanks, Forrest is a kind but slow man. ‘Slow’ in this context means that he is not very intelligent. Without realising it, Forrest takes part in some important moments in history, such as the Vietnam War, and teaching Elvis Presley how to dance!
It is a charming and funny film. One of the reasons it is a good movie for learning English is because Forrest Gump talks very slowly, meaning he is easy to understand.
Dorothy Harris: Are you coming along?
Forrest Gump: Mama said not to be taking rides from strangers.
Dorothy Harris: This is the bus to school.
Forrest Gump: I’m Forrest, Forrest Gump.
Dorothy Harris: I’m Dorothy Harris.
Forrest Gump: Well, now we ain’t strangers anymore!
In this scene, Forrest is going to school for the first time. He is not sure if he should get onto the school bus because he has never met the bus driver before.
Forrest says ‘mama’, which is a kid’s word for ‘mother’. His ‘mama’ told him not to ‘take rides’ from strangers, which means ‘get in the car with’. He takes this to mean he should not get on the bus. In Britain and America, parents often tell their children not to talk to strangers because it can be dangerous.
Throughout the film, Forrest Gump uses a lot of American slang, so this movie is great for more advanced learners too. In this extract, he says the word ‘ain’t’, which is a short form of ‘are not’. This contraction is often used by Americans and you will hear it in many US movies and English songs.
Pulp Fiction is a ‘Tarantino movie’, which means it was directed by Quentin Tarantino – one of the most famous directors of all time. His films are loved for being creative, unusual and violent.
Pulp Fiction follows the stories of several criminals in America, from the view of the criminals themselves. Many consider this film to be a modern cinematic masterpiece. It is also a good film to improve your English because it has many funny and interesting dialogues between its characters. Try watching this movie with subtitles, pause it from time to time and write down any new slang expressions you find! If you want to know the meaning of a slang term, you can look it up on Urbandictionary.com!
Mia: Don’t you hate that?
Mia: Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?
Vincent: I don’t know. That’s a good question.
In this extract, Mia uses two common American slang words: ‘bullshit’ and ‘yak’. ‘Bullshit’ is a swear word commonly used to mean something is stupid or not true. The word ‘yak’ literally means a type of big, hairy cow! However, in this context it means chatter or talk a lot about nothing important. If you say somebody is ‘yakking away’ it means they will not stop talking! We can also call them a ‘chatterbox’.
The Theory of Everything is a ‘biopic’, which means it tells the true story of somebody’s life, usually someone famous. This English movie tells the story of Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous scientists in the world. It focuses on his relationship with Jane Wilde and his illness, which paralysed him. Being ‘paralysed’ means Hawking cannot walk and is in a wheelchair.
One reason why The Theory of Everything is a good film to help you learn English is that its characters have very clear British accents. Parts of the movie are set at Cambridge University, one of the most well-known academic institutions in England. Many of the characters speak ‘the Queen’s’. This means upper-class or “posh” English, which is clear and correct.
When Stephen Hawking becomes paralysed he has to use a machine to help him speak, which means he talks slower. This makes the film easier to understand for learners of English because the main character does not speak too quickly.
Jane Hawking: What about you? What are you?
Stephen Hawking: Cosmologist. I’m a cosmologist.
Jane Hawking: What is that?
Stephen Hawking: It is a kind of religion for intelligent atheists!
This is the scene where Stephen Hawking first meets his future wife. You can see from the extract that this movie uses quite difficult English words. It is a good film to watch if you already speak English well and want to push yourself further.
The words in this scene are very scientific. Hawking says he is a ‘cosmologist’, which means he studies the beginning of the universe. He says this is a ‘religion for intelligent atheists’. This means it is like a religion for clever people who do not believe in god. The Theory of Everything is also a great film to watch if you want to learn more scientific vocabulary in English.
Submarine is an independent film, which means it was not made in a big film studio. Movies like this are sometimes called ‘indie films’. This one was a very successful independent film and won several awards.
Submarine is a “coming-of-age” film set in Wales, which means it is a movie about teens growing up. This is a good film to watch if you want to hear different regional accents in English.
The main character, Oliver Tate, is 15 years old and the movie shows him struggling to grow up. It is a very funny film, which also deals with adult themes such as love and sickness.
Oliver Tate: Ask me how deep the ocean is.
Jordana Bevan: Shut up.
Oliver Tate: Come on, just ask me.
Jordana Bevan: Why?
Oliver Tate: ‘Cause I know the answer.
Jordana Bevan: Oh! Do you?
Oliver Tate: Yes, I do.
Jordana Bevan: How deep is the ocean?
Oliver Tate: I’m not gonna say.
Jordana Bevan: I’m broken-hearted.
Oliver Tate: The ocean is six miles deep.
Submarine was praised for being brave and direct. Oliver Tate is an awkward character. In this extract, he is talking to somebody he loves and he should be serious, but instead he is asking her if she knows how deep the ocean is. This makes the situation funny!
As you can see from this scene, lots of slang is used in this film. Jordana tells Oliver to ‘shut up’, which is a rude way of saying ‘be quiet’ or ‘stop talking’. In the extract, Oliver uses informal short forms like ‘‘cause’ (because) and ‘gonna’ (going to). These are very commonly used by native speakers in everyday conversation.
Jordana says that she is ‘broken-hearted’. This means she is very sad or ‘overcome with grief’. It is often used to describe how people feel after the break-up of a relationship. However, in this particular context, Jordana is being sarcastic.
If sitting through a full movie in English seems too difficult, then it might be a good idea for you to start by watching short films. There are many short films in English, which can range from just a few minutes long to about half an hour.
Shortoftheweek.com uploads new English short films every week. There are thousands of films in categories, such as horror and animation. Try watching a few of these short movies to improve your listening and vocabulary skills.
There are also many short films on YouTube. To find them, try searching for a phrase like: ‘short films in English’.
Try watching Alone – a short film that has won awards for Best Cinematography. This piece is just six minutes long and only has one character. This means that it is simple and quite easy to understand for anyone learning English.
Alone is a post-apocalyptic film. This means that it is about the world after the end of our civilisation. There is only one person left on Earth, and this film follows him while he speaks about what it is like to be the “sole survivor”.
I had that dream again, when everything was normal. People working, people laughing. Years ago when it was all, well…before it all went to hell.
You can see from the extract that this film does not use complex language. It is good for remembering everyday English words, such as ‘working’ and ‘laughing’. The phrase ‘before it all went to hell’ is American slang, meaning ‘before everything went wrong’.
Talking about movies in English can be confusing. For one thing, there are different words for every type of movie! Here are some of the genres of films in English:
|Film genre||What it means||Examples|
|Rom-com||‘Romantic comedy’||There’s Something About Mary, Just Go With It|
|‘Whodunnit’||Short for ‘who has done it?’ These films are about a crime, and the audience has to try to guess who did the crime||Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie|
|Sci-fi||‘Science fiction’ – films about robots, aliens or the future||Star Wars, Star Trek|
|Horror||Movies that are scary||Dracula, Frankenstein, It|
|Action||Films with lots of action – about heroes, guns and adventure||Die Hard, Taken, The Dark Knight|
|Comedy||Movies that try to make you laugh||Anchorman, Airplane!, Hot Fuzz|
|Documentary||Films that investigate something in real life||The March of the Penguins, Grizzly Man|
|Mockumentary||A mock or joke documentary. This is like a documentary, but it is about something that does not really exist.||Spinal Tap, Borat|
|Animation||Cartoon films||Toy Story, The Lion King|
As well as different types of films, which are called genres, there are some other words that are often used to talk about movies. Here are a few of the most common, with examples:
Cast – all of the actors and actresses in a film
‘Harry Potter had a really good cast.’
Character – one of the people in a film
‘Hermione was my favourite character in Harry Potter.’
Plot/Storyline – the story of a film
‘Shawshank Redemption has a brilliant plot!’
Scene – a small part of a film with one location and one group of characters
‘My favourite scene from Pulp Fiction is the one in the diner.’
Cinema (slang: the pictures) – a place you go to watch movies ‘on the big screen’
‘Do you fancy going to the cinema/pictures tonight?’
Cheesy/corny – describes a film that is clichéd, too predictable or in poor taste
‘Jaws is just a cheesy film with a rubber shark!’
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