By Martina Limburg Loučková

22 May 2017 - 19:35

'Movie dialogue is a treasure trove of realistic interaction.' Image (c) dbreen, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.
'Movie dialogue is a treasure trove of realistic interaction.' Image ©

dbreen, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

Language teacher Martina Limburg Loučková explains why using movie dialogue in the classroom can be an interactive and fun way to help learners and teachers.

A well-chosen movie scene can be an exciting source of interactive language that is otherwise hard to come by. You can use movie dialogue for role play, the illustration of a grammar or vocabulary point, or for pronunciation practice.

Introduce the movie first

Before you get started, you'll want to explain what's happening in the story. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Ask students to guess the movie and piece together the plot from a movie blurb or review.
  • Watch the opening scene together. Some movies start with a narrator giving a summary of what has happened up to now, and serve to introduce the characters and setting.
  • Present your personal view of the characters and summarise the plot (without spoilers), while students make notes.
  • Show screenshots or stills of important scenes. Students can put together a plot summary and describe the leading characters. Alternatively, you could present selected short scenes or create GIFs as an overview.
  • Ask students to watch the trailer and discuss the common movie clichés they have spotted in it. Next, they can guess the ending. There's no need to provide the correct answer, so don't give too much away.

Now you have your lead-in ready, it's time to focus on what the characters say. Movie dialogue is a treasure trove of authentic interaction.

How to choose a piece of movie dialogue

When looking for a useful dialogue in a movie, follow your instincts. Take a look at your favourite scenes first. Next, ask yourself if there are any interesting chunks of interactive language.

For example, you could try to find examples of metalanguage, which is the language used to describe speech and talk about language itself. In the romantic comedy drama New York, I Love You, a young writer is very eloquent in his attempt to convince a young woman that they are meant for each other:

'I'm going to say something a little bold here. But I think you might be married to the wrong person.' 

And in School of Rock, a maverick teacher tells his new class:

'Why don't you all just call me Mr S.'


'I'm in charge now, OK? And I say recess.'

A scene can illustrate a particular kind of language

A whole movie scene could be used in isolation as an example of a single language function.

For instance, think about how you could cover language of negotiation using the legendary opening scene in The Godfather (where the character Bonasera asks a favour of Don Corleone at the mafioso's daughter's wedding).

This scene would also work as an example of narration. The character of Bonasera has to tell the story of how his own daughter has been attacked, before requesting Don Corleone's help:  

'America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom. (...) She found a boyfriend, not an Italian. She went to the movies with him.'

Examples of different kinds of language in movie dialogue

There are little gems of very specific kinds of language to be found in any movie. Look out for scenes that might contain examples of flirting, a marriage proposal, someone ordering a pizza, an attempt to talk to a stranger, or someone venting indignation.

New York, I Love You is a multi-vignette movie about love, so it contains many varieties of flirting. Here, David the music editor flirts with his boss's assistant, Camille, over the phone:

'So. Dinner?'

'You're sleep-deprived, David.'

'No, I'm Camille-deprived.'

A great example of indignation can be found in Mirror Mirror, a retelling of the fairytale Snow White. The queen (portrayed by Julia Roberts) has been proposed to by an old, ugly baron. She talks to her magic mirror:

'Can you believe that baron? I mean, honestly, did he really think I would consider marrying him?'

In another scene, the queen expresses her exasperation at finding out that Snow White is still alive:

'And here I was having such a good day!'

You can use the famous scene at a bus stop in Forrest Gump to illustrate talking to strangers. Here, Forrest Gump makes an attempt to talk to a stranger sitting beside him:

'Do you want a chocolate? I could eat about a million and a half of these. (...) Those must be comfortable shoes. I bet you could walk all day in shoes like that and not feel a thing.'

Movie scenes with particularly great dialogue

I love explosive moments with a lot of emotion, such as the scene in School of Rock where the teacher Dewey gives a sort of anti-pep talk to his class. It's a monologue with a strong rhythm, and it escalates wonderfully. It contains some nice discouragement phrases, and can be used to teach linking words and fillers (such as because, but, so, well, oh, OK, oh no) for example.

'Give up. Just quit. Because in this life, you can't win. Yeah, you can try, but in the end you're just gonna lose big time, because the world is run by The Man. (...) Oh, you don't know The Man? Oh, well, he's everywhere.'

School of Rock has many other expressive moments, such as this advice that Dewey gives one of his students:

'The thing is, you're a rock star now. All you gotta do is, you just gotta go out there, just rock your heart out. People are gonna dig you, I swear.'

The greatest thing about this and other similar scenes is the effect they have on students' fluency and confidence, when used for dubbing or role-playing activities.

What to do when you’ve picked your dialogue

Usually, I have the students watch the scene and discuss its meaning and main emotion. Next, I ask them to pick three or four lines they particularly enjoy and to learn these by heart. They can do the rest of the dialogue (or monologue) in their own words. Then they get some time to practise in pairs, and after that, the lucky ones present their version of the scene.

You can include dubbing (when students speak over the characters, while the film plays with sound off) at the preparation stage, but it could also be the main activity of your lesson.

When dubbing, preparation and repetition is key. Take this opportunity to sneak in some pronunciation drills, focused on vocal features such as rhythm, stress, intonation or connected speech. After that, you can modify the scene, allow the students to use material from the scene in a personal context, or have them tweak it so that it fits criteria specified by you.

Be careful with confusing dialogue

Some of the most useful movies are those which contain current language and everyday situations. Romantic comedy is a genre that falls into this category.

But many popular movies contain heavy dialects, slang, various unique speech habits, and so on. You may even come across combinations such as archaic and very modern language (e.g. in Mirror Mirror) or modern language interspersed with fictional language (such as the Harry Potter films). This can be confusing for learners.

Ask students which films they enjoy

On the other hand, you can find good scenes with reasonably useful text in almost any film. The main thing seems to be the student’s motivation: if you ask a student about their favourite scenes, they will perhaps tell you ones that make them cry or laugh, but they might also say that they love the intonation or rhythm or a specific phrase the character uses. They usually enjoy imitating the actors, which is great for fluency.

You can even rewrite some of the dialogue slightly, if necessary. The special thing that movies offer is the rich context and emotions which the learner can relate to. And this is what makes movie-based lessons fun and memorable.

Martina Limburg is a language teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught English and Dutch as a foreign language for more than 15 years and is currently Director of Studies for Stories Language School. Martina is part of the creative team at Mooveez, where she is responsible for learning and teaching methodology.

To learn more about the potential of film as a language model and the Mooveez application, which won the 2016 ELTon award for digital innovation, register for Martina's webinar on Wednesday 24 May at 15.00 UK time.

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