Watching films can be a great way for people to learn English. We all have our favourite movie moments; and even as passive viewers, they’re probably teaching you more than you realise. Here’s a selection of our favourite scenes, along with the reasons why they’re educational as well as entertaining.
1. Jaws (1975)
We may as well start with one of the most famous – and quoted – speeches in cinema, in which intrepid shark hunter Quint, explains that his hatred of the creatures stems from experiencing the sinking of the warship, the USS Indianapolis, during World War II – and witnessing his fellow survivors being picked off by sharks (based on real events). It’s a scene that’s the subject of a story as fascinating as the dialogue itself. Originally conceived by uncredited writer Harold Sackler, the scene was later expanded to 10 pages by director Steven Spielberg’s friend John Milius – before Robert Shaw, the actor playing Quint, did an edit that took the speech down to five pages.
The scene is therefore interesting because it highlights how impactful language can be even with an economy of words, while the story of its creation shows how important it can be to review and edit what we write in order to be more effective.
2. Skyfall (2012)
An interesting addition for two reasons: firstly, it illustrates how tone can dictate the context of speech. In the scene the villain, Raoul Silva, makes his introduction; regaling James Bond with a story about how, as a child, he used to stay with his aunt on an island that he recalls as being “a paradise”. As his speech progresses, however, it takes a more sinister turn as he describes how the island became infested by rats that they had to trap in a barrel and which soon resort to cannibalism to survive. The two surviving rats, he suggests, are him and Bond – two men that have been forged by violent lives – effectively demonstrating the illustrative power of metaphors.
Secondly, the scene is notable because Javier Bardem, the actor playing Silva, is a Spanish speaker (hailing from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria). Despite having a successful career in Spain, the actor learnt English and soon became a Hollywood star via films like Skyfall and No Country for Old Men. For that reason, he’s definitely an English learning role model.
3. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
This notoriously verbose scene, in which the film’s hero, Neo, meets The Architect of The Matrix, is both an illustration of advanced English and an example of how being more articulate doesn’t always make your point more understandable. It’s probably best to watch the scene with a pad and pen and write down any of the words you don’t understand, of which there may be quite a few, so that you can look up their meanings later. Even advanced speakers might not know the meaning of words like ‘concordantly’, ‘pertinent’, ‘inherent’, ‘eventuality’, ‘anomaly’ and ‘assiduously’, to name but a few.
4. Margin Call (2011)
A film about the financial crisis of 2007-8, this scene vividly illustrates business English being used in context, while also highlighting when plain speaking can be preferable to being technical. In the scene John Tuld, the CEO of the financial firm (played by Jeremy Irons) impatiently asks senior risk analyst Peter (played by Zachary Quinto), to tell him about the impending financial crash “in plain English”.
5. Blade Runner (1982)
We should end with a monologue that, like Jaws, is among the most powerful in film history. It’s also a great example of how beautifully the English language can conjure up mental imagery. In the scene, Roy Batty, a dying bioengineered ‘replicant’, tells Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) about the things he has experienced in his life. These include “attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion” and “c-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhäuser Gate”. And though we never see the places he’s describing, the dialogue evokes some powerful imagery. Additionally, the scene ends with a line that shows how poetic the English language can be: “All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
As with Jaws, the scene was the subject of numerous re-writes, including one by Rutger Hauer, the Dutch actor playing Roy Batty, who, like Javier Bardem, learnt English as a foreign language – and can therefore be viewed as an English learning role model.