HomeNews & Views The Power of Film in Language Education

The Power of Film in Language Education

By Erin M. Whelchel, Outreach Manager, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages


Have you ever wanted to experience what it’s like to walk down a bustling Tokyo sidewalk? Work in a Korean office? Roam the Lapland wilderness? Attend an Indian wedding? Hail a cab in Tehran?

Retro cinema sign on buildingWith our increasingly multilingual and multicultural world, both at home—where 65 million U.S. residents speak a language other than English—and overseas, the demand for language skills is rapidly accelerating. But how can we really experience languages and cultures that may not be at our doorsteps?

As a medium, film instantly transports us to new places, introduces us to new cultures, and can transform our viewpoints. And with the growing popularity and success of a variety of online streaming services, we now have immediate and relatively affordable access to more international films and shows than ever before: The world is at our fingertips.

man operating professional video cameraNetflix, in particular, has done a commendable job of bringing international voices and stories to American (and international) homes. By 2017, the company had expanded to over 190 countries, with a majority of its members residing outside of the United States. Netflix original film Roma recently won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for its exploration of director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood in Mexico City. The film was also awarded Best Director and Cinematography and nominated for Best Picture.

For language advocates, films like Roma can be an important platform for education and awareness, sparking conversations that will open our eyes to new ways of life. From a language learning standpoint, they are also a powerful tool that provides opportunities to hear native speakers of another language interact in authentic ways—using current vocabulary in real-life situations, for consumption by a native audience. We can’t always take an airplane to embrace world cultures and sharpen our listening comprehension, but it’s so easy to select a work’s original audio track and immerse ourselves in the melody of someone’s expression.

(Not sure where to begin? Check out some of these international trailers curated by Lead with Languages to get you started, and try some of these helpful tips to maximize your language experience.)

As language educators, we at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) highly value these immersive opportunities and have released the following statement of support for Roma:

Congratulations to Roma and director Alfonso Cuarón for making history and becoming the first entry from Mexico to win a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, along with earning Best Director and Cinematography. The exploration of his childhood in Mexico City celebrates culture, diversity and world language through the lens of its people. Also, kudos to Netflix for investing in projects like Roma and providing a platform to share international ideas, languages and cultures to both a U.S. and global audience. Film is an important communication tool that helps connect people to other cultures, perspectives and experiences. We thank everyone associated with Roma and the Academy for helping show that relating to others through language and culture helps bring the world a little closer together.

– Howie Berman, ACTFL Executive Director

I encourage you to watch international films with your families, your students, your friends, and on your own—and then pause a moment to notice what you take away: A new turn of phrase, a greater sense of empathy, and maybe renewed motivation to explore the unknown!


The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) is dedicated to the improvement and expansion of the teaching and learning of all languages at all levels of instruction. Lead with Languages is a campaign powered by ACTFL, aimed at making language learning a national priority. To learn more or get involved, please visit leadwithlanguages.org