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Favorite Classic Movies as Language Teaching Tools

written by: Larry M. Lynch • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

What do King Kong, Zorro, Batman and Tarzan have in common with Cary Grant, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson, or Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt? They all have distinctive speech and linguistic mannerisms which can be used to learn English.

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    Language Learning Using Classic Films

    While watching an old (i.e., classic) movie in Spanish on last Sunday, I got to thinking about some points that the movie brought out. These could prove to be both interesting and useful as conversation generators in English as a second language and foreign language learning classes.

    First, the movie was in black and white, which identified it as a “classic” film. Sure, they now have the means to “colorize” classic black and white films, but they would still be identifiable because of other aspects. Then too, a few contemporary films are likewise shot in black and white as well.

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    Clothes, Shoes and Hairstyles Make the Era

    The clothes were another aspect which really stood out in the film. The men, for the most part, wore fedoras and suits with cuffs on the pant legs. They also sported extra-wide, patterned ties. There were no blue jeans to be seen anywhere nor were sneakers worn by anyone at anytime. Imagine a world with NO Levis, Nikes or Reeboks in sight! Wouldn’t happen nowadays folks –“Not no way, not no how” as the Wizard of Oz’s “Cowardly Lion” would confidently quip.

    The ladies made the classic 1940s to 1960s time period obvious too, with their hair styles. Okay, so I have seen my Mother with a couple of those styles when I was younger – a lot younger, but not since. It might be interesting to do comparisons between some of these since I’ve noticed a “comeback” of clothing, shoes and hairstyles from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s recently. Have you noticed it at all? You’re not THAT old, you say? Well, you DO watch classic movies and television shows on occasion, don’t you? So, there you go.

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    “Classic” vs. Modern Films in English Language Learning

    On occasion I surprise my language learners with the “news” that a “new” movie isn’t actually “new” at all. Rather, it’s a remake of a classic film from “before their time”, so to speak. Often though, the original, classic film is not from “before MY time”, so I can bring up points from the earlier, original movie version in comparison. Some classics though, like “King Kong”, “Batman”, “Zorro” and “Tarzan” do pre-date me by quite a bit. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” with Keanu Reeves and young Jaden Smith (son of actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) is one current example. The “classic” 1950s version of the same name starring Michael Rennie and filmed in black and white is still just as good as the new remake. Whenever possible, I scrounge a copy of the classic film to show clips in my language learning classes as an illustration and conversation generator.

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    Colloquial Language and Connected Speech in Language Learning

    Yet another related aspect especially worth noting is the change in the use of colloquial language and connected speech in “classic” films, and in Historic Drama genre films and documentaries too. For added authenticity, modern-day filmmakers and directors insist on the use of “authentic language” in historically set screen plays. So for linguists and language learners this is a real boon since we can preview language in a historical context and setting. “Earlier” films relied much less on special effects and much more on acting and dialog, so a numerous variety of language practice scenes are available in classic films. Don’t forget either, that the foul language so common today was usually strictly excluded from classic era films, making them far more suitable, in many cases, for excerpting scenes and dialog for language learning practice.

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    Classic Documentaries are Useful Too

    So language too, is a distinctive aspect of “classic” vs. modern films and documentaries worthy of practical use by English as a second language teachers and language learners world wide. Many video clips and documentaries from historic events are available online providing a rich legacy of linguistic information and example which can be demonstrated in language learning classes. This can be true not only in English, but in a number of other foreign languages as well. Finally, remember too, that many noted actors and actresses of bygone eras had distinctive speech and mannerisms worthy of the most discriminating classroom roles of today.

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    Distinctive Speech and Linguistic Mannerisms

    Noted actors and actresses of bygone eras, “Like who?” you might ask. Good question, so let’s drop a few names. Actors like Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford, Jack Webb, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and John Wayne (Well, Howdy, partner) were never lacking for quips or quotes in their particular brand of dialog. The ladies too faired quite well in bygone years with the likes of Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Mae West, Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt. A quick romp on Google videos, YouTube and a couple of other video repositories and you’ll easily dig up enough to work with for a few truly unique, exciting lessons, I’m sure.