5 elements that make a film understandable to non-native speakers



5 key elements that make a film understandable to non-native speakers



Learners enjoy watching films and mostly benefit from the experience. It is crucial that this experience is not frustrating because students struggle with listening comprehension.


The five elements outlined below are important prerequisites for making a film understandable to non-native speakers. The more elements apply to a film, the more comprehensible it becomes to learners. This means that a film that meets (almost) all the criteria can be used at a low language level, while films that meet only a few criteria can be considered challenging. In addition, the viewing activities have to be adapted to the anticipated difficulty for students. If the teacher anticipates that the film will be difficult to understand, mainly general questions should be asked. In addition, the activities require sufficient preparation to avoid overwhelming and frustrating the learners.


The following aspects promote understanding of a film:



Story, structure and plot


  • Students can relate to the situation presented in the film and its sociocultural context.
  • Visual elements prevail over the spoken word (instead of a dialogue-driven story and little action). 
  • The dialogues and visual elements are congruous so that the viewer can infer the plot without fully understanding the conversations.
  • The visual elements help the viewer infer the storyline.
  • Events are presented chronologically. If narrative techniques such as flashbacks are used, they can be easily recognised, for instance, because they are shot in black and white to contrast with the colour scenes of the contemporary story.
  • The story is told without ellipsis (omission of sections of the story or action).
  • The number of characters is limited.


Language used


  • The number of characters who engage in conversations is limited.
  • The characters enunciate clearly.
  • The characters use complete phrases and speak with little hesitation.
  • The characters speak without an unfamiliar accent or dialect.
  • In conversations, usually only one character speaks at a time and there are no overlaps in turntaking.
  • The vocabulary consists mainly of words and expressions the viewers are familiar with.
  • The characters express themselves without resorting to slang, jargon or any other unfamiliar domain-specific lexicon.
  • Little or no metaphorical language, inventive wordplay and irony are used.  


No distracting elements


  • The sound has a high quality.
  • The soundtrack is free of noise or interferences that make understanding difficult, such as background noise or loud music.
  • The storytelling and editing are straightforward and do not lead to confusion.


Adapting the tasks to students' level


  • The previewing tasks prepare students effectively for the viewing.
  • The tasks and questions are adapted to students’ level and previous knowledge.
  • Students are familiar with the language of discussing and describing films.


Availability of auxiliary materials


A film script, transcription and/or subtitles is available.



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