How To Make Russian Movies Your Learning Tool

Russian-movies-as-your-learning-tool Ирония судьбы или с лёгким паром

Russian movies

I already shared with you some really good reasons to use Russian movies to assist in your Russian learning journey.

Today we will discuss how you can make watching movies a learning tool and not a source of frustration.

Everything starts with your goal.

HOW to watch movies in a smart way (and make them a learning tool!) depends upon WHY you are doing it and WHO you are (by “WHO” I mean your level in Russian listening comprehension: are you a beginner, intermediate, advanced or superior level listener).

After reading this blog post you will:

  • Understand the two mistakes learners are making while watching movies in a foreign language that makes them frustrated;
  • Learn simple proven strategies of watching movies in a smart way;
  • Know how to increase the amount of Russian movies you watch by setting up different goals for each of them.

Mistakes you make when you watch Russian movies

There are two big mistakes learners make when they try to use foreign movies as a learning tool (that cause a lot of frustration!):

  • Not setting up a goal for watching a specific movie;
  • Not choosing the right movie for a specific goal and your listening level.

Let’s start fixing these mistakes. Let’s start with the first one.

Do you need to set up a learning goal for watching a movie?

Yes, you do! And actually, you should set it up EVERY TIME you watch a movie!

If you will take a look at what you want to accomplish when you watch a foreign movie, you will see that you can have four entirely different goals.

Think about that. You watch a movie because you:

  1. Want to LEARN a LANGUAGE: to expand or solidify your VOCABULARY;
  2. Want to LEARN a LANGUAGE: to develop or improve your LISTENING SKILLS;
  3. Want to LEARN about the country, people, culture, history, i.e. expand your SOCIOCULTURAL competence;
  4. DON’T WANT TO LEARN anything specific: just want to:
    • BOND with your Russian friend,
    • ENJOY a good movie,
    • GET EXTRA EXPOSURE to the language during your leisure time.

Each of these goals requires a different approach to the movie, different “HOW to” do it so you can use a movie as an effective learning tool in each of those cases. That’s what this blog post is about.


War and Peace (Война и мир)

If you watch a movie because you would like to:

  • Expand your SOCIOCULTURAL COMPETENCE by learning about PEOPLE, CULTURE, and HISTORY,
  • BOND with your Russian spouse or friend,
  • ENJOY a world-class movie,

then you DON’T have a goal to LEARN A LANGUAGE. You either want to learn but not a language (1), or not to learn at all (2 &3). That’s why we often watch foreign movies, not necessary related to the languages we learn or speak.

Because of that your time while you are watching movie with these goals, should be enjoyable.

HOW can you do it in a smart way?

It depends upon WHO you are.

Beginning listener:

  1. Watch the movie that you are interested in with English subtitles. There are plenty of them on Youtube.  Choose any of the high quality movies, copy-paste its name + add “English subtitles” in the Youtube or Google search.
  2. Enjoy the movie and take some notes about sociocultural features you noticed.
  3. Make a note if you would be interested in watching it in Russian some time down the road.

Intermediate or Advanced level listener:

  1. Watch a movie AT YOUR CURRENT LEVEL in Russian. Pushing yourself a little bit even during relaxation time is a good approach for your level.
  2. Accept the idea that you don’t have to understand all the details. Actively use all contextual clues and visual details as a normal compensation technique.  Have a “good enough” approach to comprehension.
  3. Take quick notes on any phrases that you found interesting or important and check them later with a dictionary or movie script.
  4. Use the script ONLY if you don’t get some of the important parts of the movie.

Superior level listener:

  1. Watch a movie AT YOUR CURRENT LEVEL in Russian without any subtitles.
  2. Take quick notes about new phrases that seem important or interesting but don’t pause the movie to look them up in a dictionary.


Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears

Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears

You have an entirely different goal if you watch a movie because you just want to GET EXTRA EXPOSURE TO THE LANGUAGE during your “play” time because you chose for your leisure time to be meaningful addition to your learning.

For a lot of leaners it’s the best way to watch movies – as a supplement to their main forms of study, when their brain is tired of studying.

In this case remind yourself that you are NOT LEARNING AT ALL but relaxing.

HOW can you do it in a smart way?

In this case it doesn’t matter WHO is watching a movie for extra exposure, the best way to do it is the same for the levels of the listeners.

  1. Choose the movie of the same genre that you enjoy watching in your own language, i.e. action, comedy, drama, thriller, love story, science fiction, historical or detective movie. It should be a pleasure for you to watch.
  2. Don’t use ANY subtitles (English or Russian).
  3. Play the movie and just listen to the speech without a goal to understand much of it. Whatever you will get from the language you already know and contextual clues will be “good enough”. Don’t get upset about not getting a lot of details. You can even play it as a background while you are cooking or exercising.
  4. Setting up specific time for it, i.e. from 30 min. to 2 hours after dinner, helps for some people too because that is when you usually watch TV or movies on your own language, right? But if you don’t have this relaxation habit of watching TV or movies every night, do it less regularly. For example, on the weekends.

What will this extra exposure make for your learning?

You cheat a little with your brain. It thinks that it’s “pleasure” time because you are watching a movie genre that you like +a good movie has talented actors, interesting plot, nice picture and soundtracks, so you are in your “comfort zone” of having a good time with something you normally enjoy.

Although your brain thinks that you are “not studying”, even without any subtitles you will pick up some content from vocabulary you already know, visual clues, cognates, and personal nouns (geographical names, etc.). You also you will be able pick up some new phrases from the context.

Because the context is interesting and you are in your “play” mode, it’s not really studying for your brain, while in reality it is.

What do you learn this way?

Authentic pronunciation, correct intonation, new vocabulary (introduced in the emotional context -that helps to guess the meaning and recall it more easily) – it’s all there. While you are interested, you watch (and digest!) it, once it’s “not fun” anymore, just stop.


«Ключ без права передачи»

«Ключ без права передачи»

What if you would like to:


Now your goal is to LEARN A LANGUAGE.

HOW can you do it in a smart way?

  1. Choose a movie:
    1. Related to a topic you are studying (i.e. education, crime, election, etc.),
    2. On your current level,
    3. With both, English and Russian subtitles, and/or with the Russian script.
  2. Watch the same movie SEVERAL TIMES IN SEVERAL STEPS.

STEP 1: Watch a whole movie with the Russian subtitles or a script to get the story.
Use English subtitles only when you understand each word but it still doesn’t make much sense to you.

STEP 2. Watch the movie in pieces (2-5 min. episodes) with Russian subtitles.
Listen to the phrases and read them in Russian at the same time. Do it for each piece until you can recognize separate words in a speech flow and hear them without subtitles. It takes a lot of listening repetition, especially for beginners.

Pay special attention to the topical vocabulary: the context they were used in, pronunciation and intonation. Repeat them out loud, copying pronunciation and intonation. Add useful topical phrases to your flashcards for later practice.

STEP 3. Turn off subtitles and watch the whole movie again paying attention to the topical vocabulary.


«По семейным обстоятельствам»

«По семейным обстоятельствам»

Watching movies is one is one of the best ways to develop or improve your listening comprehension skills. We already discussed all of the advantages that good movies provide to each learner. The issue that is in your way of doing it – a HOW TO thing. A lot of learners try to do it without any system, and get upset and stop doing it. Read carefully below and apply it.

HOW can you do in a smart way?

  1. Choose a movie:

= From a movie genre that you enjoy.

It is a difficult task, so eliminate unnecessary stress. If you like actions, you would be tired just from the idea that you need to watch a love story for two hours, right? Especially in a foreign language! There are plenty of movies in each genre to choose from, so search among the ones you like.

= ONE LEVEL UP from your current level in listening.  You need to learn, so the movie language should push you.

If you look at the dictionary at every other word, the movie is too high for you, and you need to be REALLY motivated to work with it for hours.

If you understand almost everything, it’s a good movie for your learning history, culture, or solidifying vocabulary, or bonding with your friend or just enjoying great cinema art, but don’t cheat yourself – you won’t learn much there as far as developing your listening comprehension skills.

= With both, Russian and English subtitles and/or a Russian script.

  1. Work with the movie IN SEVERAL STEPS

STEP 1: “Squeeze out” maximum content without any help.

  1. Watch movie without any subtitles.
  2. Watch the whole movie or a TV series’ episode without pausing.
  3. Don’t watch passively: it’s your “study time”. Try to actively follow the plot by asking yourself different comprehension check question, i.e. “What’s going on right now?”, “Who is he?”, “Why she is doing that?”, “What did she say?”, “Where he is going?”, etc.
  4. Use visual clues, cognates, geographical names and familiar words (pay attention to their context).
  5. Instead of pausing, take notes on flashcards with the new phrases that you understood from the context, found useful or didn’t understand and need to check in a dictionary late.
  6. Watch the same movie several times. Each time you watch you will understand a little more.

STEP 2.  Fully understand the story AS A WHOLE (with the help of subtitles/ scrip).

  1. Watch the movie in small chunks (2-5 min. episodes) and focus on understanding the story and speech.
  2. Focus on listening and use subtitles only AS NEEDED. Use Russian script or subtitles ONLY when you need help to understand difficult parts.  Use English subtitles ONLY when you understand each word in Russian but it still doesn’t make much sense to you.

STEP 3. Focus on detailed listening.

  1. Turn off all the subtitles and listen each phrase several times focusing on recognizing each word within this phrase.
  2. Write down what you hear (Even what you hear doesn’t make much sense to you. Just write it down), then compare what you’ve got written down with the script.
  3. Pay special attention to the chunks of text that you misunderstood. Listen to them several more times.
  4. Figure out WHY you were not able to understand:
    1. You didn’t know a specific word,
    2. You know the word but didn’t recognize it because of the fast speed or poor quality of the sound,
    3. You know the word in the main form but didn’t recognize it in a different form (change of stress or pronunciation, form is non-standard),
    4. You know the word but you were not able to isolate it from the phrase.
    5. You know the word in one meaning but it was used in a different meaning,
    6. You know the word but it was used as a part of an idiom that you are not familiar with.

If you will apply this method religiously, your listening comprehension skills can improve considerably in very short timeframes (1-2 months). But be ready to work really hard because this method is not an easy one.



«Операция «Ы» и другие приключения Шурика»

«Операция «Ы» и другие приключения Шурика»

  1. American movies that you are familiar with, with simple casual language, and dubbed into Russian.
    Why? You will know the story, so you can focus on how it sounds in Russian, and the language is mostly simple.
    Good examples: Форрест Гамп. Крамер против Крамера.
  2. Simple Russian movies from 60s-80s
    Why? Minimal texts, short phrases, standard language, rather slow speech, casual content, actors usually talk into the camera so you can follow their lip movement, good sound quality, interesting plot.
    Good examples: Операция Ы и другие приключения Шурика. Самая обаятельная и привлекательная.  Летят журавли.
  3. Simple Russian TV series.
    WHY: TV series don’t have to be extremely deep in content, and that’s an advantage for beginners:  simple phrases, a lot of most frequently used vocabulary + continued story with the same characters and manners of speaking in each episode.
    Good examples: Простые истины.

For INTERMEDIATE listeners



WHAT: classic Soviet era movies from 50s- 80s.

Russian movies

WHY: Your focus in comprehension is to be able to understand the majority of movie content, so two things are important for you when you choose the movie:

  1. a standard language. Your target is still to understand mostly frequently used vocabulary.
  2. a quality of sound. Movies filmed at 70s and 80s have a high quality sound, actors almost always speak directly to the camera, so you can also see their articulation (lip movement).

Good examples: Я шагаю по Москве. Бриллиантовая рука. Иван Васильевич меняет профессию. Весна на Заречной улице. Питер FM. Пять вечеров. Доживём до понедельника. Карнавал. Невероятные приключения итальянцев в России. Дети Дон Кихота. Кавказская пленница. Ты есть. Обыкновенное чудо. Экипаж. Ключ без права передачи. Вам и не снилось. По семейным обстоятельствам. Офицеры.

For ADVANCED listeners

«Служебный роман»

«Служебный роман»

WHAT: classic Soviet era and contemporary Russian movies of any types, with focus on the ones that have a lot of humor and colloquial speech.

WHY: Your focus in comprehension is less common vocabulary + understanding colloquial speech and simple jokes. Also, you need to be able to understand speech of actors who don’t articulate well, kind of mumbling and aren’t facing camera so you don’t see their lip movement.

Good examples: Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! Служебный роман. Москва слезам не верит. Вокзал для двоих. Осенний марафон. Экипаж. Мимино. Будьте моим мужем.  12. Тот самый Мюнхгаузен. Семнадцать мгновений весны. Калина красная. Сибирский цирюльник. Гений. Утомлённые солнцем. Война и мир.

For SUPERIOR listeners


WHAT: movies about Russian history  and movies with a lot of cultural context, colloquial speech, slang and symbolism.

WHY: You focus in comprehension of:

  • all the nuances: what exactly was said and why;
  • historical struggles and events that form Russians as a nation and their mentality;
  • philosophical and conceptual discussions that were essential or are essential now for the Russian history and culture;
  • some dialects and jargons.
  • phrases from the movies that became part of national “quotes bank” so you will be able recognize them later in “beyond the lines” context in colloquial speech, media headlines and texts (many movies  recommended for the Intermediate and Advanced level have a lot of quotes too!).
  • more sophisticated forms of the humor.

Good examples: Покровские ворота. Прогулка.  Андрей Рублёв. Любовь и голуби.  Брат. Двенадцать стульев. Золотой телёнок. Кин-дза-дза. Ширли-мырли. Поп. Бег. Братья Карамазовы. Звезда пленительного счастья. Война и мир. Остров.

Where can you find the best Russian movies?


One of the great resources is a website of the biggest Russian movie production concern MOSFILM: cinema.mosfilm.ru/

Advantages: top famous Russian movies, HD quality. Many movies have English subtitles. Some have Russian, and some both.

Disadvantage: Low quality subtitles.  You can’t switch from English into Russian during the movie if you need to.

Russian TV series

Russian movies


Граница:Таёжный роман.  Петербургские тайны. Бригада. Идиот. Ликвидация. Не родись красивой. Интерны. Простая жизнь. Две судьбы. Брак по завещанию. Ласточкино гнездо. И все-таки я люблю. Сделано в СССР. Дальнобойщики. Меч. Игра. Закрытая школа. Ключи от счастья. Сваты. Леди Босс. Кремлёвские курсанты. Универ. Игра без вариантов. Ласточкино гнездо. Бандитский Петербург. Спальный район. Вербное воскресенье. Другая жизнь. Спецназ. Зверобой. Братаны. Месть. Ярость. Глухарь. Брак по завещанию. Станица.

Мама в законе. Женский доктор.

Where can you find Russian movie scripts?



As of today, every time you plan to watch a Russian movie,

  • Ask yourself what you plan to accomplish,
  • How to do it more effectively.
  • Pick a movie that best fits your goal and level.

And – enjoy! Open the Russian cinema treasure for yourself!

Russian movies is great way to learn Russian.

Thank you for reading and learning Russian.


P.S. Learned something useful? Your friends or colleagues might benefits from it too! Click the button below and spread the word.