Disney movies dubbed in a foreign language are an excellent resource for improving one’s L2 listening comprehension. My reasons for making this claim can be summed up in two words: high quality.
The better Disney movies are endlessly entertaining because they are brilliantly scripted and executed. It’s easy to understand why classics such as Cinderella and Snow White and modern masterpieces like The Little Mermaid, Lion King, and Nemo all have at least 90% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.
Fortunately, it appears the studio takes equal care in producing first-rate international versions of these films. My impression is that the translations and dubbing are among the best in the industry; the results are satisfying for children and their parents worldwide. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Disney’s language localization is the production of country- and language-specific versions of the songs in the many musical movies such as Mulan or Beauty and the Beast. “I marvel at how they get the same overall meaning into lyrics which still fit the melody and rhyme scheme perfectly” is an opinion I second without hesitation.
Most studios do not choose to translate the songs in their movies at all, and the fact that Disney does, and with such quality, is an added reason that their productions are such a fine language-acquisition resource. In my view, films are, generally speaking, the best available resource for self-study in second-language listening comprehension. They effectively mimic the way the language is naturally spoken; the visual cues greatly enhance comprehension; they are highly entertaining and easily available. This insight underpins my entire experiment.
Music, however, is a close second, with distinct advantages: as the advertising industry grasped long ago, catchy music fosters vocal and mental repetition and gets language deep into your subconscious. This phenomenon is useful not only for marketing professionals, but also for language acquisition enthusiasts.
High quality songs in movies combine many of the advantages of both learning resources. Watching numerous Disney movies again and again in the target language and carefully studying, memorizing, and singing along with the lyrics to the songs would take any child (or adult) a long way toward attaining solid listening comprehension skills.
In my own experiment, I do not carefully study lyrics, though I would always recommend that regular language students do so. I have, nonetheless, decided that using my time efficiently trumps literal adherence to my original game plan of exclusively viewing videos. Thus, I have decided to take Mandarin songs from movies and other videos I like to watch and repeat them over and over in the car as I drive until I am able to sing along. I think this change is fairly uncontroversial since it is still a listening-only approach based on authentic audio material and does not involve formal study, classes, or a teacher. I am recording the time spent on these songs in the car and counting it toward my 1,200 experimental hours.
I am currently learning the Boonie Bears (season 1) theme song, after which I plan to continue learning Nan Zi Han and then probably A Girl Worth Fighting For—both from Mulan—and probably other Disney movie songs. I intend eventually to make a CD compilation with Boonie Bears and Disney movie music and also add some infantile but catchy Qiao Hu tunes, which, unlike the others, I can actually understand.
My goal, beyond squeezing more Mandarin hours into an inordinately busy schedule, internalizing the sounds of the language, and reinforcing some vocabulary, is to be able to sing along to these songs whenever I sit down to watch Boonie Bears or the Disney movies. Thus I will not only provide some good laughs for anybody in the vicinity, I will also make the movie-watching experience more fun, and, most importantly, enhance it as a powerful language-acquisition exercise.
There is a significant comparative downside to using Disney movies to learn Mandarin or any language besides American English: you are failing to get the associated cultural understanding. The best part of my Mandarin experiment thus far has been discovering Chinese cinema. Watching wu xia epics such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Red Cliff, and The Warlords, and realistic fiction such as Not One Less, Aftershock, and The Story of Qiu Ju has not only been greatly entertaining, it has enriched me with insights about Chinese history, geography, and culture.
I don’t consider cultural insight a side benefit to acquiring a second language, but rather an integral and necessary part of the process. You can learn the mechanics of a language and a good deal of vocabulary without delving into the associated culture, but I doubt you can ever attain true mastery or elegant and nuanced expression without it. There is no doubt that language and culture are deeply interwoven. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who spoke six languages fluently, supposedly said:
“I speak Italian to ambassadors, French to women, German to soldiers, English to my horse and Spanish to God.”
“A man is as many times a man, as many languages he knows.”
Disney does such a good job of translating movies and even their songs that, invariably, a bit of the L2 culture is incorporated. Yet, fundamentally, it is Western—and especially American—culture that motivates the storylines and all the elements surrounding them. The superimposed foreign language translation will always be an imperfect fit when compared to original Chinese movies such as Shower or Curse of the Golden Flower.
However, the obvious factor that I have not yet mentioned and that clinches the argument in favor of dubbed Disney movies as a potentially valuable part of one’s listening repertoire is their appeal for kids. I’m sure there are also Chinese original shows and movies that could potentially hold Western children’s attention—and in fact I have found such a source in the Boonie Bears. But nothing gets my daughter to clock in long hours of Mandarin viewing like watching The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Nemo with me. We have watched all nine movies pictured at the top of this post together. Fortunately, I enjoy them almost as much as she does. I should note that they are all available on DVD on the U.S. Amazon website.
For you to use these dubbed Disney movies with your children, they will have to either have a much higher level of Mandarin (or other target language), so they actually understand most of the dialogue, or, like my daughter, be content to read the English-language subtitles. In the latter case, one needs to remind them also to pay attention to what is spoken—yet I am unsure how effective a strategy that is. I do not know whether my daughter really gets much Mandarin practice or is too caught up in reading the subtitles. I am not particularly worried about this, however, because watching subtitled movies has greatly benefited her reading comprehension in English!
In short, Disney movies are a great choice for kids learning a foreign language or—as in my case—for adults who want to share their learning experience with their kids and provide them with some level of exposure.