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When I first moved to Brazil, I lived with 8 students from the local university. One of the first things my roommate did to welcome me to the house was show me how to switch on the old television in our room.
He told me that I would have to learn some Portuguese to get by, and then he told me that a friend of his family had learned Portuguese entirely by watching old soap operas. She became fluent just by watching TV.
I don’t quite agree.
Sure, it’s usually done as a super passive learning activity, which makes it less effective. But I think if you do it properly, watching TV and movies can be a useful part of a home English learning course.
One of the big questions, though, is should you use subtitles when you’re watching? Is it useful for learning English? Or is it kind of “cheating” yourself out of the learning experience?
That’s the subject this article will tackle: if you should ever use subtitles in your native language, when you should use subtitles, and how you should use them to learn most effectively.
Subtitles in your native language won’t help you learn English
Some people think that watching a film with subtitles in their native language will help them learn. The idea is that you can hear the English word and pair it with the word in your native language. The result is that you learn the word.
In theory that’s a good idea… but the evidence suggests that it doesn’t work well. It might actually harm your progress in English actually harm your English.
Why is this?
In short, it’s because your brain looks for the easiest way to process information. Since it’s much easier to read in your language than listen to English, you won’t listen, you’ll just read. And you won’t learn English.
That doesn’t mean you should never use subtitles in your language!
If you just want to enjoy the TV show and don’t want a language lesson, then, by all means, use subtitles in your language.
Just know that it’s not an effective way to improve your English.
Benefits of using English subtitles to learn English
It turns out there are real benefits to using English subtitles if you’re learning English.
There’s a step when we’re beginning to learn a language where we train our brains to “pair” what a word looks like with what it sounds like.
This is an important step—it helps us develop the right “voice” in our head for the language. It helps us understand the pronunciation of words and figure out where one word ends and another begins.
Reading subtitles while you listen to audio can help you do that eye-ear training.
Subtitles also help us learn English by:
- Increasing reading speed and comprehension
- Increasing familiarity with vocabulary and the sounds of a language
- Expanding our vocabulary
- Improving word recognition and grammar
You can get these benefits both when you’re watching a film with subtitles in English, as well as when you’re listening to a podcast and reading transcripts, or even listening to an audiobook while you read the actual text.
Another consideration is whether you understand the narrative of the film or TV show without the subtitles—and whether that bothers you.
I’ve said before that one of the most important things in learning a language is finding activities you like. If you do things you like, you’ll stick with them even when they’re hard.
This is, of course, why my roommate’s family friend learned Portuguese from soap operas—even without subtitles. She just liked watching them so much that she would watch them even if she didn’t understand the words. And she would watch them a lot.
That gave her tonnes of language input.
Because she spent so much time engaged with Portuguese, the language eventually came to her.
Not everyone would be like this lady, though. For some people, if you can’t follow the narrative, you’ll find it boring and you’ll stop watching.
That's the second benefit of subtitles: they can help you understand enough that you’ll enjoy the show, even if you don’t catch every word. And if you enjoy what you’re watching, you’ll keep watching it.
Subtitles are most useful when you’re a beginner or lower intermediate
While using English subtitles can be a great support at lower levels, it’s usefulness declines as your level improves.
The idea is that, to get better, you need to challenge yourself.
There’s a concept in psychology that we apply to learning called the “zone of proximal development”. The idea is you will learn best when what you're doing is slightly more difficult than what’s comfortable—but it’s not too difficult.
If your task is too hard, you won’t learn much and you might give up. If it’s too easy, you also won’t learn anything. Effective learning happens at the sweet spot in the middle.
That concept can be applied to subtitles. If watching a movie in English without subtitles is too difficult, subtitles can bring it back into that zone of proximal development where effective learning happens.
But if using subtitles is too easy, it’ll fall out of the zone again. At that point, you’ll learn more by getting rid of the subtitles.
So, should I use subtitles to learn English?
Don’t use subtitles in your native language to learn English
It’s not an effective language learning activity.
If it’s too hard for you to understand a TV show even by using English subtitles, I would switch to language activities aimed at lower levels. For ideas, check out our guides on English listening activities and reading in English—both have lots of ideas for activities you can do as a beginner.
But, if you can understand this article, you are probably at a high enough level that you can use English subtitles.
Again, though, feel free to watch with subtitles in your native language if you’re not trying to learn English and you just want to enjoy a film!
Use subtitles in English when you can’t understand it otherwise
Using English subtitles is really effective for people at lower levels.
Here are some signs that you should use English subtitles:
- Without them, you wouldn’t be able to follow the narrative.
- Without them, watching the show becomes an annoying task and you stop enjoying it.
- You find it difficult to know where one word starts and the other one ends.
- You can understand English well, but the characters in this particular film or series use an unfamiliar accent and it’s hard to follow.
In those cases, feel free to use subtitles and enjoy your show.
How to make the best use of subtitles to learn English
Okay, so you’ve decided that using subtitles is useful for you at your level. What’s the best way to use them?
- Try not to just read the words. It’s hard, but as much as you can, listen to the actual language itself. Use the subtitles as a crutch: look down if you need them, rather than just reading them.
- Break your watching into chunks. Learning English is hard and takes effort. It can be a bit overwhelming to do a lot at once. Help yourself out by giving yourself breaks if you need them.
- Rewatch your films or movies. You may even choose to watch a TV show once without subtitles and then again with them. This will let you notice the language as a whole the first time, and then focus on words and meaning the second time.
- Shadow the speech. Shadowing is repeating speech out loud as you hear it. It’s a great way to practise the physical aspects of fluency and it’s easy to do with subtitles turned on. It’s tiring though—you might not want to do it for more than five minutes or so, and it’s more effective to shadow something that is audio-only, such as a podcast.
- Note interesting words, phrases, or grammatical expressions. See a word you haven’t heard before? Make a note of it or put it into your vocabulary app. This will help you actively build your vocabulary and language skills.
- Alternate between using them and not. Some films or shows are easier than others: a cartoon might be easy, but a film with strong regional accents might be harder. Turn your subtitles on or off depending on the difficulty level of the content you’re watching.
Listening to podcasts with subtitles or transcripts
Just like with TV and film, subtitles and transcripts can be a great way to boost your learning from English podcasts. They’re effective for the same reasons noted above: they give you eye-ear training and help you get a feel for the language.
In some ways, using subtitles with podcasts is actually better than using them for TV or movies:
- Since podcasts are only audio, you don’t have to watch the screen. That makes it easier to look away from your subtitles and refer to them only when you need to.
- You can focus entirely on the spoken language, there are no distracting visual stimuli.
- Some podcasts, like the one we make at Leonardo English, let you tap on a word to get a definition.
- They’re easy to use with other activities like shadowing.
How do I get subtitles on my content?
Okay, you’re all ready to go! But how do you actually get subtitles?
- Here are instructions for subtitles on Netflix.
- You can also use this extension to get subtitles in two languages at once. The extension comes with a built-in dictionary.
- Here are instructions for getting subtitles on YouTube videos.
- For podcasts, choose English podcasts that come with transcripts or have subtitles included. (The English Learning for Curious Minds podcast offers subtitles and transcripts to members, and also the harder words are explained for you).
Stop using subtitles in English when you’re ready
Subtitles are like stabilisers (or “training wheels”, as we say in Canada) for a bike. They’re supports to help you do the task.
But you'll have to get rid of them at some point.
It can feel a bit scary when you do get rid of them, but eventually, you won’t feel like you need them anymore.
You’ll make watching Netflix, YouTube, films, and television a more effective English learning activity at higher levels if you drop the subtitles.
If you can watch an episode or film and follow the story without subtitles, you can probably stop using them.
You still might not catch every word, but chances are that you figure them out in the context.
Some questions you might ask yourself to help you decide when you don’t need them anymore include:
- Can I understand > 90% of the story without them?
- Do I still enjoy watching the show without them?
- Am I looking for a more challenging English activity?
If your answer to those questions is “yes”, then it might be time to try to turn off the subtitles.
The takeaway: use subtitles in English—until you don’t need them
English subtitles can be effective as a learning support for your English listening activities. Use them if you need to.
But remember that, eventually, your goal is to get to a place where you don’t need them. So when you can, try to transition away from them.
In general, it’s best to avoid using subtitles in your own language if your goal is to learn English. It’s just not very effective. But, if your goal is to relax and watch a film, go for it.
If you spend enough time listening to English—with subtitles or without them—you might find yourself in a similar position to my Brazilian roommate’s family friend: fluent from just watching TV.
Mitterer, H., & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Foreign subtitles help but native-language subtitles harm foreign speech perception. PloS one, 4(11), e7785.
Stewart, M. A., & Pertusa, I. (2004). Gains to language learners from viewing target language closed‐captioned films. Foreign Language Annals, 37(3), 438-442.