Why Subtitles Prevent Language Learning (And What to Do Instead)

Subtitles are an awesome way to make foreign films accessable to international viewers.

They’re also a popular tool for language learners.

Just pop on your favorite TV series or film with foreign subs, and off you go.

Right?

At least – I’ve heard a ton of language learners swear by this method, and how it was a part of their language learning regimen. I myself have watched a ton of movies with French or Russian subtitles.

However, while this mode of study is incredibly engaging, which helps keep us glued to our screens the way grammar tables and vocabulary lists have no hope of doing, it’s counterproductive to fast, efficient language learning.

Here’s why:

Film Study (Not Just for Athletes Anymore!)

Watching TV and film is actually one of the most challenging activities for a language learner. Strangely, often even moreso than listening to the radio, which obviously provides no visual clues whatsoever to the student.

This is something I’ve tested on both myself and students, and it seems to hold true around the globe.

For instance, while I was learning French, I could converse with my colleagues around me while at the same time not understand what I was hearing on the television.

Due to these very common difficulties, beginner and intermediate speakers are often encouraged to use subtitles in their target language to help them understand the action.

But this approach is wrong. And it will prevent you from making the progress you’re expecting in your target language.

Why Watch Film?

To understand this, we have to think of why we’re watching a film or show in the first place: to improve our listening comprehension and to model our speech after native speakers.

NOT our reading comprehension.

NOT for entertainment.

Should we watch films for entertainment? Absolutely! But let’s not get watching films-for-fun and watching films for language mastery mixed up. They are distinctly seperate activities.

A film for entertainment can be at any difficulty level. Thanks to subtitles, even the most challenging foreign films can be perfectly understood by a literate individual with the right subs enabled.

A film for language learning is different, and this is where most of us make our first mistake. Instead of choosing a film based on our language level and learning needs, we choose based on our movie tastes and end up way in over our head in terms of vocabulary.

Watching a film where we understand 20-30% will do very little for our growth as a language learner. I’d strive for a bare minimum of 80% word-by-word comprehension to strike a balance of new vs known. 90-95% is even better.

Just think: If 1 out of 10 or 1/20 words is unknown to us – that’s still a ton of unknown words! But in this context, where they’re surrounded by known words, our minds have a chance to:

  1. identify the unknown words (and we can look up their meaning)
  2. possibly figure out their meaning from context
  3. follow the story even if the word remains unknown

Any more than that, and our minds will be overwhelmed by the missing information. Following the story will be harder. We will be more likely to feel lost and frustrated. And while we can do this and still get something from it – it’s not the highest and best use of our time!

Do Subtitles Help or Harm?

We often try to circumvent the fact the we picked a film that’s too difficult with subtitles.

After all, with subtitles, we can put ourselves easily into the ream of +90% comprehension, especially if we’re using subtitles in our native tongue (hopefully it’ll be 100% then).

However we’ve just ruined the learning process.

Again, this comes back to why we are doing film practice in the first place – to train our audio comprehension skills.

Therefore when we start to focus in on the visual data in front of us – the subtitles, we’re taking our attention off of the audio data that is our main task.

And since most of us are conditioned from an early age to lean on our visual skills – which is to the detriment of all others, we tend to get lost in the subtitles.

I’m embarrassed to say that if I watch a film in English and a friend decides to put subs on, I read the subs.

Remember how I talked about the strange phenmenon that watching TV is often harder than listening to the radio?

That’s because all the visual input annihilates the audio input that our brain receives. Our brains prefer this occular narcotic tenfold and filters out the competing info.

It’s a bit hard to test, but you can try normally watching a program part way (but without lip reading the actors), and then close your eyes and just listen. If the complexity of the language is about the same and your mind hasn’t tired out, I bet it will be easier to understand eyes closed.

(This problem of overrelying on our visual centers and leaving everything else underdeveloped is what I consider to be one of the main reasons a vast majority of people struggle to learn languages!)

By adding subtitles, our best case scenario is we slightly improve our reading skills. But if that was our goal a book would make a much better companion than a film!

In worse cases, any student who can’t keep up with the pace of the dialogue is now getting nothing meaningful accomplished. And very few beginner and intermediate language learners can outread the pace of human speech!

How To Learn A Language Through Film (With No Subtitles)

For language study, film should be watched one scene at a time. Our goal is to own the scene. That is: understand the language, connect it to the context (this is where our visual addiction helps the learning process), and be able to use it in real-time. Only then should we move on.

It’s also better to watch the same movie (or same scenes) several days in a row, and than a week and finally a month later in order to reinforce the things we’ve learned. Doing a few things with excellence helps way more than doing many things superficially when it comes to language learning!

So you’ve picked a scene, here’s what to do with it:

  1. Understand the main events of the scene (1st time through. I also try to say all the lines in my head at the same time as the actors)
  2. Identify & learn all the unknown words, in context (2nd time. Pausing at unknown words and replaying the line until I figure it out)
  3. Be able to speak the lines (After all unknown words have been translated)

I only turn on subtitles if I completely and honestly can’t figure out what a word is. I think a better option is to make a “best guess” in Google search or Google translate, and let it correct me. If no correction comes up it means I wasn’t even close and I’m really mis-hearing something.

Ultimately I believe if we can’t do it, we haven’t learned it. So I think it’s important to take the step past a vague sense of “I understand this” to “I can ruthlessly and flawlessly execute this.” Language is ultimately a physical activity and noot a mental one, so it’s critical any serious student of language take this step, and does so from the very start.

It’s actually not at all hard to do – particularly if we’ve picked a film at the right difficulty level, it just takes a different approach than we’re used to.

Just like proficient language learners and polyglots know. Language learning isn’t hard. If we use the right approach and don’t mind applying ourselves it can be an easy and fun adventure.

Remember: Films for fun and films for language progress are two different things. But if you do remember this, it won’t be that long until they’re the same!

Photo by Fauxto

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AJ Walton

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4 thoughts on “Why Subtitles Prevent Language Learning (And What to Do Instead)”

    1. That’s an interesting point. We certainly have to use all our other abilities to make sense of things when we’re not able to rely on language. On one hand it gives words living context, on the other it removes our focus from those very words.

  1. No offense but this seems rather silly. A rewind button and the ability to close my eyes solves the problems you bring up. Listen to it and read it with the 2nd language subs on for a short time period. Then listen to it and read it with your native language subs on for the same time period. Then listen to the same short segment with your eyes closed. Then repeat as much as you need to “understand” what you are hearing. Then move on the the next section. Problem would seem to be solved. I actually do this with movies on my iphone. Repetitive listening is key.

    1. Hi Rich,
      Thanks for chiming in. I think your approach has merit, but I disagree with one fundamental point: In real life, when you don’t have access to subtitles or a translater at every moment, you’ll be relying on your ability to interpret new information using your ears.

      But maybe your goal is different than mine. I studied music in university for 4 years: For me the goal of auditory training isn’t just to learn the material in front of me, but to develop the skill to learn any material. By using the shortcut of subtitles, I think you’re increasing the amount of familiar information without greatly improving the ability to comprehend the unfamiliar.

      But hey, maybe I’m wrong! Your technique sounds very effective for learning the material in front of you. And maybe being given the answer and working backwards can help connect new sounds to meanings more effectively, and with a limited number of sound patterns in any language make it faster to deconstruct new, unknown sounds on the fly. Using a strong skill to learn a weaker one makes sense. I don’t have the capacity to run any controlled experiments on this, but I imagine a bit of each could be useful to develop a well-rounded skill set.

      Here’s 1 more helpful tip: Never start an insult with the words “no offence”. Take responsibility for your opinion & disagree with honor. Otherwise your admittedly decent approach comes off as intellectual bullying warrenting deletion, where it actually warrents discusion.

      Thanks for your $0.02,
      Andrew

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