This is a question that students and friends ask me all the time on our Facebook and our Instagram. When watching a movie or TV show or YouTube video: ‘Should I watch it with English subtitles? Subtitles in my language? Or no subtitles at all?’
‘Just watching and learning is most important,’ I say to avoid thinking about the question. But there are actually good reasons for trying all 3 methods.
But let’s look at the reasons for all 3, based on 10 years of teaching experience and IELTS examining!
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Should you subtitle when learning English?
Why English Subtitles are Good
The main reason that it is good to use the English subtitles is that your listening ability is probably not as good as your reading ability.
By watching and reading the subtitles you will be able to match together what the characters are saying with the actual words.
Not only that but the images and story will make some of the vocabulary clearer.
This is very similar to the way that you learned your native language as a kid.
But there is one big difference – as a kid you learned without subtitles and your listening and speaking probably improved faster than your reading and writing.
The big drawback to this approach is related to your listening and pronunciation.
Your listening may get worse because you may become dependent on the subtitles and not improve your listening. This might not happen, but if it does, you could end up with poor listening skills.
Your pronunciation could also get worse. That’s because in English words are not always said the way they are spelled. We don’t say ‘Sit down’ as two separate words – we say ‘Si-down,’ we don’t even pronounce the ‘b’ in ‘comb’ or the ‘k’ in ‘knight’!
Reading the subtitles may focus you too much on the spelling and hurt your pronunciation.
In conclusion, watching with English subtitles is good for improving your language skills (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) but it may hurt your listening and pronunciation.
Why Native Language Subtitles are Good
I have a lot of friends who swear by this method.
One teacher I know, who spoke completely fluent English despite only beginning to learn at age 12, used to watch cartoons in English and figure out from the subtitles in Romanian what the words meant.
There is also a lot of good research to suggest this can be effective.
It works because a clever and active listener can link together the meaning they already understand from the subtitles.
This is supported by research that shows one of the best and most memorable ways to learn English is by making comparisons between your native language and English.
However, there are two very serious drawbacks.
The first one is what happens in the majority of cases: people just read the subtitles in their language and mostly ignore the English. Lots of people even turn down the volume and just read the screen!
The second one is that it encourages you to translate from English back to your language.
This might later hurt your listening comprehension: instead of listening and understanding you will listen, translate and understand.
If you carry over this habit to speaking and writing it will also slow you down. You don’t want to be translating every single word when speaking or writing – it should flow out more naturally.
This might not happen – but you must be very active practicing with the vocabulary that you learn to make sure you don’t end up like an old slow smartphone that takes 5 minutes just to load up Google!
Why No Subtitles at all are Good
This is the way that you learned your native language.
You listened to your parents, friends and teachers. You watched TV shows and movies without subtitles.
This is the most natural way to learn English.
When you learn this way, your pronunciation will be good because you only focus on the sounds, never the spelling of the words.
You will develop excellent listening skills because there will be no help from the subtitles.
However, because this way requires you to be completely independent, it is also much harder.
For a long time it will be confusing and difficult (maybe too difficult!) and you might give up.
Only use this method alone if you are already confident with English, you have lots of free time or you enjoy challenges.
Aristotle said this.
How to Combine Different Ways of Using Subtitles
Aristotle’s quote means that the best method is not at either extreme, but somewhere in the middle – moderation in all things.
Jumping in without any subs at all is a huge challenge – you might give up.
Using just one approach has advantages but also disadvantages. You will end up with one skill – listening or vocabulary – stronger than the other.
You should combine the approaches to make sure that your skills are well-rounded – moderation in all things.
Here are some ideas for how to combine these approaches (all Netflix programming has subtitles and you can also check out this YouTube playlist I made! (be sure to hit the CC button for some of them to turn on the subs!)):
No Sound: Try watching a video on YouTube or Netflix with no sound first. Pay attention to the body language. Try to guess what they are saying. Write down some ideas. Then listen. Take some notes of words they said. Then watch with subtitles and check again. Then watch again with no sound and no subtitles and try to remember what they said. Keep trying variations of this until you know the whole scene by heart!
Native Language First: Watch with subtitles in your native language first so that the meaning is clear. Then make notes on some of the English words used. Try to rewrite the whole thing in English. Keep watching until you fully understand the English.
Eng Subs First: Watch it with English subtitles first. How much can you understand? Make notes in two columns: things you understand and things you don’t understand. Watch it a couple of times with English subtitles and try to move everything into the understand column. Then watch it with your native language subtitles and again try to move everything to the understand column.
No Subs First: Watch it without any subtitles. Write down the things you can and can’t understand. Keep watching it until you understand as much as possible. Then put on the English subtitles and keep watching it. Finally, use your native language subtitles to understand it totally. Watch it from the beginning with no subs again and see the progress you have made!
Switching Throughout: The above 4 ideas work best with short videos that you watch repeatedly. That might be boring. Watch a whole show or movie. But don’t just use one technique. Keep your brain active by changing it up: sometimes no subs, sometimes native language subs and sometimes English subs. Try to enjoy it as well!
Review, Review, Review: All the above ideas will work – my personal guarantee as a teacher and former IELTS examiner. But the most important thing to make real progress is to review. Studying without reviewing is like working out once a week – you won’t see a big difference. Drag yourself back to the gym to exercise again and again and you’ll get stronger. Review the same scenes, movies and shows over and over again until you are confident you understand everything. Then begin to practice using the language you learned. That is the essence of language learning – now stop reading this and just go do it!
Now it’s your turn! Go watch a video and post the link to it in the comments!
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