No subtitles, TL subtitles, L1 subtitles…?

Office View B&W with subtitleBoth teachers and learners recognize the potential of target-language film and TV for boosting proficiency–witness this vast collection of teacher resources for El Internado or lists of Spanish language dramas recommended for learners. But many wonder what role, if any, subtitles should play.

Rather than declare one option golden, I want to share some possible reasons for and benefits of each option–no subtitles, subtitles in a language one already knows, and subtitles/closed captioning in the language the actors are speaking. (There is a fourth option, subtitles in a target language with audio in a language one knows well, but I won’t address this here.)


1. No subtitles

From a language-learning perspective, this option is basically good for two things: (1) providing suitable input for advanced learners, and (2) checking to see if one is proficient enough and interested enough for the content to provide suitable input. If the answer to (2) is “no,” then the no-subtitles option is not efficient.

What does “suitable input” mean? Language that you understand almost completely and are interested in enough to keep listening. Note that different learners are willing to put up with different levels of “noise”–anything that distracts from the message or plot, including language one doesn’t understand. Some are able to experience the benefits of language they do understand even if there is a lot of not-understood language mixed in. Most people aren’t–they’re too distracted or frustrated by what they don’t understand.

So, use this option either as a brief, rare test of your proficiency, or for advanced learning and entertainment if you are already able to understand almost everything you hear.

Note: Some teachers of Novice and Intermediate learners are using ultra-short clips without subtitles to good effect by pre-teaching the language involved and by centering extended class conversations on a single short scene.


2. Subtitles in L1 / a language you already know well

First, if you need L1 (first language) subtitles in order to understand what is going on, then the language isn’t really comprehensible to you and you shouldn’t expect the benefits that normally accrue from comprehensible input. (See this post by Steve Smith and my comment on it.) But this doesn’t mean that there is absolutely no reason to watch target language content with L1 subtitles. Here are some reasons you might:

• As part of the process of falling in love with a language or culture.

• As motivation to acquire more of the language.

• To be able to watch with a friend who doesn’t know the language (see #6 here).

• To ensure full comprehension of the plot before re-watching without subtitles or with TL subtitles (see below).

• To enjoy content so fascinating that you don’t care how much help you need to understand what is going on.

• To fill in the gaps in your understanding if there are large chunks you can understand AND you are far more disciplined than most people about looking at the subtitles only when you need them. This is hard to do even if you know the content language really well, but it is a learnable skill that I’ve put to great use in my own learning.

Pro tip: often subtitles mistakenly appear a second or two before the line they are translating. When this happens, one can quickly read the subtitle and then focus on the original line when it is actually spoken.


3. Subtitles/closed captioning in the original language/target language (TL)

I love this option, which is useful if…

• you’ve acquired the language pretty well, but still have trouble keeping up with native-speed speech.

• you’ve acquired the language pretty well, but are unfamiliar with some of the accents in the content.

• you have recently watched the content with L1 subtitles, allowing you to have almost full comprehension with TL subtitles. (This tactic is similar to the Multilingual Reading Countdown.)

• you want to find out how to spell words you already know from listening.

I’ve used this option quite a bit with El Internado and Gran Hotel. I’m not yet able to understand everything without subtitles, but I can understand pretty much everything with Spanish subtitles. And, because there are times with no dialogue, I can quickly look up a recently heard/seen word on my phone (I use the WordReference app) between dialogue without pausing the show or missing dialogue. This option is not quite available with written text: when we look up words from a written text we are “pausing the content,” with the result that we encounter less total input.


My current practice

These days, if I watch something on TV that isn’t soccer, it’s usually a Spanish show on Netflix. My most common approach is to watch first with English subtitles to make sure I understand everything that is going on, but still using the discipline I’ve developed not to look at the subtitles unless I need them. Then I watch the same episode with Spanish closed captioning, sometimes avoiding reading unless I miss something I hear, sometimes reading anyway in order to see how stuff is spelled. When there is no dialogue, I sometimes look up a recently heard word to confirm that it means what I think it means and/or to see it in other examples sentences in WordReference. Since I’ve seen the episode before, I don’t mind glancing away from the screen to do this.


What are your thoughts on subtitles?


Note: I know I haven’t directly addressed the use of subtitles in a language class. I recommend Mike Peto’s post on this, as well as Carol’s comment below.

See also: The Savvy Language Learner Infographic, The Number One Mistake in Language Learning, What Is Your Favorite Thing to Do?

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  1. Justin, this is excellent. I’ve been messing around with as just one source of input in my own pursuit to acquire Spanish. The thing is…sometimes that input isn’t always comprehensible, even with the few glossed words on the sidebar. I end up using Google Translate and to fill in the gaps. Needless to say, it’s not a very enjoyable experience. I am reminded of those days “reading” Catullus which actually involved a lot of flipping around in reference books.

    If there were English subtitles on those videos I would find myself in your category #2. I would then rewatch/listen without the subtitles once meaning had been established.

  2. I have had success watching with L1 subtitles and discussing in TL. I use lots of screen shots. It’s important to limit the vocabulary and to try to keep the conversation limited to the main events. It’s impossible to retell the entire film in detail. The falling in love with the language aspect is huge. I have a few French films that I have abridged readers for and sometimes the dialogue in the film is verbatim. I also have the libretto for “les Parapluies de Cherbourg”. They can watch without subtitles for the gist and then read along with the music. The kids get into the story.

  3. For my own language learning I am using to the podcast “News in Slow Italian.” There are versions in a number of other languages (but no Latin yet). As an intermediate Italian learner it is perfect to me because the speech rate is slowed down and the topics tend to be big national/international events which I am already somewhat familiar with. They have scripts online as well, so I can go back and read, or read along if I want to (but honestly, I never do). This is the single best practice that I have found, but it is definitely not for novice learners. I have extensive (although 10-20 years ago) experience living in the target culture.

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