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The Great Subtitle Debate: To Use or Not to Use Subtitles to Learn Languages with TV Series

Updated: Jan 14

When I tell people that I help people learn languages with TV series, one of the first questions they ask is, “Should I use subtitles when learning languages with TV series or not?” If so… “Is it better to use target language subtitles or native language subtitles?” I’ve covered this topic a bit in other blog posts such as this one but today we’ll do a deep dive into this subject.

tv with netflix and feet on the table

Let’s start with the basics. What are subtitles? (Skip this section if you must.) Subtitles are the written text that accompanies audio. This text is typically one line long at a time and states word-for-word what the characters in the video are saying. This is similar to closed captioning, except that closed captioning should also include non-dialogue audio such as sound effects.

Subtitles can be translated into various languages so that you can watch a video and read the original language subtitles or your native language subtitles, or in some situations, both. We’ll explain that later. Some language learners like to throw in a different target language for the subtitles for an added challenge. We won’t get into that today.

Here we’ll discuss the pros and cons of using each type of subtitle when learning languages with TV series.

tv series with no subtitles

No Subtitles

Watching TV in your target language with no subtitles

The pros - When you are using no subtitles while watching a TV series, you’ll have to focus on listening, which may lead to better listening comprehension. I say “may” here because you can benefit from having a visual to check if you are understanding correctly. In any case, your ear will get more used to the language. Without subtitles, you can pay more attention to visual parts of the show, such as the action and special effects, facial expressions and gestures.

The cons - Without a visual to back you up, you may miss new vocabulary words. You also may miss important details of the plot which can lead to confusion or reduced enjoyment of the show. If that happens, you may not continue watching and there goes your current learning routine.

watching a tv series with native subtitles

Native Language Subtitles

Learning languages with TV series using your native language subtitles

This would be considered as subtitles written in your native language. For example, if you are a native speaker of English, and the show is in Spanish, the subtitles would be in English.

The pros - By using your native language subtitles, you can better understand the storyline and catch small details of the plot meaning you have the possibility of enjoying the show more. This is particularly important if you don’t yet have a lot of vocabulary in your target language. Another pro of using native language subtitles is that you can immediately know the meaning of a new word spoken aloud (if you “catch” it with your ears).

The cons - Using native language subtitles does come with downsides. You might focus too much on the native language and less on target language, such as reading more to understand the show vs listening to understand the show, especially if you are more of a visual person. Another con, sometimes translations and subtitles are not perfect, so your translation may not be exactly what they said in the original language. Translations also don’t usually happen word-for-word so even if you hear a new word (and notice and remember it!), the exact meaning of this word may not appear in the native language subtitle.

watching tv series with target language subtitles

Target Language Subtitles

Learning languages with TV series using the target language subtitles

In this case, the subtitles are written in your target language aka the language you want to learn and the language that the TV series is originally in.

The pros - The biggest pro, in my opinion, is that you get more input from the language, both auditory and visual input. But there are several other benefits to using target language subtitles. You can “catch” every word, even the hard to hear ones, because they visually appear longer than the audio of the word is there. You can use the original language in order to understand the storyline, which is particularly important when there is a word relevant to the plot that doesn’t really exist in your native language. You have a better chance at understanding the meaning of new words if you can see the word written at the same time, especially if you are a visual learner. Additionally, you can learn how new words are spelled. Finally, another great benefit of using target language subtitles to learn a new language is that you can pause while the subtitle is up to take notes on new words and the sentences that contain them.

The cons - There are not too many cons in this case. One disadvantage is that you might pay more attention to reading than listening. Keep this in mind if you really want to tune your ear to the language. Or, if you are at a beginner level, you might get a little lost if you don’t have your native subtitles to help you understand what is happening in the series. This can be particularly true for languages with an alphabet that is new to you. In that case, dual subtitles can come in handy.

watching tv series on laptop with dual subtitles

Dual Subtitles

Learning languages with TV series using dual subtitles

This type of subtitling means that you have both the target language and native language subtitles running at the same time. The purpose of this is to be able to see the exact translation of your target language while watching. Some softwares or browser extensions have dual subtitles available when streaming certain media, such as Language Reactor (most features free), Dualsub and Lingopie (paid service, affiliate link).

The pros - Get the meanings of unknown words immediately, so you don’t need to pause to look words up. I would recommend using dual subtitles over only native subtitles if you are a beginner, because you can understand the show with your native subtitles, but you can use the audio and the visual of your target language to learn new words and phrases.

The cons - As said earlier, sentences can’t always be translated word-for-word between languages, so you might not be able to get an exact translation of a new word, and sometimes translations and subtitles are not perfect, so your translation may not be exactly what they said in the original language. With two subtitles to read, you might spend too much time or effort reading and pay less attention to the auditory part of the language or the visual components of the series, meaning you might miss something that happens visually and not auditorily. Your brain can only handle so much information simultaneously. I don’t recommend using dual subtitles if you already have a good handle on the language, because it can be helpful to use your brain to derive the meanings of new words in context so you can remember it better, and you may also get distracted by the native subtitles.

There you have it, the pros and cons of using or not using subtitles when learning languages with TV series. Most of the time it depends on your level and goals, so keep that in mind when you are choosing which kind of subtitles to use in your learning routine.

Extra note: I personally am not a fan of dubbing a show. Many people do this because they don’t want to read anything or have any text over the screen. But if you’re watching TV shows so you can learn the language, then trust me on this one, don’t dub over it.

What has been your experience? Do you use subtitles when watching TV to learn a new language? Let us know in the comments below!

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