The Best Type of Subtitles to Use When Learning a Foreign Language

When you learn a new language, it’s important to get a lot of exposure to it. Among other ways, you can accomplish this by watching movies and TV shows in your target language. In general, it’s better for you to watch foreign-language videos with subtitles, rather than without them.[1,2,3,4] However, this gives rise to a question: what’s the best type of subtitles to use? This is an important question, because a simple modification (the type of subtitles you use), could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of your learning process.

 

Illustration of subtitles in both native and foreign language (assuming your native language is English).

 

Foreign Language Subtitles vs. Native Language Subtitles

In general, studies show that it’s a better to use foreign-language subtitles when you’re watching foreign-language material, though there is some conflicting evidence on the topic. For example:

  • Dutch students learning English as a second language were (slightly) better able to process English sentences after watching English material with English subtitles than with Dutch subtitles.[5]
  • English-speaking students who were learning Spanish had a (slightly) larger improvement in vocabulary recognition after watching Spanish films using Spanish subtitles, as opposed to students who watched the films with English subtitles. They also enjoyed watching the films more, and connected with the material better.[6]
  • Conversely, a study on Turkish college students learning English, found no difference between foreign-language and native-language subtitles.[7]

As you can see, it’s generally preferable to use foreign-language subtitles as opposed to native language subtitles, though the difference isn’t huge. In addition, keep in mind that your preference could depend on how well you speak the foreign language. While foreign-language subtitles tend to be better, beginners might struggle with them.[8,9] In that case, it’s better to use subtitles in the native language, until you feel comfortable having both the audio and the subtitles in the foreign language.

 

Other subtitles

There are two additional types of subtitles, which are less-commonly used, but still worth mentioning:

Reverse subtitles are subtitles in the foreign language, which appear together with a soundtrack in the native language. Interestingly, these subtitles are mostly preferable to using native-language subtitles with a foreign-language soundtrack.[8,10,11,12] There is a tradeoff though: while this method might help you in some areas (e.g. vocabulary learning), it doesn’t help in other areas, such as your listening skills. Therefore, feel free to use this tool (especially as a beginner), but keep its limitations in mind.

Personally, I really like these subtitles. They can help you get exposure to the target language in a comfortable environment, where you don’t feel overwhelmed by constantly struggling to understand what the characters are saying. While you do eventually need to practice listening to the language you are learning, this is a great way to get passive exposure to it; just enable the subtitles while watching your regular shows, and you’ll notice yourself using them more and more, as you manage to pick up bigger text fragments (starting with words and moving on to full sentences).

In addition, another important advantage is that it is sometimes easier to find films and shows in your native language than in your target language. For example, if you’re an English speaker, you will likely have a much bigger selection of things to watch in your native language than in most other languages.

Dual subtitles use the foreign language soundtrack, together with subtitles in both the foreign and the native language. While these subtitles provide the most information, there is often not enough time to read them both while watching the show. One way to deal with this is to stick with looking at the foreign language subtitles, and refer to the native language ones only when you need a translation. Some platforms have specific solutions for this, which allow you to view the native language translation by hovering over the foreign language subtitles when necessary, but this solution is unfortunately not yet widely available.[13,14]

 

Other considerations

First, remember that the more of a beginner you are, the more input in the native language you’re probably going to need, and that’s perfectly fine.

Furthermore, there is also variation in personal preferences; different people learn in different ways, and prefer using different materials. Experiment to see what works for you.

Overall, the most important factor is your motivation to engage in the learning process. If you’re not engaging with material in the target language, then you’re not learning. Therefore, if you find yourself not watching things because the material is too difficult, it’s better to switch to something that you’re comfortable with (e.g. native-language subtitles), as long as it means that you’re actually engaging with foreign-language material in some way. Just make sure you’re aware that this is a step in the learning process, and that eventually you will need to advance to the more complex material, even if it seems scary at first.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • If you’re watching material in a foreign language, it’s better to watch it with subtitles than without them.
  • Subtitles in the foreign language are generally slightly more effective than subtitles in your native language. However, if you’re a beginner, you’re probably going to need subtitles in the native language.
  • Other good options are reverse subtitles (foreign-language subtitles together with a native language soundtrack), or dual subtitles (foreign-language soundtrack and subtitles in both the foreign and the native language).
  • Different people benefit from different types of subtitles. Experiment to see what works for you.
  • The most important thing is to use material which makes you engage with the target language. The more motivation you have, the more you will be exposed to the material, and the more you will learn.