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.


The Stages of Learning: How You Slowly Become More Competent at New Skills

When you learn a new skill, the beginning tends to be the most frustrating part. Often, you’re not sure what you should be doing exactly, or how you should be doing it. This applies to everything from starting a new sport, to trying to speak a foreign language.

Luckily, the process of becoming better at new skills is relatively predictable, and can be broken down into different stages. Once you understand how it works, you will understand why the beginning is hard, and you will be able to identify your position in the learning process. Overall, this will make you more aware of your abilities and more conscious of your learning, which will help you learn new skills better and with more motivation.


The levels of competence


The four stages of skill learning (based on level of competence).


  • Unconscious incompetence- in the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re not entirely aware of what the new skill entails or what your goals should be. You make mistakes without realizing that you’re making them.
  • Conscious incompetence- at this stage, you know you’re still making a lot of mistakes, but you’re now at least aware that you’re making them. You still don’t know a lot, but you can recognize what you need to learn in order to improve.
  • Conscious competence- if you’re at this level, it means that you’re relatively proficient in the skill, so that you have a good understanding of it, and you make only a small amount of mistakes. However, performing at a high level still requires a significant effort on your part.
  • Unconscious competence- at this point, you are so well-practiced in the skill that you can perform at a high level with relatively little effort. For you, the necessary actions are now mostly instinctual and automatic.

These stages are often mentioned in discussions of learning theory.[1,2,3,4] Some researchers also propose a fifth stage, called “unconscious supercompetence”, which is similar to “unconscious competence”, but at a higher and more effortless level.[1,5,6] However, because this stage is less clearly defined, it is less commonly referenced in literature. In reality, whether or not this distinction exists isn’t truly crucial, since it only matters if you’re at the highest level of proficiency anyway.

Historical note: it’s not clear where this theory originated. It’s often attributed to Abraham Maslow, who also developed the hierarchy of needs, but this claim is disputed.[7] It’s entirely possible that this is because several people came up with similar conceptualizations of the model independently from one another. In any case, this doesn’t have any effect on how the theory is applied today.


Applying this in your learning

This framework is not intended as an absolute, 100% accurate psychological model. Instead,  it’s meant to give you a rough idea of the stages of competence that you will go through as you learn new skills. Use it to recognize where you are in the learning process, and how you’re advancing.

Keep in mind that you are likely going to fluctuate between the different levels, or have certain subsets of the skill at one level, while other subsets will be at different level. For example, if you’re learning a new language, it’s possible that your reading will be at a higher level than your writing, or that you’ll be better at understanding what other people say than at speaking yourself.[8]

The main takeaway is this: feeling that you have no idea what you’re doing in the beginning is perfectly fine. When you eventually start realizing that you’re making tons of mistakes, that’s not a bad thing either. Instead, these are both predictable and necessary stages of learning, that you go through as you slowly improve.


Summary and conclusions

  • When learning a new skill, you advance through several stages of competence.
  • You will start at unconscious incompetence, advance to conscious incompetence, followed by conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence.
  • Your abilities might fluctuate a bit as you learn, and it’s natural for different subskills to be at different levels.
  • If you’re feeling helpless when you start learning a new skills, don’t worry; it’s a natural part of the learning process.


Learn Vocabulary More Effectively by Using Color Coding

Expanding your vocabulary is an important but difficult aspect of learning a new language. One way to make it easier is through the use of color coding. This article gives you a brief explanation of why color coding is effective, and shows you how to implement it in your learning.


Why use color coding

In general, colored material is a more effect study aid than black-and-white material, because it helps you process new information.[1,2,3] Specifically, in the case of learning a foreign language, studies found that color coding new vocabulary words helps people learn those words better.[4,5] While there are several possible theories which can be used to explain the cognitive mechanisms behind this improvement, the overall agreement is that color coding aids memorization processes, a fact which language learners can take advantage of.[6]


Color-coded words in various languages.


How to use color coding techniques effectively

Color coding techniques are easy to implement in a similar way regardless of which vocabulary learning strategy you use (lists, flashcards, etc.); this is a part of what makes them so useful. There are two main things you need to consider:

  1. How to categorize the words. Essentially, according to which criteria you color the different words. Common options are grammatical gender (e.g. masculine/feminine) or part of speech (e.g. noun/verb). In languages with tonality (such as Mandarin Chinese), you can also color syllables according to their tone.
  2. Which coloring scheme to use. This is subjective, so use whichever coloring scheme makes sense for you. If possible, use colors that you would intuitively associate with the categories in some way. For example, if you color code words based on their grammatical gender, you might want to color feminine words in pink, and masculine words in blue.


Examples for color coding

Keep in mind that this is just a small sample of the various ways in which you can implement color coding.


Color coded words in French, based on grammatical gender (blue for masculine, pink for feminine).

L’enseignant fâché cuisinait dans la vieille camionnette.

The angry teacher cooked in the old van.


Color coded words in Spanish, based on part of speech (green for nouns, orange for adjectives, blue for verbs, and light blue for adverbs.

La madre rubia finalmente consiguió sus naves.

The mother of dragons finally got her ships.


Color coded characters in Mandarin Chinese, based on tonality.

媽     1st tone = red

麻     2nd tone = orange

馬     3rd tone = green

罵     4th tone = blue

吗     neutral tone = black


Summary and Conclusions

  • Color coding new vocabulary words makes it easier to learn them.
  • You can color words according to categories such as grammatical gender or part of speech.
  • In some languages, you could also color other linguistic particles (e.g. color syllables according to tone).
  • Use intuitive color schemes where possible.