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"Watching Subtitled Films Can Help Learning Foreign Languages"

Found out about this study, from a video in my YouTube Recommended.


The conclusion of the study found that the participants who watched a foreign film with subtitles in their native language showed no improvement(0%) in their target language; While those who watched the foreign film without any subtitles improved by 7% in their target language; And those who watched the foreign film with subtitles in their target language improved by 17% in their target language!

Anyone know of any similar studies? I think it's really cool that this has been researched!

Here is the video where I learned about the study. It's about the impact of focusing on "Input" when language learning. It's also pretty neat.


August 15, 2019



I'm sure it improves your reading skills in your target language, but does it improve your listening skills? I found watching TV in my target language (Spanish) with Spanish subtitles, I was concentrating too much on trying to read the subtitles as fast as possible and missing much of what the characters were actually saying. So it didn't improve my listening skills.


Once in Germany, I was listening to the evening news, with German subtitles. But what I was hearing didn't match at all what I was reading. "Wow," I thought, "my German is even worse than I thought it was!" Then I realized the spoken content was in Greek!!


Lol that made me laugh


That's why I always watch everything twice: once with subtitles and once without.


Great advice! I'm going to do this. (I am just starting to watch shows in Spanish.)


Learning curve hypothesis: I bet the more you know, the more it helps :)


I think it's also going to improve your listening skills. The problem initially is that you're unable to distinguish the words in what you're hearing, so if you have a visual guide to help you do that, you can pick up the differences in the sounds and what you should be hearing that much faster.


Perhaps try without subtitles, you will surprise yourself how much you understand ;)


You nailed it. Instead of listening you just focus on reading (it doesn't matter that the subtitles are in your target language). I've had been through this with English language... A lot of people are convinced that subtitles help but I find it distracting.


Take the time to yes, read your desired language with subtitles, but also take the time to pause the TV, write down two or three phrases from that show and speak them repeatedly/use them in as many situations as possible. Repeating and using words consistently is most important when learning a new language because it opens a different part of your brain. It's like why a person is able to converse better texting than in person? Because they're able to spend more time to think of an answer as opposed to speaking in person! Happy Learning!


Interesting! I watched the Italian series "Montalbano" with no surtitles, then with Italian surtitles. I was surprised to understand better without them as I could concentrate more.


You know, that makes a lot of sense actually. Reading is a high concentration activity. So naturally, if you're reading something, and it is contrary to what you're hearing, instead of amplifying what you're hearing, it detracts from it. But if you're just listening, your attention to what you're hearing is heightened. And if you're reading something that matches what you're listening to, your brain does all kinds of crazy and cool neurological things to link the connections!


One factor is subtitles and the spoken dialogue are rarely the same. Meaning they're even more separate activities (reading/listening) than usual.


I have tried this before with Spanish subtitles on Netflix and in the movies/tv shows I own on dvd, it works perfectly and has helped me better understand Spanish.


in French class we watched a few films over and over. like you i understand French a bit more than when i started in high school


I've seen that before, but the problem I have right now is I can't understand anything about what's going on and I get really bored. I don't have much free time so if I can't enjoy what I'm watching then I just won't and find something else to do that I can actually enjoy. I feel I need to get to a certain level before I turn the subs off: probably around B1.


What I'm doing with Japanese, now that I've found a streaming service where A LOT of the shows actually have Japanese subtitles, is to watch the show in my native language first, and then watch an episode a day with subtitles in my target language. That's going to be a 20-30min daily time commitment on average. But that means a few supplement hours a week that's contributing to my progress, on top of formal study time. And that "17% improvement" sounds oh so good to me :D

HOWEVER, keep in mind that it is always best to do what is best and most enjoyable for you! I watch a lot of anime because I enjoy the storylines, character personalities, and soundtracks, which are all very meaningful things that impact other parts of my life. And I watch anime because it is the main reason why I want to learn Japanese. So this technique is specifically designed and tailored for my learning style. It may not work for everyone, but there are plenty of other things that will. Just like there are excellent tools that I don't use because they don't fit into my learning style.

I feel that as long as you have a goal, pay attention to the important things, and ultimately enjoy yourself, you should be just fine :)


Where did you find that site with japanese subtitles if you don't mind sharing? I watch a few animes a year but it's actually harder to find them with japanese subtitles than english ones


AlyssKim, I'm making a list of shows on Netflix(United States) that have Japanese subtitles. The list is so long, that I haven't even been able to finish it! I've already listed 20 shows and i'm not even done yet! So go for Netflix :)


I can vouch for that. But i've found something even more effective (at least for me) - PC games, RPGs especially. I've switched Witcher 3, which i played at least three times, to French - both voice and subs. And it is perfect; not only I more or less know what they are talking about, because i just plain remember it, but i also have time to wait and think given text through without a hurry. Sheer extreme ammout of text and voice records in various dialects is only a cherry on top of the cake.


I used to have all of my Playstation games in German! Hahaha :-) It worked wonders! Then, later, I joined a World of Warcraft German server and that really was a major learning curve for me. I improved like lightning.

I would highly recommend videogames for language learning. :-)


hhmm...I've been wondering about the usefulness of trying video games for language learning. After reading your comment I'll definitely give it a go. Cheers.


Untranslated video games are the only reason I'm able to speak English as well as I do now. I found that games also tend to contain some words which are seldomly used otherwise. I picked up so many interesting adjectives to impress my teachers with in WoW alone.

I guess it depends on the type of video game, though. You're not gonna learn a lot by playing Fortnite in your target language but text-heavy games can get you pretty far in my opinion.


You're ESL? Man, your English is perfect!


Thank you very much, I'm German by the way. It really saddens me to see that everything is available in almost any language nowadays. While it's great to make good content more accessible, it also removes the incentive to learn and use foreign languages.


Aye, I can imagine some games would be more useful than others unless you just want to learn the names of guns. I was thinking I'll stick to text heavy RPG type stuff and try to mix genres a bit for more vocabulary too. Sorry it took 6 days to reply. I didn't get any notification or anything.

And I agree, your English is very good indeed.


"And those who watched the foreign film with subtitles in their target language improved by 17% in their target language!"

ah, this supports what Ive been saying for a long time. That's what I tend to do as if I watch a film in German, I dont know enough yet to get much out of it at all, it's a waste of time for me.

There is an exception to that thou, that being if I've choosen a film for someone AT MY CURRENT LEVEL, then it can be helpful eg watching something like Nicos Weg or Extr@ which are films for beginners and can start to build confidence in understanding.

To be trying to watch something too hard to understand is completely off putting and just hard to learn from. You end up just focusing on the English subtitles instead of focused on the German So I suggest only watch things that are suitable for your level of learning or pick something very short to watch eg I find my concentration wavers after about 6-8mins of listening to just German with trying to pick out words without subtitles. I do find that useful but only for VERY SHORT (minutes) amount of time WHILE fully focused on the german (Im do that at times with a song, shut my eyes and try to understand it)

I are managing though well if films are subtitled in German as you can see many English words coming into things but they just tend to sound different in the German.

Anyway, it's great to see a study which supports how I find things to be as I've heard quite a few here tell beginners just to go and watch films in the language they are learning but yes, it is not helpful if it's too hard. It's not much different if someone handed someone a standard book in the language the person is learning which is not for beginners and just said "read this and expected that the person will learn from it. Use things based on what level you are at.

I suggest to start up with music subtitled in both languages and then move on to music subtitled in the language you are using.


Desirable Difficulty. You want it difficult enough to challenge you, but not so difficult that you can't get anything out of it. Fortunately, our place on the learning curve constantly shifts if we're progressing, and we become more adept and capable of cultivating from "high level" sources.


Wow I think I should start to do that! Thanks for that input!


I already do, just because it sounds cool and is fun! Good to know I'm actually learning!


My experience is the opposite from the study. Watching German shows with Dutch subtitles improved my mediocre high-school German.


Remember the study mentioned here concerns Spanish students learning English over a single one-hour episode... I bet understanding German as a Dutch speaker is way easier than English as a Spanish speaker. And I bet your improvement is not over one hour but several ;-)

The study doesn't really show that watching with subtitles in your native language doesn't improve learning in the long term. It shows that over one hour, using subtitles in your target language is better.


Could you tell us more about your experience please?


The problem with that study is that it measures the improvement after watching a 1 hour long episode of a series. It would be more interesting to have a study that look at what happens after hundreds of hours.

As a non-native English speaker, the thing that made skyrocket my English listening skills many years ago was watching movies with subtitles.

Now I'm doing the same with cartoons on Netflix using Swedish dubs... Unfortunately my reading skills aren't as good as my English skills were when I started to watch movies in English. So I often switch subtitles to English. Still I find that it helps greatly help improving my Swedish skills, whether it's with Swedish or English subtitles. But the improvement only appears several hours rather than one. After a rough estimation, I've spent more than 100 hours watching cartoons with Swedish dubs and subtitles and there's still a long long way to go.


The problem with that study is that it measures the improvement after watching a 1 hour long episode of a series. It would be more interesting to have a study that look at what happens after hundreds of hours.

I was kind of curious how they collected the data (at work, can't watch the video). I'm also kinda curious how percentages were gauged, if you know that as well. Was there some kind of vocabulary test? Pronunciation test?


You can get the full text of the research on PubMed or by searching under the title (which brings it up on PlosOne).


They conducted vocabulary and listening tests. The percentages reported in this post concerns the average difference of points for the listening test. This figure gives a bit more information on the different distributions: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/figure/image?size=large&id=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0158409.g001


This will prove very useful. Time to turn off my native language subtitles and plunge in!


Very interesting. It confirms how to watch Spanish films (target language) effectively. Thank you!


Don't know about studies but I've certainly noticed the same phenomenon. Watching with foreign subtitles is challenging (unless I'm watching something that's in English) but fun and educational. Also applies to video games that have dialogue/narration.


Thanks! I'll check that out! Sounds cool.


Great - matches my personal impression :-) I'll keep doing what I'm doing.


Wow! Thank you! I've been planning to start watching Spanish language movies with Spanish subtitles!


im curious to know what these percentages would be for languages with different fundamental sentence structures, too.


Yes! Because for Japanese, English subtitles are an obvious distraction from listening because the sentence structures are so different!


Having only just started learning Chinese, I found it very helpful to listen to shows in Chinese with English subtitles. It didn't help me learn any vocabulary, but it really helped with my understanding of the accents and different pronunciations.


This is the only other research on subtitles that I found on PubMed. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19918371


I didn't expect anyone to actually have more research, so thank you kindly!!!


I have just started doing this with Spanish language movies and telenovelas. I can only understand a little right now, but it's helping me start to recognize the words better. I'm finding I can understand a few things here and there and generally follow along with what's going on. I've only been learning Spanish for about 5 months but I'm really enjoying the process.


If you're enjoying yourself, that's the most important thing, and is wonderful! :D


I totally agree. At the moment I often watch films in french synchronisation and subtitles. I would say that I read more then I listen to the sound. But even that is a good way of learning because you have to read very fast and it is in the context of the movie. The most people recommend to watch movies produced in the target language. But for me it works better to watch stuff like Star Wars or Marvel in french synchronization.


Just one hour doesn't seem particularly relevant. It is a bit like judging Duolingo by checking what people know after one hour of use. Would expect that quite a lot more exposure is needed in order to learn, and to asses that learning in a sensible way.


Though you make a fair point, I must say that at present, I would disagree that an hour isn't long enough to assess learning progress in a sensible way. In this sense, watching an hour long film is an hour's worth of full-immersion experience. And though learning is complex in it's own right, the actual learning process is not difficult to examine.

As a professional musician, who plays by ear and by sheet music, I witness firsthand the complete learning process every single time I pick up a new piece of music to learn, and then proceed to learn it within a few minutes or a few hours. A difficult musical phrase(analogous to a word for language) could be less than 1 second in real-time, but need to be practiced dozens of times to get it right. Those dozens of repetitions can happen between a few moments to a few minutes. And there could be dozens of these phrases throughout the piece, based on what you do and don't already know. My entire learning processes can be examined in the length of a 4 minute pop-song, because that song can be learned in 4 minutes. That's because the exposure has already taken place, and a lot of the time, learning anything doesn't start from "Absolute Zero".

Necessary exposure is relative to what's being learned. Getting a word into your long term memory could take weeks of spaced repition. Or it could take learning a mnemonic and never forgetting the word again. But at the end of both of those processes, it's not difficult to reason that one was more effective than the other. Or even effective in different ways.

With all of that being said, I believe the experiment accomplished it's goal. Determining that there is a significant difference in the first place.


i recentely started doing the same thing, i put the subtitles in the target language as well, to help me distinguish the words.


I grew up, for the most part, unilingual in English. many years ago, I went to live in Sweden for awhile with family, knowing only a little Swedish. I found Swedish television, which consisted of a lot of English language programming, an enormous help in learning Swedish. I would get the English, then look down at the subtitles, get idiomatic translations, and start using them in conversations. I did know enough Swedish to match them!


Thank you for sharing. Gracias por compartir. Merci d'avoir partagé


i've watched this French film The Chorus 100 times in the four years of French I took in high school. Interesting watch. watch it about 5 times with subtitles then at least once without.


i also listen to theme songs in multilanguage to better understand


One of my main techniques is actively listening to music in my target language, and theme songs are great because they are usually short and simple. But what I like to do, is specifically learn what the "Title" of the song means, in a simple literal sense. When I get to a point where the title makes sense on a fluent level, I know I've made progress in understanding more of the language,


What about video games? I wanna play amour sucre to practice my french but translating every word that I don't know would be a pain :/


Not just a pain, but it sounds unhelpful without understanding how words are formed in the language, as well as the complex grammar points and word forms...


Pretty much the key how I got from about upper intermediate understanding with bad listening comprehension to fluent in English. Shows/movies with subtitles in the target language, and eventually I’d drop the subs alltogether. The power of immersing yourself with native content is the best way to get there (best after being surrounded by natives and the culture of course) when you have big enough passive/base understanding of the language.

Now that I’ve been learning Brazilian Portuguese, I found out that shows that are dubbed are easier than fully native content like novelas (telenovelas). I can follow a dubbed tv show in BRPT more easily. The voice actors don’t quite speak the natural/native way but rather how they think the foreign character they’re playing should sound in the given situation/scene. This seems to make it more clear, and slower, really depends on the scene too. This doesn’t seem to apply to sitcom dubbings though.

Outside of Netflix, there are no BRPT subs for Brazilian shows but there are subs for movies. I started to watch a novela and the rhythm and speed of speaking is more natural compared to the dubbed tv shows. Also, since there are no subtitles available, I found out it took about 7 to 10 40min episodes to get accostumed to the way the characters speak. I still don’t understand it all but I feel like my listening comprehension and knowledge about how to use the language is getting better without even feeling like I’m practicing.


Your English is excellent too! Wow! I am thoroughly impressed!


personally, i like to watch tv shows in the languages i want to learn (with english subtitles), and i find it useful. it's really helped me with mandarin to help listen and hear each individual word (when i first start learning any language, i struggle to hear where the words end and start and it all just sounds like noise), and i find that if i hear words that i've recently learnt, i'm more likely to remember them. i've also been able to pick up a lot of new vocab and phrases from things that i've heard repeatedly in shows (such as a lot of terms of endearment, greetings, titles for people etc). other than that it's not very useful and i don't think i'm getting a lot out of it, but i still do it because i do learn a little bit and it's a lot less mentally draining on days where i still want to practice my chinese but don't want to get out my textbook or anything too much.


Any sweet series recommendations ?


I'm so sorry, I forgot to ask what language you're studying. I'm studying Japanese, and Netflix is EXCELLENT for shows with Japanese subtitles.


And here is me learning Esperanto...


Maybe if we all band together and bug Netflix to make their subtitles match the dubbed audio... Because they don't and it is super frustrating.


Probably not going to happen unfortunately. There's various reasons why the subtitles differ, often for timing and pacing - they'll often simplify or shorten to make sure all can keep up and be less distracted, at least that's the philosophy (I'm a really fast reader in English, so I mostly find it annoying when I have English subtitles on and they differ significantly). I wish it'd be perfectly accurate too, but it's a deliberate choice and is really common in subtitling.


You've had problems out of Netflix's subtitle accuracy?

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