Subtitles and language learning

When I’m watching Japanese TV, I try to make use of Japanese subtitles instead of English subtitles as much as possible. But until recently, I had never given much thought to whether native-language or target language subtitles are better for language learners.

The following is a list of what I think are the main pros and cons for using native language and foreign language subtitles:

Native language subtitles

  • No matter what your level, foreign language content is accessible, which is great for listening practice. This is good for themes requiring specialist knowledge and/or vocabulary.
  • You can begin to make associations between words in your target language and words in your native language. I find that this is most likely to happen with everyday vocabulary.

Target language subtitles

  • Helps you to recognise common sentence patterns and vocabulary. For example, with Japanese, I found watching TV really helped me to understand more casual types of speech. Since we only studied polite language (ます/です) in class for quite a while before learning the plain form, this made things much easier when it was introduced.
  • You can focus on how certain situational phrases are used. This is especially good for phrases that don’t really translate to English, such as 失礼します (shitshurei shimasu) and お疲れ様でした (otsukaresama deshita) in Japanese.
  • It is much easier to recognise the words that you do not understand (and then look them up in the dictionary). Even in our native language, we often mishear things, and when we use native language subtitles it is easy to overlook words that we don’t know the meaning of.

As the above shows, both types of subtitles can have their own benefits. The choice between target and native language subtitles often depends on your language level and familiarity with the source material.

One way to make have the best of both words is to watch something without any subtitles, then again with target language subtitles, and then with native language subtitles. Fortunately, YouTube, Netflix and Viki make switching subtitles pretty easy.

Viki is especially good as dual language subtitles are available using the Learn Mode. This feature already exists for Korean and Chinese and is now in beta mode for Japanese.

Screenshot 2018-10-29 at 22.22.18.png
You can click on any word from the target language subs to get the English meaning – really useful!

My experiences with Learn Mode so far have been very positive and you get both benefits of native and foreign language subtitles.

Transitioning to target-language subtitles

As you progress in your language learning, you will be able to benefit even more from target-language subtitles. Here are my tips on moving towards using them over native language subtitles:

  • Choose something that you are really interested in, especially if you plan on watching it multiple times.
  • Try to choose something that is not too complicated. I recommend starting off with shows that closely relate to everyday life – because choosing something on a niche topic unrelated to something you already have knowledge of will only succeed in leaving you demotivated. Cultural differences can exacerbate this problem too.
  • Doing a bit of homework in your native language before watching anything helps a lot. This could be:
    • Reading the synopsis of a film in your native language
    • Reading the original book if you plan to watch a film adaptation (and vice versa).
    • Watching the trailer before watching the film
    • Reading a (spoiler-free) review

I might even write down names of key characters and locations. I find that doing this helps a great deal when you are actually watching a TV show. It means that you are not wasting precious time trying to remember the name of the main character’s sister!

  • Break shows down into smaller chunks. It’s much easier to watch TV series rather than films because TV episodes are shorter.
    • Watching without native language subtitles requires a high level of concentration which is hard to sustain for a 90+ minute film.
    • TV shows also have the advantage of being much easier to follow as you get used to how characters speak.
    • If you do choose a film, try watching it over a number of sessions to build your confidence.
  • Have a notepad handy and make a note of words and phrases that you didn’t understand or find interesting. I then look these up at the end of my listening session and add to my vocabulary list to review later.

…and if I get stuck?

Don’t beat yourself up if there is a phrase you just don’t understand. It is highly likely as a learner that you will encounter:

  • A slang word/ phrase
  • An idiom or saying
  • A word pronounced in a strange way (or said in different accent)
  • A pun
  • Words that merge together when spoken quickly
upset-2681502_1920
Keep calm and carry on, even if you are feeling like this!

When you come across things like this, you could record a clip of what is being said and ask a friend or language partner to explain what is going on.

In some cases, I find that continuing to watch the show can help – later developments in the story might fill in gaps from what you missed earlier.

If you can turn on English subtitles, don’t be afraid to turn them on. Just because you do not understand something right now, doesn’t mean you will never understand it.

Obviously, the ideal situation is not to have any subtitles at all. Becoming too reliant on subtitles is unlikely to improve your listening or reading skills in your target language. One thing I try to do is to read native language subtitles as quickly as I can so that I can focus on the spoken language.

Sometimes you have to take the plunge and watch things without any subtitles – how much you do understand might just surprise you!

What is your stance on this? Do you go for native language subtitles, target language subtitles or none at all? Let me know in the comments!

0 thoughts on “Subtitles and language learning

    • kotobites says:

      I love VS Arashi and wish there were subs available (in English anyway, I’ve seen Chinese and Korean subs). It’s so fun to watch, even if I don’t catch everything!

  1. Japanese Language Journey says:

    I generally try to watch the program 3 times – once with English subtitles, then again with Japanese subtitles, then again with no subtitles. I find that I pick up more words every time. It can be kind of boring, though!

Leave a Reply