Can you learn a language by watching movies with subtitles?

The short answer is yes. Just like closed captions help ESL learners improve their English skills, subtitles are an effective way to reinforce foreign language learning.

Among many benefits, subtitles offer a new approach to language comprehension. In fact, a study by Holger Mitterer (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics) and James McQueen confirms that when used as a supplement to regular studying, subtitles help students learn a language faster.

One of the main findings of this study was that hearing and reading a foreign language at the same time helps a person’s phonetic understanding of it. Additionally, it helps build familiarity with vocabulary and sounds of the language.

What are some of the other benefits of watching movies with subtitles? Watching movies with subtitles turned on:

  • Increases reading speed and listening comprehension
  • Grows vocabulary
  • Improves word recognition and grammar
  • Helps with visualization of a new language
Subtitles Increase Reading Speed and Listening Comprehension

Being able to understand and make sense of what you read and hear is one of the most challenging aspects of learning a new language. When a native speaker talks, the sound units of speech connect quickly and can often be indistinguishable to the untrained ear.

Unlike language learning apps or foreign language classes that typically slow down the speaking rate, movies with subtitles play at the same pace as a normal conversation. For new language learners, this may feel fast. The benefit of this is that it will stretch your listening comprehension and also help to increase your reading speed.

Subtitles Grow Your Vocabulary

One of the best benefits of watching foreign films is the growth that you can experience with the language. Not only will you learn a whole new set of conversational phrases and idioms, but you’ll experience them in context. Usually, this can be hard to master and requires time spent conversing with others who speak that language. Watching foreign films with subtitles on can speed up this learning process.

Pro-tip: Repeat movie lines and common phrases out loud to master new vocabulary. Over time, this will help you sound more confident and natural when speaking.

Subtitles Improve Word Recognition and Grammar

While you might know one way to say everyday words such as lunch or hotel, movies expose you to new phrases. Some of which might be more common than the traditional word you learned. How so? More often than not, foreign films use less formal, slang words that are common among native speakers. Reading subtitles is a great way for viewers to expand their vocabulary.

Reading subtitles as they play on the screen also improves grammar. Take advantage of the pause button, and stop to study the captions on the screen. This helps language learners identify and understand verb types, tenses, and phrases. Seeing a new language in this unconventional way leads to better overall comprehension.

And the Visual Nature of Movies Adds an Extra Impact

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then movies are worth a million. Especially when it comes to learning a new language. The visual aspect of film helps to support listening comprehension along with vocabulary recall. In addition to new vocab, you get a visual to associate with it. This means that individuals learn more when watching a movie with subtitles than just listening to audio.

Another component to the visual nature of movies is the motivation it provides language learners. When compared to pouring over conjugation flashcards, a movie feels like a treat.

Tips for Learning a New Language by Turning On Subtitles

Feeling motivated to learn a new language with subtitles? Here’s how you can start right away.

  1. For beginners, start by turning on subtitles while the audio is still in your native language. Doing so helps with word recognition. Once you’re feeling more confident, you can switch the audio language to the same language as the subtitles. This will greatly help to reinforce the first benefit listed above.
  2. Watch short, entertaining videos. Why? These videos tend to have less challenging vocabulary. Also, a three minute YouTube short can feel a lot less daunting than a feature-length film. Even though these videos aren’t full-length movies, you’ll still receive all of the benefits listed above.
  3. Turn on subtitles for the current series you’re binge-watching on Netflix. You’re already investing time in this series, why not learn something while you’re at it?
  4. Do you have a go-to TV show or movie that you know by heart? Turn on subtitles and re-watch them that way. Since you already know the general plot line, this will make reading and comprehending those subtitles that much easier.
  5. Repeat! Find a movie that will be enjoyable and continuously watch it until you can talk along with the actors. This is a proven approach for many language learners.
  6. Choose a section of the movie or show that’s engaging to you. First, watch it and absorb what’s going on culturally. Then, re-watch it again but this time focus on the dialogue. Take note of the phrases that are meaningful to you.
Wrap-up

Subtitles are a fun, non-conventional way to truly dive into a new language. Stay tuned for our follow-up post on some of the best movies and shows on Netflix for improving your language skills.