Subtitled Movies and Language Learning

Article in partnership with Day Translations.

What’s the deal with subtitles in foreign movies and how they can help people learn a language?

An article in The Conversation discussed the link between watching movies with subtitles and being a passive learner of a foreign language. It turns out it is not automatic that you will become a better speaker of another language by simply consuming subtitled content. In a nutshell, the article looked at studies of language learners at various levels from beginner to advanced and how having subtitles in a foreign language movie helped their understanding of the plot and conversations. It turned out that beginners benefited from having subtitles in a very specific scenario, i.e., when the foreign movie was dubbed into their native language and they could read subtitles in the foreign language. This device consolidated their understanding of the vocabulary and of words in their right context.

Learning Languages Requires Effort

Just like it is an urban myth that you can learn a language by listening to a recording while you sleep (do you ever remember what the content of a podcast was the morning after you slept through it?), just watching foreign movies in their original language while aided by subtitles is not enough to acquire language proficiency.

You are more likely to become better at a foreign language that you are already studying if you also watch undubbed movies in that language at the same time. Subtitled films can be a way to support and consolidate your learning.

Translated subtitles may or may not help with learning; some studies have concluded that matching the language for both dialogue and subtitles can improve the memorisation of vocabulary, as the learner is presented with an audio and a video representation of the same words. It’s also worth mentioning that individuals have their own learning styles: some prefer visual learning over auditory learning, for example. Learning styles therefore must be taken into account when approching the study of a new language.

So, if your main aim currently is to broaden your vocabulary and learn common expression used in every day conversations, you will benefit from watching subtitled movies.

However, if you are also planning to be able to converse in your chosen language, passive learning is not enough and you need to find ways to practise speaking the language.

Should Companies Use Subtitled Video Content?

It has been argued that having subtitled online content can help improve language skills and break down language barriers (sources: happyscribe, Publications Office of the European Union, PLOS).

Language students were tested after watching subtitled online content and the results showed that vocabulary and comprehension improved with subtitles compared to without subtitles.

In 2011 the European Commission, one of the institutions of the European Union, ran a survey among 6,000 people across 33 countries and 5,000 students, in which they were asked about their preferences between dubbed and subtitled movies and their language skills. The results showed that the majority preferred subtitled content and that they found reading subtitles to be more of an incentive to learn a foreign language compared to simply watching a dubbed movie or TV series. The ultimate goal of this study is to evaluate how the European Commission can encourage an environment of multilingualism across the European Union and beyond.

In the corporate sector, companies can use subtitles to break down language barriers both internally with their employees and externally with clients and business partners.

In the specific case of corporate training videos, subtitles can increase the engagement and understanding of the content. Having subtitles can also increase the inclusion and accessibility of the content in video conferencing.