Subtitles or not?

Subtitles – on or not?

If I had a pound for every time a student asked me about putting subtitles on when they watch UK or US TV series, I’d have retired from teaching and bought myself a yacht by now.

So, let’s get down to it..

When you shouldn’t put subtitles on.

If you want to practise your listening skills, or improve your ability to understand spoken English, you probably shouldn’t put the subtitles on.

Why not?

Well, for a start, it’s already easier for follow the plot of a film, or episode of your favourite series than it is to understand someone talking to you in real life. You might think you’re listening, but you’re probably just hearing the noise of people talking.

Yes, you’re probably understanding the general idea. But, in part that’s because most film and tv plots are very predictable . OK, not always, but most of the time.

Subtitles or not

A storyboard

Also, remember that movies and series are carefully storyboarded. This means that the images tell the story without any words. Not convinced? Ask any film student what they spend their time doing, or watch this version of the first Indiana Jones film. Do you really need to hear what they’re saying?

Once you start adding subtitles, life gets even easier. I’ve watched a lot of French films with subtitles, but I don’t speak a word of French. Why? Because in addition to the images that tell me the story, who the good guys are, etc, I have the words everyone is saying on the screen.

Subtitles or not

Vocabulary ‘test’

It’s like when people write two columns of words – one in English and one in Spanish and then ‘test’ themselves by covering one column with their hand. Except that here you’re not even covering one column with your hand!

In short, with all this information, your brain has ZERO motivation to actually listen and so it doesn’t.

subtitles on not?

But what if I put the subtitles on in English?

Again, assuming you want to improve your listening, it’s hard to see how much difference this makes, to be honest.

My personal experience with subtitles – when I started to learn Italian – was that I simply learnt how to read quickly!

This isn’t a bad skill to have in a second language, but….

So that’s a no, then?

Look, if your aim is to improve your listening skills, then no. Of course, you’ll probably get the general idea of the story, but it’s very, very hard to be sure you did that by listening.

When it’s OK to put the subtitles on.

If you’re looking to learn vocabulary, then subtitles are great.

BUT you should stop the film and make a note of the word, or phrase. Simply watching and hoping you’ll remember things is unrealistic.

I mean, obviously, if you watch enough TV and the words are repeated often enough, you will pick up some words and phrases without making notes. After 3 series of Borgen – I can say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘thank you’ in Danish. But that took me about 30 hours!

If you don’t believe me, test yourself. Watch 30 minutes of TV and 30 minutes after it ends, ask yourself how much vocabulary you remember. Then ask yourself again the next day.

Subtitles or not?

TV for English, TV for pleasure

Making notes probably means you need to separate your watching things in English for pleasure from your watching things in English to learn vocabulary because it will take around 5 hours to watch a 90 minute film!

But that’s no bad thing. In fact, I’d say the best thing is to separate the two things even more.

Spend 15 minutes a day listening to some English really carefully, or 15 minutes 100% focussed on learning vocabulary every day, and then watch your favourite TV series – with or without subtitles, whichever is most enjoyable – as a reward for all your effort!

So, what about you? Do you watch with subtitles or not? Have I made you think about changing what you do?

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