Should I Learn English By Watching Movies With or Without Subtitles?

There are many ways to learn English, and one of them is by watching movies. Several studies have proven that watching movies aid in learning new words and enhancing overall English comprehension. 

So you’re sitting there in front of the TV because you have decided to watch a movie as a part of your English learning journey. Once you have chosen the film, the question becomes: Should I watch movies with or without subtitles?

The question then evolves to “If I do watch this movie with subtitles, should I go for the native subtitles or the English subtitles?”

There are many things to consider when your goal in watching movies is to learn English. That is why it is important to weigh the pros and cons to get the best out of your experience. 

Read on to find out what suits you best. 

The Importance of Subtitles in Learning English 

The first thing to ask yourself if you want to start watching a movie for English learning is this: Should I put on the subtitles, or not?

Is it best to learn by naturally hearing the conversations in the movie, or would I get more lessons if I read the dialogue while watching?

We researched it for you. It turns out that several studies have highlighted the importance of turning on those subtitles for maximum effectiveness of English learning through movies. 

For example, a 2013 study by the Centre for Research on Lifelong Learning showed that subtitling plays an important role in a person’s language acquisition. The study further said that “foreign language proficiency is stressing the significance of successful learning strategies, which can apply to the optimal use of subtitles.”

In a more recent study, a 2018 analysis on the role of subtitles in foreign language teaching showed that students who participated in the study believe that watching films with subtitles has” improved their listening comprehension skills” and has a “positive contribution to the development of their speaking skills”. 

While watching a movie would generally improve your English skills, turning on the subtitles turns out to be more effective. 

Why? Because subtitles add new dimensions to your learning. 

In a movie, you learn English by hearing and watching dialogues from the main characters. Subtitles, meanwhile, push this further.

Subtitles also enhance your reading skills in English. They also help you determine the proper pronunciation of words because you also hear the characters speaking them as you read the words. 

Subtitles will also tend to widen your horizons in terms of word use, comprehension, and vocabulary. While it may be more daunting at first to watch the movie and read subtitles simultaneously, subtitles give you that extra push if your goal is to learn English. 

So it’s settled, watching movies with subtitles is better for your English-learning journey. But what type of subtitles do you use?

Should you turn on the native subtitles? Or the English subtitles? 

What is the difference between the two? And more importantly, what would help me more in learning English?

The Difference Between Native and English Subtitles 

Since more movies are trying to be more inclusive and global, they are also being translated to not just one but many languages. For example, the 1979 film Jesus has been translated to more than 1,000 languages and counting, making it the most translated film of all time according to the Guinness Book of World Records. 

Aside from translations, subtitles of various languages are also on the rise. There are two important types of subtitles in learning English through movies: your native subtitle and English subtitles. 

Native subtitles are subtitles that use the language you grew up speaking. For example, if you grew up in China, native subtitles for you would be Mandarin Chinese. 

English subtitles, on the other hand, are exactly that. English subtitles are more widely used and are often used as default or universal subtitles in movies and TV shows. 

What are the Advantages of Using English Subtitles? 

3. It Promotes Subconscious Learning

Just like any other organ in the body, the brain has its limits too. If you’re trying to train your brain into learning something new, you can only focus on the lessons for a specific amount of time before your brain starts to tune out. 

This is where subconscious learning enters the picture. Subconscious learning is loosely defined as the acquisition of knowledge or skill below the conscious state of mind. 

Conscious learning is when you are actively trying to learn things like taking classes for English or reading a textbook for sentence construction. On the other hand, subconscious learning is just getting along with your daily life and learning English without you knowing it. 

This is what happens when you watch movies with English subtitles. The brain relaxes into the film’s entertaining visuals and storyline while enhancing your English reading and comprehension skills along the way.

While watching movies with English subtitles, you inevitably absorb new words, phrases, and pronunciations used in dialogues. This is an excellent way to de-stress your brain from the pressure of learning English and also pick something up along the way. 

Example: 

You already know basic English, but you want to adapt to the British accent to better understand people at work because some words and phrases are hard to pick up. Watching the entire Harry Potter film series with English subtitles can expose you to pretty heavy British English and can spur subconscious learning of the accent while having fun. 

3. It is an Easy Way to Correct Pronunciations

Pronunciations are a little bit tricky to learn, especially if you came from a background where the accent of your native language is quite heavy. You can read all the books all you want or take lessons all you want but it takes a considerable amount of exposure to English to get the hang of certain pronunciations. 

A good way to get in those “practice hours” for pronunciation is by watching a lot of English movies with subtitles. This is like shooting two birds with one stone because you will see how a particular word is spelled and how it is said in actual conversations. 

This is also an advantage for people who do not have English-speaking family members and are spending most of their time at home due to the pandemic. Because they cannot practice English with anyone, they can turn to movies to learn the pronunciation of some words. 

Example: 

The film The King’s Speech is about a man with a speaking problem who is destined to be king. The movie shows how he fixed his speaking problem and pronunciation to get better at giving speeches. 

The movie is a good example for learning English pronunciation with subtitles because not only will it give words and dialogues at the same time, it will also inspire people to improve their manner of speaking like the film’s main character. 

3. It Improves Reading Speed and Comprehension

In general, watching movies will help you learn English because of the exposure you get to the language from the dialogues in the film. But, if you want to take it a level higher, it’s time to turn on those English subtitles. 

One of the main advantages of watching films with English subtitles is that you not only learn speaking through hearing, you also learn English by reading. Reading is one of the core skills of learning a language. 

English subtitles in movies will also give you a unique opportunity of learning through reading because there are two simultaneous aspects of language learning in one activity. One is listening to English language cues through situational viewing and one through reading while observing the situation unfold. 

Overall, this unique opportunity trains the brain to read and comprehend fast. Watching movies repeatedly with English subtitles will eventually lead to faster reading skills and sharper comprehension levels. 

Example: 

The movie The Social Network is known for its fast-paced dialogue. It is written by Aaron Sorkin, a screenwriter known for his rapid-fire narrative and extended dialogue. 

Watching this movie with English subtitles is a good example of how you can greatly improve the speed of your reading and the depth of your comprehension. 

It Enhances Your Vocabulary and Spelling

Watching movies with English subtitles is also expected to expand your vocabulary and introduce you to new words. Why is that?

This is because sometimes when you watch a movie, you get so engrossed with the visuals and the storyline that dialogue takes a backseat in your brain. But when you turn on the English subtitles, you become more aware of the words used in the movie. 

This also means that even if you have already watched a movie before without subtitles, chances are you will still get to learn new words once you turn on the English subtitles. 

And, because the words are spelled out for you, you will not need to wonder what the new word’s spelling is. You acquire the correct spelling as you learn it simultaneously. 

Example: 

You may think that some movies have pretty straightforward dialogues, but will make you think twice once you are watching them with English subtitles. 

Take for example the movie Toy Story film series. Because it is a children’s movie, you will think that all words used in the movie are basic. 

However, if you turn on the subtitles, you will see phrases like: 

I’m stationed up in the Gamma Quadrant of Sector Four. As a member of the elite Universe Protection Unit of the Space Ranger Corps, I protect the galaxy from the threat of invasion from the evil Emperor Zurg, sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance.”

This is one of the main character’s lines and as you can see, it is peppered with words like Gamma, quadrant, corps, and galactic which will only warrant a second look if you read them through subtitles. 

5. It Describes Actions Into Words

Subtitles do not only put into words what is being said in the movie. It also transcribes what is currently happening in the scene. 

This is another great use of subtitles as a tool for learning English, particularly on action verbs. Sometimes, as you learn action verbs in school or books, they are only described also by words. 

For example, when people learn about the word “kick”, it will often be described to learners as “to strike forcibly with a foot”. While that is clear, it is still hard to visualize if you have not heard the word yet in your entire life. 

In turning English subtitles in movies, however, you will see that the text will read “main character kicks the door”, as the protagonist kicks the door open. This will give you a better idea of what the word means. 

Example: 

Action movies like the Avengers film series, James Bond film series, and Mission Impossible film series are good examples of learning actions through subtitles. The subtitles of these movies will be full of instances where it describes the actions of the character in words. 

You’ll often see words here like jumped, kicked, punched, broke down, followed, evaded, and many more that will enhance your English understanding. 

What are the Disadvantages of Using English Subtitles? 

1. It Is Not for Everyone

For beginners who have absolutely no knowledge of the English language, English subtitles may not work well for you. Watching English movies with English subtitles will only confuse you and give you information overload.

It may also make you frustrated that you can’t keep up in reading and comprehending everything at the same time. This will cause discouragement on your part and may lead to you taking a step back in actually learning. 

It can also be a nuisance if the movie is in your native language and you put on the subtitles in English. This can be quite confusing as you already understand the movie and you find yourself switching between two languages at the same time. 

Some movies, especially those that are focused on certain traditions, ethnic backgrounds, or cultures, also do not do well with English subtitles. This is because some words in the dialogues don’t have an English counterpart. 

Example: 

Some movies are not very straightforward in their storytelling. For example, the movie Inception is a science fiction film that challenges the understanding of the viewer’s reality. 

Since this is a more complicated English movie, it will be a bit harder for some, especially beginner English learners, to watch this with English subtitles. This is because they would find it difficult to pick up cues that could be related to the English subtitles. 

Thus, in movies like this, and for beginner learners, putting on English subtitles will not help in becoming fluent in the English language.

2. It Can Promote Too Much Dependence on Subtitles

This is one simple, but important disadvantage of using English subtitles to watch out for. Because English subtitles aid a lot in learning and understanding the movie, especially the linguistic aspect of it, there is always that tendency to be dependent on it. 

If you’re already a fluent English speaker and you become dependent on subtitles to better understand the movie dialogues, that is fine. However, if your goal in watching a movie is to learn and hone your English skills, then you have to bear in mind that subtitles are there to increase your knowledge of the language. 

You will know if you are becoming too dependent on the subtitles if you experience the following when watching a movie. 

  • When your eyes are fixated on the subtitles than the actual scenes
  • When you press pause too often because you hadn’t had the chance to read the subtitles
  • When you remember most of the dialogues but don’t remember most of the scenes

Once you recognize these, it will be easy for you to snap out of your dependence on subtitles and start challenging your brain to understand and be more efficient in learning English. 

Example: 

Romance films like The Notebook could be examples of this. Because the dialogue is often too interesting, you tend to focus on reading the words rather than watching the movie.

It is understandable for English learners to be drawn to scripts like this but if you just read on without relating the words to the actions in the movie then your learning won’t be complete. 

What are the Advantage of Using Native Subtitles? 

One advantage of using native subtitles is that you can test yourself and your progress in learning English. You can also verify if your understanding of English words is correct. 

What you can do is if you are watching a particular movie many times over to learn the language or to understand the particular English accent, you can test yourself by switching the subtitles back to native ones. 

From there, you can repeat back the lines in English for practice, or you can analyze if you heard the word right by verifying what it means in the native subtitle. 

The only problem with this is that, before you use native subtitles, you have to be familiarized already with the English subtitles. That means you cannot use native subtitles alone in learning English. 

You still have to use English subtitles, and then use native subtitles as a supplement to learning through movies. 

What are the Disadvantages of Using Native Subtitles? 

1. It Does Not Ensure Direct Translation 

Language translations are complicated. In any language, some words do not fully capture the essence of a phrase when it is translated to another language.

This is why it is quite tricky to use native subtitles, especially in English movies. These types of subtitles do not ensure direct translation of the movie’s script.

This is especially detrimental to English learners because it can cause confusion and discouragement to switch back and forth between two languages. 

Example: 

Idioms in movies are a good illustration of this point. For example, in the movie Despicable Me 2, when Gru – the main character – was putting the girls to sleep, he told one kid: “Hey! Hold your horses.”

In English, it might be obvious that it is an idiom, but if this is translated, it can be misunderstood as holding an actual horse. 

2. It Can Be Distracting to Read and Translate

English subtitles on English movies are helpful because they reinforce your understanding of the dialogues in the movie. However, native subtitles on English movies can be hard to catch up to. 

For those who cannot understand English at all, native subtitles are okay. But for those who are actively trying to learn English, native subtitles can be a distraction in language acquisition.

This is because the brain will find it hard to process an entire storyline, understand the characters’ English dialogues, and read in another native language. If the brain is too busy on those things, it is less likely to absorb English skills along the way like new words and phrases. 

Example: 

This is especially true in intense movies like Fight Club or The Matrix, where the script and the scenes almost always put you at the edge of your seat. 

If your brain has too much to process and figure out, then it will not likely have space to subconsciously learn along the way. 

3. It Can Be Hard to Find 

Because English is a universal language, English subtitles are practically available for every movie there is. However, that is not the case for native subtitles. 

Depending on what language you speak, native languages are not always easy to find. This can be discouraging when you’re choosing a movie to watch.

Also, this limits your choices of movies you can watch to learn English and, therefore, limits your opportunities to learn various aspects of the language. 

Example: 

You want to learn about climate change, and you decide to watch the 2006 movie An Inconvenient Truth, and you want to use a native language subtitle. However, your native language is not available.

This will force you to watch a different movie, thereby limiting your choices and learning opportunities. 

Weighing the Options — To use or not use Subtitles

There are many things to consider in deciding whether you should use subtitles in your movies and whether you should use a native or English subtitle set. 

However, if enhancing your English through movies is your goal, then the answer is pretty obvious. Using subtitles, especially English ones, will give you the best boost in acquiring more English language skills. 

Subtitles will help you learn various English skills in one movie. You will not only be acquiring English exposure by listening to their dialogues, but you’ll also acquire reading skills. 

English subtitles allow you to promote subconscious learning while being entertained and help you correct certain words’ pronunciations. They will also enhance your vocabulary and will describe specific actions for you. 

These advantages far outweigh the one benefit of using native subtitles – which is to test your proficiency. 

You also have to be wary of using native subtitles because they don’t ensure direct translation; they can be tedious to read and translate and hamper progress. 

Aside from that, they can be a distraction to learning and watching too. 

So if you’re getting ready for a movie marathon to boost your English language skills in your downtime, make sure to turn on the English subtitles! This way, you’re not only keeping yourself entertained, but you’re also learning.

Leave a Comment