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Subtitles: A Language Learning Tool?

By Nicole at Accredited Language
Updated on Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Category: Languages, Languages, Technology, Technology, Voice Overs & Subtitling

Subtitles in any language are a wonderful way to let people enjoy films from other cultures and countries — but for language learners, subtitles might offer a new path to language comprehension.

When you’re watching a foreign film, consider the language of the subtitles you’re viewing. A 2009 study shows that paying attention to subtitles can boost language learning, if you know how to use them.

The study, by Holger Mitterer (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics) and James McQueen (MPI and Radboud University Nijmegen), compares the language absorption of Dutch viewers who watched video clips in their secondary language, English. The clips had either Scottish or Australian accents, both of which were difficult for the Dutch viewers to comprehend.

One group watched accented English video clips with subtitles in their native language, while the other group saw the clips with English subtitles.

After only 25 minutes of viewing, the results showed that participants could not only pick up quotations from the film, but could also understand new phrases they hadn’t yet heard — as long as the subtitles were in the language of the film.

Subtitles Help Accented Language Learning

The study focused on the effects of subtitles in accented language processing, using video clips with regionally accented English that can be difficult for language learners to understand.

Excerpts were shown from the film “Trainspotting,” which takes place in Scotland, and the Australian sitcom “Kath & Kim.” Viewers were asked to repeat certain words from the excerpts after viewing the clips.

Both groups showed improvement in their understanding of the accented English, no matter which subtitles they watched. But when researchers asked participants to repeat words from new clips, only those who had watched the subtitles in English showed an improved performance.

Why does this happen? Subtitles allow an accented language to become more intelligible for any viewer. But when those subtitles are in your native language, your understanding is purely meaning-based — if you don’t understand the word, you read and process the subtitles in your native language.

But when the subtitles are in the language of the film, you are able to hear the new accent while reading the text.

Simultaneously hearing and reading foreign words helps incorporate what you hear into your phonetic understanding of the language, so you can understand future words as they come up — and familiarize yourself with the sounds of your new language.

Using Subtitles as an Educational Tool

What does this mean for subtitles? Language learning can be furthered by the use of subtitles, but the industry’s current system won’t make the cut. The current default for many films’ subtitles is the language of the target audience, rather than the language of the film.

Researchers in this study are hoping to make these native language subtitles optional for the viewer, and encourage language teachers to show films with only subtitles in the second language.

So when you grab the popcorn and turn on the TV, remember that adding subtitles in the right language can make a difference — not only in your understanding, but also your future language skills!

6 Responses to “Subtitles: A Language Learning Tool?”

  1. Greg McCall Says:

    There are also detailed studies on the effacacy of using Karaoke-style-subtitling for general literacy and reading growth in any language. See Same-Language-Subtitling use and studies at &

    Adding Same-Language-Subtitling (always on, dynamic karaoke-style captioning) to all music video would be an affordable and effective way to impact world wide literacy levels.

  2. david Says:

    I’ve been Chinese and subtitles in Chinese aren’t very usefully until you can read Chinese ( a catch 22, since that takes a long time). If they were in phonetic and Chinese it might help, but you never find that. I did a auto translation of an srt to pinyin once or twice but they’re So-so.

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