IWTYAL 088: Should I watch movies with subtitles?

Pete asks: “I’m learning Portuguese, should I watch movies with subtitles?”

In this episode:

  • Why movies are not a useful learning strategy for beginners
  • What to do instead

10 ways to make the most out of movies:

  1. Try to find movies that you’ve already seen, but dubbed into your target language
  2. Watch the same movie over and over, rather than a new one each time.
  3. Turn off the subtitles!
  4. Don’t stop and start the movie to look things up in the dictionary.
  5. Instead, you can keep a notebook next to you and jot down words and phrases that catch your attention.
  6. Whatever you do, watch things you enjoy!
  7. If you can find the script for a movie you like, move heaven and earth to get it!
  8. Whilst watching, try to engage with the story line.
  9. If you do understand something that’s said, repeat it aloud
  10. Watch TV series rather than movies.

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  • dandiprat

    I used to worry about this, too, but it really does just go away as you get better. I guess prolonged immersion does help some.

  • acutia

    Hi, there Olly.

    I’m a regular listener and while I sometimes disagree with your positions or advice, this is the first time I felt I need to comment.
    I found your reasons for rejecting using watching movies in your target language as a study method somewhat excessive. You overplay your hand a little with some of the way you describe the negatives. My position is that it can be a very helpful and engaging way to work with and explore both you target language and culture at whatever level you are at. If… and it’s a big, if you clearly distinguish when you are only watching passively and when you are watching actively.
    In your ten tips you suggest several ways that you can make watching movies into an active way to engage with meaning and form of the language. I use some of these and several others. And, as I watch mostly digitally from on my computer, I can easily and quickly grab, phrases, words, note questions, or if I want I can stop and look up any queries. or record my thoughts.

    Some of the other things I do are:
    1) shadow dramatic expressions, phrases (in the accent tone of the actor if you can).
    2) If a bit of dialogue catches your fancy listen to it again and then speak the audio into google translate on a Smartphone, and see if can recognise your voice and what the translation gets right or wrong. later I may copy and paste the text for using in an Anki deck or grammar exploration hunt.
    3) use the A-B repeat option in apps like vlc to loop a short phrase to hear it spoken 10x times
    4) try and spot where the L2 subtitles are abbreviated or different to the spoken L2 audio and why?
    5) try and spot peoples accents and isolate why they sound different. Due to this I can now distinguish more German varieties Austrian, Swiss, Sachisch, Berlinerisch.
    6) a useful tip for German learners is to try using the version on ARD & ZDF with audio description for the blind (Hörfassung). The spoken description is in very simple language and just describes the objects and events on screen. If I was a beginner in German I would just listen and try to understand the audio while watching, but now I mostly try to do speak my version before the audio description occurs.
    6) If I’m feeling tired and don’t want to do a intensive watching approach (stop start-check, etc) I will just screengrab moment with interesting expressions or dialogue which I can return to later if I want.

    • Hi, thanks for the comment. All great ideas. I’d just say that what you’re describing is a wonderful approach to studying, but something that most people simply will not do…hence the reason for my stance on movies being what it is.

      Anything can be turned into a great tool for studying, if done in an active and engaging way, but I try to restrict my responses to the advice I believe will have most impact on most people. For many people, time, energy and focus are in short supply, and for this reason I feel it’s important to focus them on the activities that will give them the biggest ROI.

  • ToGusDS

    Hey Olly.
    I totally agree if you watch movies with subtitles on your own language then, you’re just wasting your time. And watching movies with subtitles on your target language, it’s more reading than something else.

    But watching series it would be so helpful, because you don’t get tired and you can get used to the voices of the people in the show.

  • Luis

    Hi Olly,

    In this episode you say that watching a movie with audio and subtitles, both in the target language, is not helpful because one end up just reading the subtitles. I know that there is some research that shows that when you have two channels of information you just process one of them, the most comfortable one (the human brain cannot process both at the same time). Even thou that is true, some people recommend to read a book and listen the corresponding audio book at the same time. Actually, If I remember well, you recommended that in a past episode. Do you think that there is a difference between watching a movie and reading a book in this regard?

    Thank you for your time.

    Luis (Argentina)

  • Juan Campo

    Hi Olly,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I’m learning English. My level is near B2. In your opinion, which TV series are the easiest to understand?

    Best regards!