Should you watch movies with subtitles?

Some people say you should use subtitles in English all the time.

Others say you should never use them!

The truth about subtitles is a little more complicated than that. So let’s explore it together.

Read to the end to find out my favourite subtitle tip.

If you prefer watching videos to reading, hit play on the video version of this post below to find out my answer to the question – should you watch movies with subtitles? 

Should You Watch Movies With Subtitles? Story Time

In my many years of teaching English with films, I’ve heard a lot of stories about subtitles.

A native English speaker recently told me that he mastered Spanish by watching all the classics, like Almodovar’s movies, with subtitles.

But English learners have told me the opposite story. They can recognise all the words on the subtitles, but can’t catch these words without them.

As for my point of view on subtitles, I need to take you back to when I was learning French at university in the mid-2000s.

Back then, I used to borrow video cassettes of French movies from the library – remember them?. Because I thought that watching French movies at home was a great way to get tons of immersion in the French language.

But the problem with videocassettes is that they don’t have subtitles! So I would watch these movies and get frustrated because I was missing lots of the dialogue. It sounded like the actors were mumbling.

All I could hear at some points was”pss wss wss wss pss”. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve struggled to watch movies in English.

So when I was an intermediate French learner, watching movies with no subtitles didn’t actually help me. What would have helped, is being able to use the subtitles or even the movie script to check what I was missing. Were the words new or were they just pronounced differently?

Subtitles: You Can Choose

And this brings me to a really important point about subtitles which is: you can choose when to use or when not to use them.

And whether or not you use subtitles depends on what you’re doing. I run a Movie Club for English learners and this is how we use subtitles when we watch a film each month.

One of my students, who has been in movie club for three years, still uses subtitles when she watches our monthly movie.

And I fully support that. I don’t actually mind how my club members watch our monthly movie – subtitles, no subtitles, dubbed into their own language etc. The initial goal is just to watch the movie, follow the story and start discussing it. The goal is not to understand it in perfect detail.

So if you’re watching for pleasure for instance, no need to stress yourself out. Watch with the subtitles if that makes watching the movie more enjoyable.

Understanding in detail comes after! And here you need to be more careful about the subtitles.

When To Turn On The Subtitles

Once my club members have all watched the film, they work on listening and speaking tasks from specific scenes of the movie.

When they work on their listening skills, they listen to lines of dialogue with no subtitles several times and try to write what they hear. This listening exercise is called dictation. And it helps you to catch all the details that you normally miss.

After they’ve listened a few times and they’re ready to check their work, then they look at the subtitles to see what words they missed or misheard. And what they got right of course.

So when you’re studying a particular scene from a movie in detail, which I recommend you do, that’s a really good opportunity to watch without subtitles first and then use the subtitles afterwards.

Another time that you might like to use the subtitles is when you want to note down new vocabulary.

So if you hear a new expression that seems interesting or useful when you’re watching the movie or when you’re working on a scene, you can turn on the subtitles to make sure that you write down the new expression correctly.

Should you watch movies with subtitles?

My Favourite Piece Of Subtitle Advice

Now, I promised you my favourite piece of subtitle advice at the end. And congratulations – you’ve made it!

This brilliant tip came from my friend Elfin who teaches Italian and has spent a lot of time reassuring her Italian learners that it’s okay to use subtitles when they need to.

And her tip is – turn the subtitles on and off while you watch a movie.

For example, if you’re watching a movie for pleasure, but you know you’ll get stuck sometimes, then allow yourself to turn on the subtitles when you do.

Or if you feel bad about using subtitles, because somebody on the Internet told you to never use them, then why not just have them on for five minutes and then take them off for five minutes.

Try it and see if this tip works for you.

Should You Watch Movies With Subtitles?

So there you have it – my answer to the question, should you watch movies with subtitles?. I guess we can say my answer is yes and no. Or rather, it depends what you’re doing.

If you’d like to improve your English listening skills (and more) so you can understand films and native speakers in real life, make sure you join the waiting list for my movie club. 

Let me know in the comments. How do you watch movies and TV shows in English? With subtitles? Without subtitles? A mixture? How would you answer the questions, should you watch movies with subtitles? 

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