Learning languages through subtitles 'the wrong way round'

Just out of interest how useful do people find watching documentaries/films etc in you own language (in my case English) with subtitles in the foreign language (in my case Spanish or Russian)? Rather than the more ‘normal’ way of doing it by watching a foreign film with English subtitles.

My own opinion is that I probably find it almost as useful - though not the listening side obviously - because I can understand everything that is said and then I can concentrate on looking at the structures for complicated words/phrases, particularly if it is a documentary with quite complex material. But maybe this is because English is such a dominant language that there is simply far more material available than any other language.

To be honest, I don´t get the point.

Normally, people are having the problem that their reading skills are far better than their listening skills. Listening to your native language while reading your target language would make that gap even bigger. If you want to learn how to read, reading/listening/translating on LingQ should be more effective than reading subtitles.

Watching stuff in French with French(!) subtitles , on the other hand, helped me a lot when I was a beginner.

“But maybe this is because English is such a dominant language that there is simply far more material available than any other language.”

This might be true for Frisian or Luxembourgish…but languages like Spanish and Russian should have more movies, documentaries (etc.) than you could ever watch.

When doing input activities for a language other than English, I generally don’t like for the language being inputed to be English.

If you are getting the meaning of the words by listening to English, your brain is not getting used to getting meaning from Spanish. If you are not advanced enough to understand spoken Spanish, you ought to be reading, I think

It could be useful for the beginners-2 or low intermediaters to watch the films with subtitles, but only the film and subtitles must be in the target language how Paule said.
Then you can stop the film in the place where you have some difficult grammar structures or unknown vocabulary, read the subtitles and think about the meaning.
But our goal is to learn the language to such an extend when we needn’t subtitles to understand the core content of the story.
I experienced in watching films in this succession: at first I watch the film without subtitles to have a main idea of the contents.
For the second time I watch the film with subtitles to understand some details.
And then some days later I watch the film for the third time again without subtitles.
However, it works well for the American films, but it doesn’t work for the French films because my French vocabulary is still unsufficient for films.

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Youtube has a lot of great, old Soviet films (e.g. the channel “Mosfilm”). All are subtitled in English, unfortunately for me. It is too difficult at my current level to listen to Russian dialogue and read English subtitles. I have tried to watch the films, and read the Russian transcripts of them at http://www.vvord.ru/ , but it is a bit of a hassle to organise the video window and the transcript window on the laptop. However, this is currently the best solution for me.

I advice against it, for reasons stated by Paule89, dvlbass and Prof. Arguelles (from HTLAL):

“Regarding listening to L1 while reading L2—I do not even know how this would be possible or why you would want to try it. Would you get a recorded book in English with a Spanish transcript when you do not know Spanish well or at all and English is your native tongue? Then both the sound of the recording and your ability to process it would so far outpace your ability to stay focused on the Spanish that I would not understand the purpose of the exercise.”


Haven’t tried this myself, but it is spoken of on this clip, although the discussion is not about using video but just audiobooks. - YouTube The main discussion starts at 11:00 minutes into the clip. Elsewhere he mentions Prof. Arguelles’ views about this. If I recall correctly, he says the Prof. is in favor. But I may recall incorrectly. (I don’t have time to re-listen now, but I’ll get back to it as soon as I can.)

These videos by deka glossai almost always are quite interesting. He frequently takes far too long to make his points, and he repeats himself, but even so he usually provides plenty of food for thought.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to put this into systematic practice enough to evaluate its effectiveness, but I definitely have experienced potential benefit, especially in the earliest language-learning phases.

My use is simple: to find sample content to break down and focus on. If I’m watching TV or a movie or the news in my L1, I follow what I hear effortlessly. By virtue of the format, subtitles are concise (and often simplified). Sure, there are plenty of times when a long sentence gets broken up over several lines of subtitles and other such problems, but there are plenty of cases as well where short, simple sentences can be equated and compared.

To contrast: I can listen to L2 and use L1 subtitles to check my understanding, but it’s always a battle to listen to the end of the L2 phrase before letting myself notice the L1 subtitles. If I read through the L1 subtitles quickly and try to anticipate the wording of the L2 audio, I’m constantly asserting my potentially mistaken patterns and hopefully noticing where I make mistakes to take correction. If I find a line that I want to learn from, I have to rely on my imperfect listening skills in L2 and assume I’m accurately hearing it (it becomes a game of “telephone”). But if I listen to L1 with L2 subtitles, I can immediately see the authentic target phrase and make a guess about what it means based on the context, confirming it as I then hear the audio in L1. I’m therefore receiving patterns in L2 rather than making guesses about them, which I think improves natural-sounding phrasing and word choice in the long run. Lastly, when I have a phrase that I want to save and focus on, I can trust my L1 listening to accurately pick up the meaning and rely on the unambiguous L2 subtitles to find new patterns and phrasing to later re-examine.

I found this to be useful when I was a very new student of Mandarin (which I hope to pick up again someday!), sitting in a hostel in Taipei boredly watching American TV shows with Mandarin subtitles.

Of course, once I get more into a language I need to dive into L2 audio to improve my listening comprehension; still, I see a limited place for listening to L1 and reading L2 subtitles. It’s also a great compromise to develop my skills (even if only slightly) when I’m watching things with my monolingual wife!

@okanoshita: I tried your method with three L2s: an L2 that I know fairly well (French), an L2 I do not know well (German) and an L2 I do not know at all (Korean). Not surprisingly, the method did not work with Korean. French is too easy for me for it to work well with French, though there it might be of some use. As for German, I can see it would have real value for me with that L2, because I understood some but not all of each individual subtitle.

However, the challenge of turning down the volume, reading the subtitle, stopping the video, backing up a bit and then turning up the volume would prevent me from pursuing this exercise for very long. Another challenge would be finding a movie with English dialogue that is just the proper level of difficulty to benefit your L2.

If there were some way to overcome those obstacles, this might be a workable and profitable method to use from time to time.

@donhamiltontx: Thanks for the feedback. I can definitely see how it would be of very little help with a language like Korean where you aren’t familiar with the characters. Mandarin was only somewhat possible for me because I’d been studying it for a few months and already could read Japanese.