Sub titles a benefit or hindrance in language learning?

i know they are many opinions on this on one side they are people who say it’s a crutch that deludes people into thinking they are actually understanding content on a tv screen in another language and that in real life people don’t use them and on the other hand they are people who swear it helps them does any have experience with this?

1 Like

Yes I learned english grammar at school but I reached fluency exclusively by watching tv shows and movies in english with subtitles (also in english).

I would recommend starting out with subtitles, in the target language, not your native one. Then simply try to listen without reading sometimes and when you feel confident enough simply ditch them, as they do become a crutch when you reach a certain level. Learning to ride a bike with third wheels makes sense, but you can’t keep them forever.

1 Like

When watching anything in English I usually have subtitle on out of habit. They are still sometimes useful when somebody has a strange to me accent or they start to use vocabulary I am not that much familiar with. I don’t think it did any harm to me. I do speak English fluently and use it in my profesional life without any problems.

Personally I think subtitles are great especially on early stages. It allow you to consume more content and this is the most important thing you can do.

It is true that in real life there is no subtitle, but there is something even better than this: speaker sees by your reaction how much you understand and is adjusting the way they speak for you and you always can ask for rephrasing if you struggle to understand.

The most important thing in my opinion is to ENJOY as much content as it is possible. Subtitles are really helpful with that.


Subtitles in the target language together with the audio in that target language are brilliant - particularly for intermediate learners.

Subtitles in the language spoken in the country together with the audio in target language happens to be something that is excellent too.

Small population countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands often broadcast programmes in the original language together with subtitles of the language spoken in the country which is why their citizens speak English so well!

The Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, Portuguese or Swedes speak English so well because of exposure. As a small child, teenager, young adult, or older, they watch American movies or English films in English with subtitles in Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese or Swedish depending upon the country they live in.

It’s an excellent way to learn languages and not cheating at all!

As language acquisition improves, subtitles become so secondary that they may no longer be needed.

I am sure it is part of the reason why the Portuguese are so good at English and the Spaniards are not. The Portuguese get far more exposure to English than the Spaniards do - just watching TV.


“It’s an excellent way to learn languages and not cheating at all!”
I agree. It´s not cheating, but it can be a useful crutch for some time.

However, just “watching TV” is not “an excellent (P.B. but rather inefficient) way” for learning foreign languages!

In another thread, we used this ad hoc hierarchy of media combos for simultaneous reading and listening comprehension and with decreasing word density:

  1. Books / e-books + audio books" and / or podcasts with transcripts
  2. Youtube videos with subtitles
  3. Audio dramas with scripts
  4. TV shows with subtitles / scripts
  5. Movies with subtitles / scripts

To quote myself from this other thread:

" “Reading (while listening)” is simply the superior language learning activity compared to watching TV/movies, esp. in the long run:

  • the word density is much higher
  • the vocabulary is much more varied and complex
  • the (implicit) grammar structures are more complex
  • the plot structures are much better elaborated

I´m not against watching TV / movies per se because it also has its benefits (e.g. learning slang, etc.). But I´d say it shouldn´t be the main focus in language learning, esp. at the beginner and intermediate stages…"

In short, the use of subtitles (or not) does not change the problem of low word density in TV or movie consumption!


I just wrote a long response to this but the site crashed, which keeps happening on this forum.

Subtitles are both helpful and harmful.

They’re helpful for associating the spoken and written words with each other. This is especially relevant for beginners. Just watch and associate, don’t put too much effort into understanding, it will come when you have enough context and exposure to large chunks of your target language. That’s what I find LingQ is especially helpful for.

They’re harmful when you’re more advanced and you end up watching the subtitles because they’re easier to understand than native speakers talking fast and pronouncing poorly. Instead, you should be watching the people’s expressions and body language, and developing your ability to hear nuance in your target language.

I think it’s helpful to alternate using and not using subtitles at all levels. As you progress you will notice different things than you did when you were a beginner, and they can help you understand more advanced words sooner. It’s also crucial to not use them, or when you’re talking to a native speaker you will probably be lost.


My own experience:

Using English subtitles with target language on netflix:

It helps at the beginning if I am trying to listen to material that is just a little too advanced and I’m using it for light entertainment instead of solid studying. I do find I still “notice” things as they are speaking.
I feel like it could become a crutch however so it’s also useful to drop the subtitles.

The real issue at hand is getting from translating to English (which is slow and problematic) to understanding with no translation. T

For that I just need to keep listening to stuff over and over and over.

1 Like

How do you explain the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Swedes, the Danes, the Norwegians being so much better than the Germans at English?

As someone with a background in the social sciences, I need first more data because “>the< Dutch, Swedes, etc. are / do this and >the< Germans are / do that, etc.” are just sweeping statements without much value.

So in this case, I’d like to know from the test subjects, for example:

  1. What is their family background / social milieu and how education-friendly / -distant are they?

  2. What is the test subject’s educational background, i.e.

  • How long did they go to school?
  • Which kind of school?
  • Do they have an academic background?
  • What is their highest academic degree?
  • Have they studied in an English-speaking country? And if yes, for how long?
  1. Do they use English regularly at work? If yes, how many hours a day and in what way?

  2. Have they already lived / worked in an English-speaking country? And if yes, for how long?

  3. What do they do in their spare time, i.e.:

  • Do they regularly consume English-language media?
  • And if yes, what kind of media and for how long?
  1. What is tested in the language, e.g.:
  • the size of their active / passive vocabulary?
  • their language level in relation to which topics?
  • the quantity of their collocations?
  • the (sub-)complexity of their sentence structures?
  • the quality of their pronunciation and intonation patterns?

The main point here is:
Some media such as comics, movies / videos or TV / streaming series often suffer from low word density compared to reading material (newspapers, blog posts / Wikipedia articles, books, etc.) and audio books.

So if you take two learners that learn their not too distant L2 50 min (= two Pomodoro blocks) per day, 6 days a week for 12 months and

  • learner A consumes only media with a lot of visual content, i.e. movies, TV, etc.
  • learner B adopts an ultrareading-while-listening approach, i.e. 8-10k words read and listened to in 50 min per day
    then learner A is no match for learner B in reading and listening comprehension after 12 months because B
  • has absorbed much more words (ca. 2.5-3.1 million)
  • has acquired a more diverse / rich vocabulary,
  • has acquired more complex sentence and grammar structures
    etc. in this time period.

And I´d say that’s even true for one’s native language:

People who don´t read at all or enough and just consume
(audio-)visual media are rather “subcomplex information processors” when it comes to reading and writing.

This implies: Good writers are always good readers, but of course not every good reader is also a good writer.

In sum:
The combo “(printed / e-)book + audio book” or “podcasts + transcript”, etc. is second to none both in effectiveness and in (time-)efficiency when it comes to achieving an advanced level in reading and listening comprehension in the L2 to be acquired.

(Audio-)visual media are no match for that - and it´s not even close!

Therefore, consuming as much visual media as possible shouldn´t be touted as an “excellent” way to learn L2s because it’s neither “excellent” in terms of effectiveness nor (time) efficiency - at least when it comes to reaching an advanced level in reading and listening comprehension!

However, watching TV / Netflix, etc. can have its (limited) benefits, for ex. for learning everyday language, slang, etc.
But again: it shouldn´t be the main (or even exclusive) focus of language learning, esp. not at the beginning or intermediate levels…

In short:
Readers (or reader-listeners) of word-dense material are the superior info processors compared to pure consumers of visual media. And this is the case both in our L1(s) and in our L2s…

Or to put it in terms of exposure:
Exposure mainly via visual media with low word density is far inferior to exposure via word-dense reading and listening material.


As somebody with background in any science you should not make such statements without data to back it up…

And seriously, who cares?

If you learn language because you enjoy mastering the art of learning languages then Bob’s your uncle. Any normal person though is not learning for the sake of learning and pure act of learning is not intrinsically motivating for us. And guess what: word density is not either.

I am not scientist so I don’t care about data backing me up in that situation. I can say without it: people that enjoy interacting with the target language are more likely to become good at it than people that are focused on the method and are forcing themselves to study in the best way possible. So objectively speaking the most effective method is the method which encourage you to spend with the language as much time as possible. (And no: pain resistance is not helping here much: if it would then Japanese people would have spot on English since they learn with the mantra “learning should not be fun” in mind).

Again: if word density is making you motivated then more power to you, but you are not the norm.

Btw: I know that quoting your other paper is a good thing in science since it still counts as a quotation, but it does not work that way in rl or on the internet.


Are they really?
I just googled and found this ranking EF EPI 2022 – EF English Proficiency Index Of course I can’t say how reliable it is. But here are some findings: The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Portugal and Germany have all been placed in the highest proficiency band. Germany (rank 11) scored 7 points less than Sweden (rank 8). Japan in contrast, scores 148 points less than Germany, and has accordingly been relegated to the low proficiency tier. Again, I don’t know what all these numbers mean but the difference between Germany and the Scandinavian countries doesn’t seem stark, at least according to this metric.
From personal experience, I would say the average German’s English is actually pretty decent, the main hurdle being the pronunciation/accent. I’m regularly impressed with Dutch people’s English in this regard, however I’m not sure if they really outperform Germans in other areas of linguistic proficiency.

I’d be happy to learn more about this, maybe some one has a good (academic) article explaining the differences in proficiency among countries.

1 Like

Or the same from a slightly different angle (from a simultaneous discussion with @xxdb:

"I must not have made myself clear: watching youtube/netflix isn't to acquire vocabulary, it's to gain exposure to the natural language in an almost natural format and to learn to understand natural language. And it works."

It’s definitely “authentic” L2 material compared to artifical sentences used by the Duolingo AI, for example.

However, just having “authentic” L2 material isn’t sufficient because a key problem in all listening and reading comprehension processes is the size (and the quality) of the vocabulary.

SLA research has made that point crystal-clear.
See, for example:
“The crucial role that lexis plays in second language learning and teaching has been repeatedly acknowledged in theoretical and empirical second language acquisition (SLA) vocabulary research. Hence, in the introduction to his seminal book on the mental lexicon, Singleton states that “the major challenge of learning and using a language–whether as L1 or as L2- lies not in the area of broad syntactic principles but in the 'nitty-gritty of the lexicon” (Singleton, 1999:4), an idea also shared by Hunt and Beglar (2005:2), who argue that “the heart of language comprehension and use is the lexicon”. Other authors have gone even further in arguing that “the single most important task facing language learners is acquiring a sufficient large vocabulary” (Lewis, 2000:8), or that “the most striking differences between foreign learners and native speakers is in the quantity of words each group possesses” (Laufer, 1998:255).”…-a0208536041

Thus, choosing “word dense” material in our language acquisition processes is key […] - right from the start!

I’m not saying that learners should never watch TV, streaming services, etc.! I’m just saying that the consumption of visual content shouldn’t be the main focus in language acquisition processes because of the low word density of these media formats.


Hmm… There is something off with that ranking. I would not say average pole is so close to average swede. Just 26 points difference.

1 Like

On the topic of watching TV/Netflix shows:
First off, I’m more of a book person myself. But, I have have tried to watch some Chinese shows in the course of the last 6 months, and found it to be an exercise in frustration. The main difficulty being my insufficient listening comprehension, i.e. if reading a given word I understand it, but when hearing the same word, I don’t.
At least in Chinese there seems to be a large gap between the proper, well articulated professionally spoken language, in an audiobook and the sloppy, casual, lazy-mouthed everyday-parlance encountered in some shows. I assume that, more often than not, the language in shows is closer to the “real” everyday language. So this might be an excellent, and maybe even necessary training.
Therefore, I believe it is misguided to assume that the language in shows is always easier than that found in books. In terms of vocabulary - sure, but in terms of comprehension - not necessarily.

The role of subtitles, in my opinion, is to unlock the spoken language to those who can already read it.
My conclusion is that:
1 the subtitles should probably be in the target language, and
2 the study of TV-shows should probably be undertaken later in the language learning process, that is at a more intermediate level


I learned English mostly from subtitles. That’s why I have some issues with pronunciation. Actually my way was really interesting. Early 2000’s I was watching K-Dramas with English subtitles. Also I watched a Polish series with it. Afterwards I started reading books.

Now I’m using Lingq for Russian (still free member) but I am also watching movies and tv series in Russian. Subtitles (in English) actually not much helping because when they’re available I am too focused on subtitles. (Also I have language reactor for netflix double subtitles.)

I am a long time fan of K-Dramas but I don’t speak any Korean. So if you don’t focus on audio you even don’t hear them when you have subtitles.

“As somebody with background in any science you should not make such statements without data to back it up…”

  • The “word density” question refers to the key role of the “lexicon” in all language acquisition processes. And there has been an explosion of theoretical and empirical research on this topic in Second Language Acquisition in recent decades:…-a0208536041

  • For the “power of reading” in general, see the works by Stephen Krashen, Jeff Mc Quillan, et al.

  • As a little self test:
    Compare the word density and narrative complexity of this script fragment from the movie “It” (It Movie Script) with the eponymous novel by Stephen King
    (with a total of more than 400k words: It: A Novel - Stephen King - Google Books).
    Then tell me: In which medium is both the word density and the narrative complexity higher?

“And seriously, who cares?”
Successful language learners in general and professional language teachers / coaches / tutors in particular.

“if word density is making you motivated then more power to you, but you are not the norm.”
The question here is “not” motivation, but choosing the right learning material that helps to achieve a high level in listening / reading comprehension efficiently.
In this context, comics, TV series, etc. are just “poor” choices… (Again: I’m not saying that people should never read comics, watch TV / streaming series, etc., but it’s not a good idea to make these media formats the main focus in language learning. That’s all).

“Any normal person though is not learning for the sake of learning and pure act of learning is not intrinsically motivating for us.”
As a former professional teacher (of both languages and math), people/companies paid me to help my students achieve their goals, i.e. pass an exam, get a job/promotion, go to college, etc.

As a rule, the learners who cared what they did and how they did it, were usually (very) successful. The others who didn’t care were usually not.
If you don’t care, that’s your personal choice - and that’s fine.
However, it’s not a good idea to generalize your own position…

“pain resistance is not helping here much: if it would then Japanese people would have spot on English since they learn with the mantra “learning should not be fun” in mind”
As far as I know, the Japanese school system still follows a rather traditional (grammar-heavy, etc.) approach in language learning.
But if the learning approach sucks then no high level of frustration tolerance can correct that “poor” choice!
In short: Not all practice makes perfect. It’s perfect (deliberate, etc.) practice that makes perfect.

And that’s why it’s important for all learners to know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it…

1 Like

“Two general linear model analyses of variance reveal that pupils who frequently watch subtitled English television programs and movies perform significantly better on both tests”

It is not helpful for any learner to second guess whether exposure is good or not. There is no such a thing like “time waste on exposure”. Sure, you can make something more effective for the sake of it, but that not the point. It is better to spend 25h exposing yourself to target language in 50% effective way, than doing that for 2h with hyper ultra 250% effective way.

So you need to enjoy the time you are exposing yourself otherwise you will not do it. And subtitles are the your best friend when it comes it.


“misguided to assume that the language in shows is always easier than that found in books”
Which “books” (and then “audio books”) are we talking about in this context?
If you choose contemporary fiction (e.g. thrillers, crime novels, etc.) with a lot of dialogs, then you’ll also have a lot of everyday language, slang, etc. in it. If you then listen to the corresponding audiobook at the same time, your listening comprehension of everyday dialogs should also improve.

Apart from that, there are podcasts (with transcripts): especially if they have guests, you will also learn a lot of everyday language.

Therefore, the “shock” when watching TV in the L2s shouldn’t be so big…

1 Like

“Two general linear model analyses of variance reveal that pupils who frequently watch subtitled English television programs and movies perform significantly better on both tests”
This doesn’t address the “word density” and “lexicon” problem in reading / listening comprehension, that is: the problem that the size (and the quality) of the vocabulary in the acquisition of the L1 and the L2s is key!

Compared to reading and / or listening to word-dense material (books, podcasts with transcripts, etc.), watching TV and movies is still a poor and inefficient choice in language acquisition processes because the brain has to process much less words per minute.

And in the period of 1-2 years, for example, it makes a “huge” difference for the learners’ language ability, if they process millions of words or only a few ten (or at best) hundred thousands.
And this doesn’t even mention the qualitative aspects of the vocabulary!

People - teenagers, for example - who barely or never read are usually poor writers and I’d like to add poor info processors in general when it comes to reading and writing: As soon as the texts get a little more demanding, they tend to collapse in an instant!

In short: Readers and writers are made - not born!

And if people have poor reading and writing skills then their career opportunities dwindle tremendously…


“To create the 2021 edition of the EF English Proficiency Index, we have analyzed the results of two million adults who took our English tests in 2020.” (from the executive summary on the website)

This test is neither representative nor in any way scientific.