Watching Films with Subtitles

Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming platforms usually offer a choice of subtitles for films, you can often select subtitles in your own language or your target language. BBC iplayer, YouTube and others usually off Closed Captions (CC) which gives you subtitles in the language of the programme.

Many of my students seem to feel that watching with subtitles in their own language is cheating, and watching with English subtitles is not much better. However, many studies disagree.

Researchers have found that watching a film in English with subtitles in your language (Incalcaterra McLoughlin et al, 2011), watching a film in English with English subtitles or captions (Vanderplank, 1988), and even watching a film in your first language with English subtitles (Burczyńska, 2015) can all help you build your English vocabulary. Not only that, but more learning is likely to take place from watching a video subtitled in your target language (English) than in a unsubtitled one.

If you are watching films to improve your listening skills, it seems watching an English-language film with English subtitles is the best choice (Mitterer and McQueen, 2009).

When watching English-language films, probably the most important consideration is your interest. If you are interested in the content, you will likely pay closer attention. Secondly, the subtitles must be high-quality, some subtitles or captions produced automatically by AI are not accurate enough. Thirdly, you need to be a reasonably fast reader to gain any benefits from subtitles. And finally, you need to be in control of the remote, you may need to pause, or rewind and watch parts again to get the most benefit.

So, get out the popcorn and experiment for yourself. See what works best for you, but know that using subtitles is definitely not ‘cheating’. Happy viewing.


Burczyńska, P. (2015). Reversed Subtitles as a Powerful Didactic Tool in SLA. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang

Incalcaterra McLoughlin, L., Biscio, M. & Ní Mhainnín, M. A. (Eds.) (2011). Audiovisual Translation, Subtitles and Subtitling. Theory and Practice. Bern: Peter Lang

Mitterer, H. & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception. PLoS ONE 4 (11): e7785.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007785

Vanderplank, R. (1988). The value of teletext subtitles in language learning. ELT Journal, 42 (4)