Should I watch TV series with or without subtitles?

improve your language skills by watching series

I guess it’s no surprise when we say that watching movies and TV series in a foreign language helps us improve in this language. After all, when you speak to people from countries in which dubbing is far less common than subtitles (for example, the Nordic countries or the Balkans), you’ll notice they’re usually better at languages than those who grew up watching movies or series dubbed into their mother tongue.

In my native Slovakia (although I’m sure this applies to many other countries, too), nowadays, if you go to the cinema to see a foreign movie in its original language, it will automatically come with subtitles in Slovak. The real question then is: Is this really the most efficient way of watching movies and series in a foreign language if our aim is to improve our skills in this language?

When it comes to subtitles, the golden rule is: subtitles in your mother tongue will do you no good if you’re at the B1 level or higher. It is the biggest mistake most of us make – we watch a series or a movie just once, reading subtitles in our own language and thinking how much German or Spanish we’re learning. In fact, this has very little effect on our progress in learning a foreign language.

Do you know why? It’s because our brain automatically focuses on what it considers to be easier. In this case, the easier thing is reading subtitles in a language we already know well. For our brain, it is incredibly difficult to focus on two languages at the same time, which is why it chooses the easier way and only takes in the subtitles. It only perceives a tiny fraction of what the characters say and, all in all, the time spent watching the series ends up being wasted because we’ll have remembered at most one or two words from a memorable scene. That’s why I always recommend one of the following ways of watching TV series: 

with or without subtitles? that is the question

1. Reading and listening 

Watch the series with subtitles in the given foreign language, e.g. a French series with French subtitles, a Spanish one with Spanish subtitles, and so on. This way, you’ll be reading and listening at the same time, which is a fantastic way of learning languages, because we perceive the language simultaneously with two senses. You won’t feel under so much pressure because even if you miss what’s been said, you can still see it written in the subtitles. You’ll also remember new expressions better since you’ve already seen them in their written form as well.

However, this method is only possible with TV series originally filmed in the given language, in other words, not with dubbed series. This means you can watch a Spanish series with Spanish subtitles, but not an American one dubbed into Spanish with Spanish subtitles. Why not? Because the dubbing is usually done by a dubbing studio, while the subtitles are done by someone completely different. Two translators never translate the same text identically. Therefore, although the subtitles and the dubbing convey the same meaning, they both use different expressions, sentences, and words to do it. If you watch a dubbed series (which I think is just as useful as a series in its original language), opt for one of the options below. 

2. Subtitles in your mother tongue + no subtitles 

We’ve already mentioned that subtitles in our mother tongue do not help us learn a foreign language. However, this only applies if we watch a given episode just once. If you’re a complete beginner, it’s a good idea to watch an episode of a series first with subtitles in your mother tongue, and then without any subtitles. The second time, you’ll be able to focus all of your attention on what’s being said and try to make sense of it. And since you’ve already seen the episode with subtitles, you won’t feel lost and you can relax and focus on what you hear. Feel free to take a day’s break between re-watching the episode to make it more enjoyable. 

3. No subtitles + reading and listening 

First, watch an episode without subtitles and try not to panic when you don’t understand anything. It’s completely normal and everybody feels this way at the beginning of the active language learning phase (regardless of how long you’ve been studying the language). Afterwards (again, this could be the following day), re-watch the same episode, but this time with subtitles in the original language. You’ll have more of an opportunity to pay attention to interesting expressions you heard the first time, as well as an opportunity to understand what you missed before. It’s an ideal way of combining watching TV series with an active search for new vocabulary (more about that soon). 

4. Subtit-less (pun intended) 

This might seem brave. Maybe you feel like your level is not good enough to watch a series in German or French with no subtitles and be able to enjoy it at the same time. But trust me, this is a completely groundless concern in 95% of the cases I know. 

Yes, watching a series without subtitles will most likely be hard at the beginning. You’ll feel like you don’t understand almost anything. Yes, you might even want to give up, thinking “I’m not at the right level yet.” But don’t do it! 

One of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced with languages happened when I was learning French. I’d been self-studying it for about 5 months (from a textbook for self-learners with no teacher to help me and no contact with French people whatsoever) when I decided to watch a series in French.

By chance, I came across a website that had all the episodes of Sex and the City available in French. I thought this might not be a bad choice. The series utilizes simple vocabulary concerning everyday life in a big city. It’s about people’s relationships (alright, especially relationships between men and women) and the whole series is mainly built on dialogues. Long before then, I’d seen most of the episodes in English, so I had a fairly decent idea of what was going to be happening on the screen. I decided to watch one episode a day. Excited, I started watching right away, finished the whole first episode and… was gravely disappointed. 

I was horrified by how little I could understand. It was at most about 5-10% of what the characters were saying. I knew that two of them got into a fight, but I had no idea why. I could also see that Samantha said something inappropriate, but I couldn’t understand what it was. What?! After 5 months of studying?! How could this be?! 🙁

Nevertheless, my plan had been set and I said to myself that I’d give it at least a month. I can tell you that what happened in a matter of just a few weeks was a true miracle. During season 3 or 4, I realised that watching the series now felt completely natural. It was almost as if I was watching it in my mother tongue, Slovak!

I caught myself thinking that watching it no longer felt like an educational activity. It was relaxing and I looked forward to it every day. I was laughing at the characters’ jokes and I knew exactly what they were saying and why. Occasionally, I got lost in their dialogues, but this was rare and it never hindered my understanding of the whole situation. 

pillars of language learning

All in all, this was a turning point for me and I realized that if I do something in a foreign language that I enjoy (1), do it a lot (2), it’s an efficient method (3), and I create a system in it (4), gradually (and much faster than I’d expect!), I get to the point where the language is understandable and I enjoy doing things in it (such as watching series, reading books, and listening to recordings and podcasts) while not thinking about these activities as studying at all. 

There are many ways to start watching series with(out) subtitles. It’s entirely up to you which ones you’d like to try. You can watch a few episodes the first way and then a few episodes the fourth way. Or change it with each episode. Nothing can go wrong here. The most important thing is that you are having fun so that you make it to the end of the series (because to learn a language, we need to listen, read, and speak in it a lot). In any case, it’s always more useful to watch an episode several times without subtitles or with foreign-language subtitles than to watch it just once with subtitles in our mother tongue.

And what if I’m a beginner?

I’ve mentioned that I do not recommend using subtitles in one’s own mother tongue. That applies to intermediate students who have made it to or past the B1 level, but what about lower-level students?

If you’re a beginner, it’s OK to use subtitles in your first language, but you need to realize one very important thing. You’re watching the series in order to familiarize yourself with the language. You need to get used to its sounds, melody, and sentence structure. It’s completely normal if you understand next to nothing at this point. Be patient. You’ll only see how useful this was a little later.

Go easy on yourself and start with something simple, so that you won’t have to focus all of your attention on the fact that you should be trying to listen rather than read. For example, try watching @Extra, a great series for beginner learners. There are four language versions of this series on YouTube – an English, German, French, and a Spanish one. Just type “Extra English” into a search engine (or: Extra Deutsch, Extra en español, Extra en français), and you should see the episodes on YouTube immediately. This series was created for people who are learning a foreign language. It is also used by teachers all over the world, so you can definitely find some vocabulary or exercises related to it online.

Apart from that, don’t underestimate grammar and work on your vocabulary using other sources, too. It is difficult to learn languages using only TV series. Don’t start with normal series until later, ideally when you’re at the A2 level. At that point, you should have a fairly decent vocabulary and know at least the basic grammar. Your ears will have got used to the new language. But even then, choose carefully. If you start right away with a series that has a complicated plot and lots of technical vocabulary, it might end up being a very frustrating experience. It’s better to choose something with a simple plot and easy-to-follow dialogues. (For instance, a lot of self-learners love watching Friends.)

Want to know more?

If you have time to get into watching series and want to improve your language skills while at it, we’d be happy to help. Have a look at our 46-page-long eBook worth €27 which we’ve decided to give out to every Language Mentoring fan free of charge during this tough coronavirus period.

In the eBook, you’ll find out what series to look for, why you should watch series but not movies, what you should do with your newly accumulated vocabulary and what to do if you’re still struggling to understand.

Get this eBook for free by simply filling in your name and e-mail address. You’ll get an e-mail requesting the confirmation of your e-mail address. Once you’ve done it, you’ll be able to download the ebook.

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Use this time to improve your language skills! You’ll be surprised to see how useful sitting at home can be! Don’t forget to let us know what series you’ve chosen and what language it’s in.

Lýdia Machová

Language mentor
I have learned 7 languages by myself, and I usually add a new one every two years. As a language mentor I've helped thousands of people to learn languages by themselves, in ways different from traditional classroom methods, and with much better and faster results. I'm a TED and TEDx speaker and a former organizer of the Polyglot Gathering, one of the biggest world events for polyglots.

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