Subtitles: do or don't.


Everyone with a Netflix account is currently captivated by the thrilling Spanish series  ‘La Casa de Papel’ (‘Money Heist’). If you are a language learner who has been studying Spanish for a while, you may be thinking, “Excellent! I’ll be able to relax on the sofa and learn Spanish at the same time.”

Just turn the subtitles on and ¡vámonos! But is that really such a good idea?

One of the best — and easiest — ways to improve your command of a language is to watch films and series in that foreign language. However, this is not the obvious solution for every language learner, especially not if you don’t yet have a wide vocabulary. It is even worse when those Spanish actors talk fast and indistinctly, as is usually the case. That is when the subtitles come in handy, on one condition: they must be in Spanish too.

Subtitles in your own language don’t help much when learning a foreign language. You then focus more on reading the subtitles than on the exciting twists and turns in the plot of your film or series. What is more, you are making your brain concentrate on two languages rather than one, which is not good for language learning and can even make it harder.

That is why it is important to change the subtitles from your own language to the target language you are learning. Subtitles in the target language help you follow the endless stream of words. What is more, you can also pause the series, pick out difficult or unfamiliar words and look up an appropriate translation if you need to. Not only does this help you expand your vocabulary, it also makes you more aware of how words in the target language are spelled, which can be particularly useful in the case of non-phonetic languages (like English).

Finally, subtitles can be helpful when people are speaking in regional dialects and accents. Of course as a language learner, you want to learn the official, standard version of the language rather than some regional variant. But we admit, things are different in practice — and on television. However attractive some accents might sound (think of the Scots in  Outlander  or Jon Snow’s northern accent in  Game of Thrones), they can undeniably be difficult for non-natives to understand.

So feel free to watch  La Casa de Papel, but don’t forget to switch those subtitles to Spanish. And no, there is nothing wrong with having to press ‘pause’ now and then in order to keep up with the latest developments in El Profesor’s intriguing plan.


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