Clarity and accessibility: How subtitles can help you learn new languages

Illustration of two characters on a TV screen speaking different languages
Cameron Opartkiettikul/Staff

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Before streaming videos, I always make sure to have three things on hand: popcorn, blankets and subtitles. Popcorn and blankets seem pretty self-explanatory, but why subtitles, you may ask? Simply put, subtitles add an extra dimension of clarity, accessibility and control. They permit the user a higher degree of comprehension among the background drone of everyday life. Not only this, but they also help to translate visuals into text, increasing viewer engagement and value. Studies have shown that subtitle usage in the long run can improve literacy skills such as reading comprehension and grammar, as well as promote retention.

Closed captioning emerged in the early 20th century and became especially popular among those with hearing loss and those learning the English language. Subtitles designated for those who are hard of hearing include nondialogue information such as ambient sound effects and speaker identification, and are the most comprehensive form of closed captioning. To those hoping to learn the English language, subtitles can help viewers understand slang, grammar and other nuances.

In fact, Kim Namjoon, or RM, from South Korean boy group BTS learned English by watching the U.S. sitcom, “Friends” first with Korean subtitles, then with English subtitles and eventually, with no subtitles. Using subtitles as a supplement to traditional studying has become increasingly popular, and it is scientifically proven that phonetic comprehension aids in the establishment of a foundation for learning vocabulary and grammar. Physically visualizing the words alongside hearing the foreign language will additionally increase listening comprehension, as the subtitles are timed to the pace of a natural conversation. Understanding slang is another component, as subtitles enable the viewer to experience the usage of particular phrases in context.

Of course, learning an entirely new language is easier said than done. If you’re in the beginning stages of learning, try switching the audio but keeping the subtitles in your first language. This will help with initial word recognition and acts as the introductory transition to picking up foreign phrases. A general tip is to either watch films or shows you’re already familiar with, or watch short videos as they tend to have simpler vocabulary. In addition, repetition is key. Repeating a certain scene or even rewatching videos or films will allow your brain to maximize the information it’s absorbing from the screen.

Those with English as a first language also benefit immensely from subtitles in myriad ways. For instance, subtitles keep viewers in the loop with the events unfolding on the screen, can improve accessibility for individuals with ADHD and add clarity to any unfamiliar jargon.

Whether for clarifying audio or for learning a new language, subtitles undeniably contribute significantly to the quality of the viewer experience.

Rachel Lee is the deputy night editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @RachelLeeCal.