Should I use the subtitles?

Rob Ashby
The Spanish Obsessive

One of the most important things we can do as learners is to get input. Input through any means – podcasts, books, music, films, TV shows.

We should aim for exposure to language we can understand, but which also pushes us and introduces us to new vocabulary and structures. TV and film offer us the perfect opportunity to do this.

Of all the available media, TV and film are the most engaging forms, particularly if there is a plot we can follow, and we are interested and invested in the characters (anyone for a telenovela?).

One of the most common question we hear is whether or not to use the subtitles.

My subtitles guidelines

English subtitles are a no-no

If you cannot understand enough to get the gist without English subtitles, switching them on isn’t going to help your Spanish much. It might help a little, but at this point I don’t think it’s the most effective thing you can do from a purely language learning perspective. Spanish TV and film comes into its own when you’re listening to and comprehending the original language, rather than following a translation.

As a doorway into the culture, on the other hand, TV and film are incredibly useful. I find it very motivating to watch Almodóvar films, and if you need the English subtitles to follow them, then so be it!

Using Spanish subtitles

Spanish subtitles, on the other hand, have their use (more on that below). I personally prefer not to use them, but if they make the difference between understanding the gist of what’s going on and having no idea, use them.

However, if you can understand, at a push, what’s going on and what’s being said (you won’t necessarily catch every word), then don’t use them.

When you consider switching off the subtitles, it’s important to understand that you are actually practising different skills when you use them compared to when you switch them off.

Watching TV with the subtitles on or off uses different skillsets

By switching off the subtitles, here’s what you practise:

  • Following the general gist of what’s happening. This is an important skill in conversation: the ability to keep track of what’s going on despite missing some details.
  • Honing in on the sound of Spanish, and being able to pick out what’s being said without the crutch of subtitles.
  • You may not understand every word, but you shouldn’t be too concerned about that. The important skill you are developing is following the broad sweep of a conversation. Yes, it is harder, but in my opinion the skills which you develop are more useful and practical.

By using subtitles, the focus is different:

  • You’ll be able to pick out every word. Words missing from your vocabulary will be much more obvious to you. Importantly, you’ll get the context of these words, so you’ll be able to understand when to use them yourself.
  • You’re associating the sounds of words with the actual words themselves. This is useful for when you are exposed to thick regional accents. I often struggle with Andalucian Spanish (and so does Lis!), and using subtitles has helped me to “decode” this accent. I used subtitles when I watched the excellent film Vengo, which is set in Andalucia and features some unfamiliar accents for me.

Remember: real life conversations don’t have subtitles! If you consistently watch TV and films with the subtitles on, you’ll struggle when you are “out in the wild” in a Spanish conversation.

I personally prefer to watch Spanish without any subtitles. If I’m struggling with a particular accent, I might put on the subtitles to make sure I know what’s going on.

Ultimately, the litmus test is around “comprehensibility” (yes, that is a word!). If you cannot make head nor tail of what you are watching, and using the subtitles makes the difference, then switch them on. Otherwise, I think you’d be better leaving them off.

What do you think? Do you watch Spanish TV with the subtitles on or off? What do you like to watch? Let us know in the comments below.

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