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Using Subtitles: Pros and Cons

It doesn’t matter what level you have in Spanish, one of the easiest and enjoyable ways to get exposure to the language is through watching Spanish language television shows or films. However, one of the most common questions I am asked is whether or not students should use subtitles to advance their learning.

Subtitles can be effective depending on your level and learning needs.

When you’re a beginner (or even intermediate), not using English subtitles can make watching a movie or show seem more like work than something enjoyable. If you struggle to read Spanish as well as listen, then turning on the English subtitles can sound enticing, however, it won’t always necessarily help you in the long run. Firstly, you won’t be focused on the Spanish being spoken as you will likely tune it out and focus on the English.

By switching off the subtitles you are practicing your comprehension and listening skills. This is an important skill in conversation: the ability to keep track of what’s going on despite missing some details. You may not understand every word, but you shouldn’t be too concerned about that; you are developing the skills that are necessary for group conversations, larger gatherings, and even one on one conversations. The experience of watching may be less enjoyable, but in time it will grow easier. Remember, in the real world people don't speak to you with subtitles.

On the other hand, and in favor of subtitles, by using them, words and expressions you have learned on paper will be much more meaningful. Importantly, you’ll get the context of these words or expressions, so you’ll be better able to understand when to use them yourself and their usage will become more natural for you. This is very important, you are not reading a word or phrase in the dictionary, you are absorbing them by listening to them being used by native speakers in an authentic context. Subtitles can also be a useful tool in filling in the gaps in your vocabulary.

To use or not to use?

When considering whether to switch on the subtitles, it’s important to understand that you are actually practicing different skills when you use them compared to when you switch them off.
If you can understand almost everything that is being said and can follow along with the plot, then I would advise that you don’t use subtitles. If however, you find yourself lost, the plot has gone over your head and you can’t understand the dialogue, then subtitles may work for you initially.

As an entry point into the Spanish speaking world, TV and film are incredibly useful. If you need subtitles to stay motivated to watch, then they are a great first step. Still, don’t forget that having a conversation requires listening skills and if you grow too dependent on subtitles, you may struggle to actually understand Spanish spoken in the real world.

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I’m a Spanish teacher based in Buenos Aires. Since 2007 I have been teaching Spanish to people from all over the world across all abilities. Whether you´re a complete beginner, need Spanish for work or just want to get conversational I have the program for you! I offer online or face to face classes and can guarantee we´ll have fun while you learn.
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