Watching with subtitles or not

Should language learners watch films and videos with their mother tongue subtitles, English subtitles or no subtitles?

Let’s start with science

Spanish linguists did a research in 2019 in which a few groups of students were told to watch one hour of English videos a day

  • group 1 with English subtitles
  • group 2 with Spanish subtitles (mother language) 
  • group 3 with no subtitles

Then their listening, vocabulary and comprehension were tested.


  • Group 1, they watched with English subtitles, had a significant improvement – 17 percent of listening comprehension score and vocabulary learning
  • Group 2, no improvement. They were Spanish native speakers watching in English with Spanish subtitles
  • Group 3, they watched without subtitles, 7 percent improvement

They results are surprising as most of us believe that watching without subtitles should give the best results. Nevetheless, the science proves us wrong. Watching English films with English subtitles is the most effective way of learning. 

However, in real life conversations you don’t have subtitles, so ability to understand without subtitles is also crucial.

My advice

Switch on your mother tongue subtitles ONLY if the video is definitely too difficult for you but you want to watch it. Then, anyway watch it again with English subtitles and one more time without subtitles. Taking into consideration the fact that people remember only 20-30 percent of what they watch once, three attempts are definitely to good technique to learn from videos. 

If you understand 50 or more percent of what you watch, don’t switch on your mother tongue subtitles. Watch with English ones and at least once without subtitles.

Human brain is generally lazy, so it will have a natural tendency to:

  1. read the native language instead of focusing on the foreign ones  
  2. read the English subtitles more than listening, as reading is easier 

What are the best methods of learning English?

My experience shows that learning a language is a process, there is no shortcut. The more time you spend speaking and listening, the better you are. Therefore, your results depend on the hours of practice, exposure to the language and time necessary for processing the information, putting your knowledge in order. However, there are a few key factors which will make your learning process effective:

  1. find somebody you can speak with

The most important language skill is speaking. Speaking is a process because it makes particular language aspects automatic. At the beginning we aren’t fluent because we have to think about even the simplest grammar, words which we can never remember in a particular situation, sentence structure. The more we speak, the less we have to think about these single aspects as they become automatic. Practice makes perfect. You can’t be fluent without having conversations, I think monologues aren’t interesting enough to keep you motivated.

  1. find involving materials which make your learning pleasant

Do these activities which you like. Don’t torture yourself with one thousand grammar exercises, 14 tenses if you don’t like it. Watch movies and TV shows, listen to songs, read books in English instead of doing mundane exercises from a coursebook. Professional teacher should be able to prepare for you a programme which consists of various language activities that will keep you interested for a long time.

  1. keep regularity

Devote only 20 min to English, but daily! Schedule 20 min in your daily routine, plan it and do it! You will see progress soon. Learning a language is like a gym, to see results you must be regular.

  1. be consistent

Don’t set goals like: „I want to speak English fluently”, it will take time. Set a goal like: „I will learn 50 words and I will be able to use them in present tense”. Small goals keep you motivated. Even if it’s difficult, don’t give up. Slow down, do pleasant tasks, tell your teacher you don’t want new things, concentrate on revision. In course of time, you will see progress and then learning will be more fun.

  1. good pronunciation pattern

Make sure you listen to people whose pronunciation is correct. Especially at the beginning, it’s very important to listen to native speakers or a teacher who takes care of pronunciation. Don’t guess how to read a word from a written text – check it. When you learn incorrectly, it will be hard to change it. It’s better to know nothing than change bad habits.

  1. immerse in the language

English surrounds you, read English internet articles, pay attention to labels on your products, compare Polish and English instructions in the manuals, change your phone language into English, think how you could say something in English, make notes in English

  1. be attentive

When you care, you will learn more:

  • when you hear a song in English, try to understand what they are singing about,
  • when a film has an option: dubbing speaker or subtitles – choose subtitles
  • when you see a notice or board in English, read it and try to translate

Flipped lessons – my favourite way of teaching!


What are flipped lessons?

In a traditional method, the teacher talks about a topic during a lesson and assigns homework which reinforces that material. In a flipped lesson the teacher gives students materials to prepare at home with an instruction how to do it. Of course, it doesn’t concern topics which demand initial explanation. Students learn before the lesson. During the lesson the teacher discusses with students the assigned tasks that lets them put all learnt content into practice.

What kind of tasks can the teacher assign?

I usually give my students something to watch, a text to read and vocabulary to learn. During the lesson we mostly concentrate on speaking, we talk about the content they have watched or read and we put vocabulary into practical content.  

Advantages of flipped lessons

1) we don’t waste time during the lesson for reading and watching

In my opinion a lesson should be used for speaking, improving pronunciation and explaining unclear aspects of grammar or vocabulary, not reading in silence.

2) students don’t speak a lot when a new topic is just being introduced during the lesson

Learners often don’t have any opinion or previous experience connected with this topic, so they keep silent. When they watch or read about it before, they know what to say.

3) human brain is able to memorize about 3-7 words per time, so students can’t learn much during the lesson

It means that on average students will remember 5 words from the lesson, which will be anyway forgotten without revising. If students have one lesson a week, they need one month to learn 20 words. If you spend 10 minutes a day learning words at home, you can learn about 50 words per week. During the lesson you will only practise them and put into practical context.

4) language learners can read or watch the material as many times as they need, in their pace

Every student has a little different level of English and perception skills. Therefore, reading or watching once may not be enough for everybody to understand. At home they can adjust material to their needs.

5) students are less stressed and have lower communication barrier when they know what to expect

Before the lesson, students get all materials which will be discussed during the lesson. If they follow the instruction of the assigned homework, they are prepared for the lesson, they don’t have to think what to say, but rather how to express what they want to say, it’s much easier at the beginning.

MOVIE WATCHING – the best method for practical English

Why is movie watching such an effective method of learning English?

1) the language is authentic, the real way people speak – learning from books is good for the exams, but some words and expressions are very formal or out of date, so we may sound a little weird talking to native speakers using only the language we learnt from books

2) listening practice – while watching movies, language learners are exposed to different accents, pace, voice, kinds of English like British, American, Australian. When it comes to listening comprehension, watching is better than a lesson with a native speaker. When you learn with a teacher, you get used to his accent, pace, the way of speaking and soon you can understand him/her well, but it doesn’t mean you will understand everybody. When we understand a movie, we are usually able to understand any English speaker

3) pleasure equals effectiveness – for most people watching movies is pleasant, obviously we learn faster when we like it. Learners are likely to spend more time watching than learning from books, and they are more willing to get down to watching a movie than other language learning activities. As language exposure matters, the results are impressive

What movies should we choose?

Firstly, the most effective for learning are short movies, like Ted speech or YouTube films which are information packed, but short enough to watch a few times. We learn by listening to the same sentences a few times, watching once is for information, not language learning. However, short movies are the hardest at the beginning because they force our brain to process information very fast. Sometimes our language practice is not long enough to think so fast in a foreign language.

Secondly, we should choose what we like or what we are interested in. However, it shouldn’t be the same topic all the time because we learn limited vocabulary.

Anyway, the most educating are 15-20 min movies, the least developing are action movies, as dialogues don’t play an important role in them. Everything in the middle like TV shows, comedies, dramas etc are great, too. If you understand less than 60 percent, it means the movie is too hard.

How to learn from movies? My most effective method

1) Read words from the quizlet and keep it open for checking vocabulary when you watch for the first time. Watch in English with English subtitles and try to remember context in which the words were used. Of course, sometimes you must pause to check the word

2) Learn the quizlet – you can skip useless words (some words are in the quizlet to let students understand the movie, but they may not be very common and useful)

3) Watch the movie again, this time  switch off subtitles. Concentrate on dialogues and meaning rather than action. If you notice a useful expression or a sentence you can stop and repeat it or write it down

4) Watch the third time to make short notes what the movie, series is about. This time you can have subtitles. When there are questions to the watching exercise, it’s even better because you must find the right moment, understand the question, find and understand the answer and write down. It works best with shorter movies.

5) When you had questions to the watching exercise, compare your answers with the right ones or discuss the exercise with your teacher. As far as long movie or series is concerned, telling somebody, for example your teacher, what the movie was about is a great exercise. It gives you a great opportunity to check your understanding, process your knowledge, practise speaking and put vocabulary into practice.


1) Add a picture to the quizlet you have  which shows the thing or is your best association. You have a link to a quizlet, log in, customize it and edit it. Then you can add pictures, but only on your computer. In application you need to premium account. 

2) Start with flashcards from English to Polish, repeat and observe how it is written. When you start with English, you build a correct pronunciation habit. Do it twice.

3) Flashcards from Polish to English, now you should be able to say many of these words before the speaker. Do it twice.

4) Spelling – write in English what the speaker says

5) Write or Gravity – you practise writing, gravity is more interesting than just a plain writing

6) When you do successfully all these activities, you can revise the words without any extra time now. You know how it’s written so you don’t have to look at the screen. Enter flashcards and give play (the arrow), it will tell you an English word and later a Polish one or another way round. You can listen to these words when you do daily activities like ironing, cooking, putting make up, shaving etc. It’s important that you revise every day. It takes only one minute to switch on the quizlet on your device.

7) After two weeks and a month you must do revision. It could be flashcards or you can process these words to make them more memorable

There is one very effective way. You must:

  • export words from your quizlet,
  • delete the Polish one,
  • create a new quizlet,
  • import only the English column
  • in the place of the Polish equivalent, you should set English language now
  • in the second English column you should write a definition, a sentence or a story memorable for you

8)  It’s the best when your words from quizlets occur in context like a movie, a reading or sentences. Our brain likes learning from the context. Separate words not connected with anything are easily forgotten.