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Subtitles versus Dubbing – Which Is Better For Language Learning?

Growing up in Denmark, I learned the English language through music and TV for the most part. The vast majority of the movies I watched had subtitles. Apart from some of the big Disney cartoons that were dubbed using some of the famous Danish actors at the time, subtitles were and are the norm.
It makes a lot of sense given the amount of time Scandinavians spend watching movies and TV (subtitles rather than dubbing) that they speak English as well as they do. Had everything been dubbed I wouldn’t have been as exposed to the English language as much as I was.
Not too long ago I had a conversation about dubbing with a friend from Germany where almost all foreign television programs and films are dubbed. The same thing goes for countries such as France, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, and on this side of the pond in Latin-America they are also hugely into dubbing everything into their local languages.

We discussed which system is better – and although a survey from Europe shows that the system you grew up with is often the one you prefer – my German friend and I both agree that for language learning purposes subtitles is the better way.

Subtitles versus Dubbing – Which Is Better For Language Learning?

I will give you four reasons why in the subtitles versus dubbing war, subtitles win, but in the spirit of keeping an open mind, I will also give you four reasons why dubbing might also have some benefits. Reasons, I never really thought of before.
As always, if you have any opinions on subtitles versus dubbing, let me know all about it in the comments below.

Four Reasons Subtitles Beats Dubbing

First a couple of obvious things…

1 – Subtitles Are Great for Learning a Language

Whether you are watching a movie with subtitles in your target language, or in a language you already know, you will be exposed to two languages at once. I did this with Spanish on Netflix and it was amazing. Watching a super exciting movie in your target language means picking up a few phrases here and there, and if you enjoy movies like I do, you almost forget that you are trying to learn.

2 – Countries That have Subtitles Are Often Better at Foreign Languages

I already mentioned this but it is true, especially in Scandinavia. Countries that have subtitles for the English-language television programs, usually have a higher level of spoken English than countries that dub everything.
To have the opportunity to listen to spoken English helps both pronunciation and listening comprehension. So there you go! I really think that movies and music in English are a key factor to Scandinavians having a higher level of the language than some other countries (where movies are usually dubbed). It is not the only reason, but exposure to a language is really important.

3 – Certain Things Can Get Lost In Translation

This goes for subtitles too of course, and is a problem of translation in general. Sometimes when watching an English speaking movie with Danish subtitles I have had a good laugh due to weird translations that make very little sense. Certain cultural nuances just can’t be translated correctly and the translated result is rather weird.
However, by completely removing the original language there might be even bigger misunderstandings, even plot holes. For example, in the 90s TV-show Friends, the character Joey had a catchphrase: ‘How you doin’?’, which he would say when he met an attractive woman. In the European Spanish dub, however, the catchphrase changes every time, meaning that it is no longer a catchphrase.

subtitles versus dubbing - Hey How You Doin

4 – Acting Is More Than Body Language

I mentioned this briefly, but ggggrrrr when the mouth and the words don’t go together, it just rubs me the wrong way. Besides, not since the era of the silent movies, almost 100 years ago, have actors relied solely on their body language. Half of the emotions that are being played out are in the actor’s voice and what is being said.
To me it seems that a lot of the actor’s artistry is lost when his or her voice is dubbed. I am sure there are great voice actors that do their very best to duplicate the voice and intonations of the original actor, but it is super strange to see someone talk using another person’s voice
And as promised here are…

Four Reasons Dubbing May Not Be All Bad

OK, so dubbing a movie is pretty useless for language learning purposes, but that doesn’t mean there are no benefits at all.

1 – Subtitles Are Distracting

If I want to read, I open a book.’ This is often the argument used by English-speaking people who only watch English-speaking movies.
I guess the argument is used by pro-dubbers too, and perhaps they have a point in that subtitles take up space on the screen, it can be difficult to read and pay attention to what is happening all at the same time, and you may miss some of the fancy cinematics if you are busy reading the subtitles.

2 – Cartoons Are Better When Dubbed

Cartoons don’t need subtitles,  they are usually made for kids. When I was a kid one of the few kinds of movies that was dubbed in Denmark was Disney movies, and that was OK. Perhaps it was the fact that the mouth of a cartoon character seems to fit any language, or at least the dub people and actors are really great at making it look that way. For cartoons, you don’t get those weird unsynchronized mouth movements. Little kids deserve a break too, where they can watch a cartoon in their own language before they can read.

subtitles versus dubbing Sssshhh_Donald_Duck

3 – Voice Actors Will Never Be out of a Job

Never really thought about this, but apparently when an actor in a dubbing country gets assigned the voice of a Hollywood actor, he will be that person’s voice forever. That means for as long as the American actor keeps working there will be a regular job for his Japanese, Spanish, German etc. voice actor. That is a pretty sweet deal.

4 – People Usually Don’t Watch Movies to Learn a Language

Those of us who love language learning may watch movies for the sole purpose of improving our skills in a target language, but let’s be honest, a lot of people watch a movie purely for its entertainment value.

Those people might just want to switch their brains off for a few hours and concentrate on the movie’s plot, and having to read subtitles can get in the way of that.

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  • Ken
    July 21, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Explicitly for learning, subtitles in the same language being spoken, your target language, are great. Saw that recommended by a French girl in a video on YouTube who learned a lot of English that way. You can get subtitles from opensubtitles.org and others if you can figure how to incorporate them in your videos.
    One advantage to subtitles not mentioned, that my wife and I discovered watching a French farce with Gerard Depardieu, was that you can still follow the dialog when the laughter in the theater is too loud to hear the soundtrack.

    • Lykke
      July 21, 2015 at 3:39 pm

      Well there you go 🙂 That’s an extra thumb up for subtitles. Thanks Ken

  • Filiep
    July 21, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    Hi, maybe interesting to know.
    I live in Belgium, which most of you know is a country with more than one official language (3, as a matter of fact : Dutch (60%), French (39%), German (1%)).
    Whereas we, the Flemish, use subtitles, the French speaking parts mostly use dubbing.
    Coincidence or not, but generally speaking we, the Flemish, are much better at languages than the French speaking part of the country.
    I would like to point out one further advantage to dubbing, though.
    As it takes more time to read than it does to listen to the sound of an actor, this means that subtitles most of the time are only a summary of a translation of what was really being said.
    With dubbing, in almost all cases it is possible to say the full translated sentence in the target language.

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 9:02 am

      I don’t think that is a coincidence. I think (a lot of but not all) French speakers aren’t as worried about learning English as French is more widespread, more of a world language, if you will. Secondly, when we watch movies in the original language with subtitles we are exposed to the language more often (a lot of people spend a lot of time watching TV/movies). Thirdly, if you speak only Flemish (or Danish in my case) there’s not a lot of places to go in the world where you can talk to other people, so you kind of need to learn other languages (English at least) unless you want to get stuck in your own little bubble 🙂

      • Filiep
        July 23, 2015 at 10:18 am

        Well, I am not so sure that being a small language (it should be considered Dutch and not Flemish) is the main reason.
        There are many small countries where people still mostly speak the local language.
        If this were the case then Croatian speakers should be brilliant at speaking languages (only 5.6 million in total according to wikipedia), whereas Dutch is still spoken by 28 million people.
        I do not really think so.
        Subtitles alone is also not the reason, because in the UK, for example, the BBC always subtitles films, and in several Latin American countries (Mexico for instance), foreign films are subtitled too.
        I believe in essence the key factor is attitude.
        If there is one country where people are being taught they should be humble (“because we are such a small country”) it must be Belgium.
        That makes the Flemish part feel even smaller than we really are, also linguistically speaking.
        As a consequence we are keen to learn a foreign language.
        And because people are keen to learn it, you get better language institutes
        The French speaking within Belgium keep looking at the global French-speaking community and therefore still comfort themselves with the role French has on a global scope, though over the years it has lost a lot of its clout.

  • Dan
    July 21, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    There’s a third option. Buy the DVD in the country where the language is spoken and there is often a subtitle choice in the original language, for the hearing impaired. This has been very helpful for me, since much conversational dialogue is colloquial and very hard to understand. It helps me to train my ear to hear those simple phrases from which dialogue is often built.

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 8:58 am

      Thanks Dan – that’s a good point. A couple of people have mentioned it, I’ll have to try in Spanish.

  • Chris
    July 21, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    I have to agree with the subtitlers. Subtitles are especially important to me as a late in life language learner. When we are young(er) our brains are more like sponges that soak in the new language. As we age that plasticity disappears and our brains are a lot harder to crack. Later in life, at least for me, my brain does not want absorb the French I am learning. It has to be chiseled in, more like carving words into stone.
    That’s where subtitles prove to be superior to dubbing and I believe it has to apply to all language learners regardless of age. I’m always asking my teacher to repeat spoken words or phrases, but I never have to ask her to re-type anything.
    The majority of language learners find it easier understand written language than spoken, at least at first. I believe it’s largely attributed to the learning environment. When we are children learning language for the first time, it is 100% spoken because we can’t read. Nature made sure our brains are capable of absorbing purely spoken language because it’s the only possible way. Also we are learning from our mother (mostly), father, older siblings etc. Over time we lose that capability so we have to find another way of learning.
    This is not an original idea. I think it is summed up nicely in the lessons titled “The Linguist Manifesto”.
    In my lesson this week my teacher, Hélène, shared a link for movies in French with subtitles. I assumed the subtitles were English (my native language) but no, they were in French.
    At first I thought I’d been tricked but after about 20 minutes of watching, I realized I was following along nicely. By the end of the movie I realized I had laughed and been nearly brought to tears (it was a feel-good movie). All of this emotion was delivered in written French.
    Others may be able to “hear” better than they “read” but I would believe those folks are the exception and not the rule. They obviously were born with the polyglot gene. 😉 Lucky them!
    Good post, thanks for raising the question.

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 8:56 am

      You are very welcome and thanks for your elaborate comment. Speaking of French film, have you watched ‘The Intouchables’. It is such a great movie – if you like feel-good movies in French, this one’s excellent. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1675434/
      In fact, if you like watching movies and you are learning French you’re in luck. The French are pretty darn good at making movies 🙂 Always have been.

      • Chris
        July 22, 2015 at 5:32 pm

        Oh yes, I’ve seen The Intouchables, it is a great film. I also agree the French make great films.
        I watched another French movie today, “Les Visiteurs” and noticed I really connected with some vocabulary that has been hard for me to master. Seeing and hearing a word in context really helps to get it into long term memory.
        I think I’ll watch all French movies with French subtitles from now on.

    • Darryl Caldwell
      July 28, 2015 at 5:54 pm

      Would you mind sharing the link to the French movies?

  • Roberto Rivera
    July 21, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    I agree 100% with your opinions on subtitles and dubbing. One can learn intonation, body language, facial expressions, as well as the occasional phrase as it is used in the target language with the use of subtitles. I much prefer subtitles to dubbing and it really doesn’t matter if I am studying the language or not. For example, I watch movies from Hong Kong in the original Cantonese, and I know very little Cantonese. I once saw a French comedy in French and later in English. There was a very large difference. In addition, from an aesthetic point of view, some actors are famous for working with their voices. Jack Nickelson, Christopher Walken, and Marlon Brando come to mind here. The voices of these actors dubbed into a foreign language is just not the same. I feel that dubbing shortchanges the viewer of the movie artistically. In sum, subtitles are much, much better for language learning, and are to be preferred to dubbing.

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 8:46 am

      Hi Robert, I totally agree. I guess they do try to find an actor that matches the original actor when they dub, but you are right, it is just not the same. Like I said before, I just can’t get over the mouth thing – it’s a pet peeve of mine. I have been told to watch Korean movies – so I am trying to get into that, if I pick up some of the language while I watch then great, but even if I don’t I would still rather watch them in Korean than dubbed English.

  • Frank Case
    July 21, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    And there’s yet another way to use subtitles, one that I have found particularly useful in language learning: watch a film in your native language with subtitles in you target language. True, this doesn’t help with your pronunciation of the target language, but it’s very useful for seeing how to translate any particular sentence or phrase into the language you’re studying. I have found that this is particularly beneficial when you already have a decent command of the target language.
    Kind regards

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 8:42 am

      Thanks Frank – Maybe I’ll try that. I wonder though if I’d even look at the subtitles? Or I’d forget since I already know what’s being said. It’s not a bad suggestion though.

  • 347
    July 21, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    You’re right
    Subtitles are great for learning a foreign language
    Dubbing is great for watching movies and shows for entertainment . Unfortunately sometimes dubbing is rather poor, usually in B-movies and not very popular shows
    But subtitles can be bad too .

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 8:40 am

      They can be – I have seen some really weird ones on Danish TV, that made zero sense. Sometimes I guess it’s hard for the translator to capture the cultural connotations.

  • Makz
    July 22, 2015 at 12:17 am

    Being Italian, this issue is of great, great interest, and it will never gets old. In this country, dubbing will always be supported by the average viewer, so that it’s pretty common to hear what has become a sort of catchprase: “We have the best dubbers” (along with the best food, best women and so forth). This mild chauvinism has led us to be one of the worst English speaking country in Europe- even if, generally speaking, France and Spain beat us! (Nevertheless, they can in a way “afford” this attitude, since their languages are more widespread than ours).
    As far as my girlfriend’s country is concerned, which is Vietnam, she has explained to me that normally they have double versions of foreign films: dubbed on T.V., with subtitles at the movies. As a matter of fact, Vietnamese people are not as bad at speaking English as we are, but their knowledge of this language, I daresay, it’s just slightly better. And yes, the “if I want to read, I open a book” is a long-standing position, I really don’t know what to say about, maybe it’s just a matter of getting used to. Lykke, I really like your posts, keep up the good work! And, by the way, I can’t stand dubbing: give me my Dreyer, my Vinterberg, my Bier, my early Von Trier and my Babettes Gæstebud in Danish, hahaha 😛

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 8:35 am

      Thanks for your super nice compliment 🙂 Sometimes I am not sure if anyone reads these, I am definitely open to suggestions if you have anything you’d like me to research and write about 🙂
      I don’t know if you are familiar with Italian polyglot Luca Lampariello? (Probably) He’s said something similar about Italian culture as you are saying, that Italians are pretty happy just speaking Italian. That’s obviously not true for everyone including yourself. You bring up a valid point that I actually thought of yesterday (I am in the midst of writing a guest post for someone) which is that French and Spanish are so widespread, that they might not feel like they need to bother learning English. But we agree though, dubbing is pretty awful.
      Lastly, you sir, have an excellent taste in (Danish) movies 🙂

      • Makz
        July 22, 2015 at 9:54 pm

        Well, Denmark has an excellent production of films.. Speaking of T.V. series, I still remember “Riget”: it was a brilliant hybrid of “Twin Peaks” and a medical drama whatsoever- back to times when Von Trier was crazy but not to much, hahaha. Of course I’m familiar with Lampariello, he is very quick at learning new languages, I think he can also speak Danish- or was it Swedish, I don’t remember..
        Now I have to go.. I’m going to have my first IELTS examination, and I feel like I’ve never spoken English in my entire life. I’m really anxious, maybe I should stop drinking energy drinks while I watch the sun rising, hahaha
        Hej Hej (this sounds really cool, you should export it!)

        • Lykke
          July 23, 2015 at 8:48 am

          You’ll do amazing – good luck 🙂

  • Peter
    July 22, 2015 at 12:31 am

    Great post lykke! I wanna learn italian, but I have trouble finding english movies with italian subtitles and italian movies with italian subtitles. There are a few italian movies on Netflix where you can put Danish subtitles on, but the speak so fast:). Any help is very much appreciated!

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 8:24 am

      I have a way of doing that – it works in Canada but there are probably similar services in Denmark (Or maybe you can use the Canadian one?) I use a service called unblockus.com – it is $5 a month (Det er cirka 35 kroner) and you can change to the other Netflix, then you may be able to change to Italian Netflix. But I also found this for you http://idlewildbooks.com/favorite-italian-movies-streaming-netflix-month/

      • Peter
        July 23, 2015 at 12:09 pm

        Thanks a lot Lykke! I Will check it out:) I really appreciate it:)

    • Makz
      July 22, 2015 at 9:37 pm

      Hello, Peter! I’m not a technophile- as a matter of fact I’ve only recently got rid of my VCR, hahaha- but I think I can help you by sending some Italian movies via dropbox, or some English movies with Italian subtitles, as well. my email address is macsti@email.it: feel free to contact me! I’m available to anyone, as soon as my brother will teach me how to send films, ça va sans dire.. ciao!

  • Est
    July 22, 2015 at 6:43 am

    I think you make some great points especially for English learners. But for me as a native English speaker dubbing is a great way for me to learn Spanish and Italian as take popular American shows like Sex and the city, big bang theory etc…I already know the show in English and I am familiar with the plot so when I watch the dubbed version it makes it much easier to follow and learn the language I am interested in.

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 8:19 am

      That makes sense, but like you said it’s mostly because you already know the show. Don’t you find it annoying when the mouth is all off? If you enjoy learning from TV-shows, have you tried telenovelleas? They are fun to watch, mainly because they are so overly dramatic. Also they give a look into Latin American/Spanish culture – not that everyone falls into a coma in real life – but you know what I mean 🙂

      • Est
        July 29, 2015 at 12:01 am

        Lol! I think that used to be the case but I noticed that Italian dubbing in particular is excellent (not good for those that are learning English though I might add).
        I actually do watch telenovelas for Spanish I love ‘yo soy Betty la fea’ a nice easy to watch show .In general it is much better to watch a film/show in the target language for all the cultural references etc but when that’s not available and I just want to relax with a show I already know the dubbed version makes a nice learning alternative.

  • Goyangi
    July 22, 2015 at 9:12 am

    In Switzerland one has at least the chance to watch movies with subs in cinemas.(You even can expose to three languages at the same time, because you have German and French subtitles) I sure prefer watching movies in original tone with subs. However I think it is better without subtitles for learning, because I think it is difficult to read and listen what the person says. But without subtitles sure does only works, when one can the language quiet good or the watched thing is very easy to understand. Maybe a compromise could be, to watch the movie with subtitles in the language they speak. (Watching English movies with English subtitles, instead of German ones.)
    In Germany I didn’t really find cinemas, with subbed movies, sometimes not even cinemas, which showed french movies, were subbed. (Watching art movies, people may are more likely to want having subtitles, so here you can watch them only with subs, but when I was in Germany, even art movies were dubbed…)
    Many people, who don’t like subs, are too slow with reading or can’t the language spoken in the movie. (Which is mostly English.)
    Subtitles can be annoying, at least I saw it once in a cinema, which had subtitles in a extra screen under the movie screen, so you could easily ignore the subtitles, if you just want listen what the actors says, because if it is in the picture, you will automatically read the subs.)
    Another problem with dubs is, that there are often horrible. I’m always shocked how different a movie or series feels in German dubs. Especially series are worser, since they may use less money for dubbing it, than for a hollywood blockbuster, but even these are strange. To me it seems, like they just have a hand full of speakers, and you hear them all over the place.

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 9:57 am

      Thanks for your insightful comment. It is useful to someone like me who doesn’t have much experience with dubbing, although what I have seen of it has been horrible 😉
      I certainly agree that subtitles can be annoying too, but still prefer subtitles. I am glad to hear you have a choice in Switzerland, I guess a country that has that many official languages have to give you those options.

  • gtaus
    July 22, 2015 at 10:15 am

    I get frustrated by both subtitles and dubbing. Occasionally I will watch an American Blockbuster movie and turn on the French audio and/or French subtitles. I often find that the audio track and the subtitles are not the same in the dialogue. I find it often difficult to hear one thing, and read another, in my target language. Worse yet, sometimes they just seem to miss the translation in both cases.
    Having said that, I wonder, for purposes of language learning, if it is better to watch the movie in my native English first, then later watch the movie using foreign audio track and/or subtitles, or would it be better to watch the movie in my target language first, then later watch it in my native English? I can see advantages either way.

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 10:43 am

      All I have to say to that is that you should do what you enjoy. In another comment someone says that watching a movie or TV-show in English first, and then the dubbed version in their target language works for them, which is pretty much what you suggest. I say go for it 🙂 There’s only one way to find out if it works for you.

  • Henry
    July 22, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    No such thing as ‘European Spanish’. It’s called ‘Spanish’. You could, I suppose, call it ‘Spanish Spanish’ but that sounds awkward, and ‘Spain’s Spanish’ sounds ridiculous. It’s just Spanish. The dialects of Spanish spoken in other countries are the ones that need extra words tagged onto their labels, but the language as spoken in the country of origin *is* the language.

    • Lykke
      July 22, 2015 at 3:58 pm

      Duly noted sir, however, in Spain they have their dubbed version and in Latin America they have another.

  • Bob
    July 22, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    I use subtitles to learn vocabulary and how a language is used. The subs don’t translate everything said and about 10% or more are wrong because the translator did not understand the cultural context of idiom or slang that was being translated. That said, these were not really problems because the translator, even if wrong was using his/her own language correctly. And that is an important point. I don’t do this for entertainment. I do it to learn.
    I have done six movie so far using this method:
    1. Find the subtitle script for a movie you have seen (so that you know the story). If you actually have the DVD, that’s ever better. You can go to moviesubtitles.org or opensubtitles.org (Do not try to download movies by clicking on a link. You may get a virus.)
    2. Identify the subtitle language by the flag.
    3. Look for the download link for a file ending in .srt. That is, dot SRT. That is really a text file and once you download it, change the SRT to TXT.
    4. Each subtitle will have a time stamp for when it appears in the film. Strip these off. I sometimes keep the subtitle line number but it is not necessary
    5. Now you have a cleaned up text file with just the subs.
    6. Read your new file like a book. IMPORTANT: Use it with the movie to mark scene changes and annotate your new text file with these scene changes and add any notes that you want about the scene.
    7. Add vocabulary words only for the new words (for you) and the new expressions.
    8. As you create your new text file + vocab, put it also on your smart phone/tablet/back of your hand (just kidding!) so you can review it anytime (waiting in line, on a bus, in bed at night, etc.) Keep updating your device as you change your file.
    9. Here is a small piece of my subtitle file of Saving Private Ryan. The subs are in Italian, my target language, and you will see my vocab additions to my file:
    (scene: Miller’s troops stopped at obstacle)
    Bangalor! Mèttersi al riparo!
    = Take cover!
    Pronti per l’esplosione!
    Ha funzionato! Defilata!
    defilaresi = to bolt;get out of here/there
    Dall’altro lato della buca!
    buca = hole
    Ci siamo! Andiamo!
    Ci siamo! = That’s it! [in this context]

    • Lykke
      July 23, 2015 at 8:51 am

      Hey Bob – Thank you! Wow that is a very elaborate description of how to use subtitles. You sure are thorough 🙂 I am going to give that a try with Spanish.

    • Darryl Caldwell
      July 28, 2015 at 6:14 pm

      Bob, that’s and excellent approach. Merci beaucoup!

  • Deahna
    July 23, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    I read recently that Germans are considered to be best at speaking English as a foreign language from all European Countries – I think it was even somewhere on LingQ.
    But Germans don’t have subtitles. Anywhere. Except at the opera, and then they are usually Italian, the language the opera was originally composed in.
    Now this is not quite in keeping with your findings…
    Personally I prefer to do without either as subtitles are distracting and often don’t match what’s on screen. Or the dailog moves too fast and I only get to read the first line of two before it moves on.

    • Lykke
      July 27, 2015 at 7:59 am

      That’s interesting, I have never ever heard that. Please point me in the direction of that article, because I’d love to read it.

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