Using subtitling technology when learning a foreign language

UDC 81
Publication date: 20.06.2024
International Journal of Professional Science №6-1-2024

Using subtitling technology when learning a foreign language

Lashina Ekaterina N.
Senior Lecturer of the Department of Foreign Languages,
St. Petersburg State University of Industrial Technology and Design.
Higher School of Technology and Energy
Abstract: The use of audio and video materials with subtitles is quite popular and is often found in university classes. The article discusses the technology of using subtitles when working with audio and video as linguodidactic material. It describes research conducted by linguists to determine the positive effect in learning a foreign language.
Keywords: subtitles, foreign language, learning, translation, text, audio, video.

Subtitles (from the French sous-titres) – a textual representation of spoken dialogue, sound effects, and other auditory information in a film, television show, or other multimedia content. The subtitles reflect, first of all, the speech of people or characters in the frame. Sometimes subtitles contain additional information about what is happening on the screen, for example, comments on the film, explanations of difficult-to-understand terms, titles, inscriptions, etc. They appear at the bottom of the screen, synchronized with the soundtrack in real time.

Subtitling technology is designed for accessibility, language translation, noise or distraction reduction, search and navigation, and compliance with legal and regulatory requirements. Accessibility refers to the design and practice of ensuring that products, services and information are usable and accessible to all people.

Subtitles are useful for search and navigation because they make video content more discoverable by providing context. They allow the audience to access content and improve the user experience. Subtitles also help audiences find and interact with content that suits their interests and needs. Subtitles make it easier to understand cultural aspects.

Subtitles are useful for learning new things, such as a foreign language. You can open a movie in a language you know and have subtitles in a language you don’t, which helps with the learning process.

Language translation allows people to watch content in a particular language. Subtitles provide better understanding for people. Instead of listening to the content, people can follow the subtitles [1].

Movies with subtitles as audiovisual material for work in foreign language classes, if used correctly, can turn out to be extremely practical, since such material is a polycode text, i.e., a combination of semiotically heterogeneous components.

The advantage of this type of text as a didactic resource is that such texts are highly informative. If students do not perceive one or another segment of information by ear, it can be supplemented by video. In addition, the dynamics of the plot line of a film product makes it possible to more or less retain the attention of students for a certain period of time and immerse them in a microenvironment close to natural communication [2].

The benefits of subtitling in education also include improved comprehension, language learning, and note-taking. Some students are not able to listen to lectures in a foreign language and prefer written information. Subtitles help them with this. Subtitles are preferable when the lecture content contains many difficult terms. Students can better understand these complex terms with the help of subtitles [1].

Taking into account the fact that subtitles are, first of all, text, they can be considered as the main educational unit of teaching a foreign language. When working on subtitles, the main mental processes are involved: memory, imagination, perception, thinking. Active comprehensive training is carried out on attention, tempo of speech, and internal speech when writing, since what is being written is spoken out; writing training, i.e., there is a logical understanding of the use of grammatical structures in a specific situation, skills of subconscious recognition of grammatical forms at the morphological and syntactic levels.

Subtitles develop listening skills, auditory perception and help to understand oral speech, improve the skills of direct understanding of words and phrases, develop the skills of subconscious perception of sounds, sound combinations and intonations, i.e., sound side of speech. Watching movies with subtitles and reading subtitles develops reading skills and speed. When working on subtitles as a form of translation, students overcome language and translation difficulties, compare different translation options, analyze translation errors and grammatical structures, and develop skills in switching from language to language.

Thus, the use of subtitles represents comprehensive foreign language teaching. Subtitles as text represent a unit with the help of which the formation and development of communicative skills and communicative competence of students occurs. At the same time, work on subtitles is intended to fulfill various didactic functions:

1) cognitive – textual support becomes the subject of observation and comprehension of lexical and grammatical material, a source of new language information, material for setting problem, research, and translation tasks;

2) educational – subtitles help to form and develop communication skills, provide an example of speech culture in a certain communicative situation, and provide information about stylistic variability;

3) developmental – the development of linguistic (speech) abilities, the development of creative abilities, since the meaning of visual images can receive many contexts of application; 4) communicative – the text of subtitles can become a stimulus for communication, a source of educational texts, monologues, dialogues [3].

However, debate remains about the benefits and harms of using subtitling technology when learning a foreign language. Currently, research is being conducted to find out how subtitles influence students’ perception of this or that material.

Subtitles in videos in a foreign language help to understand the speech by ear, and do not distract, contrary to popular belief. These are the results of a study conducted by experts from the USA.

In foreign language classes at school and during preparation for standardized exams like IELTS and TOEFL, it is common to develop listening comprehension with the help of audio recordings and videos without subtitles. Many teachers believe that text is an additional source of information that makes it difficult to focus on the spoken speech and hinders understanding.

American researchers from the University of Maryland at College Park and St. Luke’s School conducted an experiment and found that the effect of using subtitles when watching videos in a foreign language is the opposite. The corresponding scientific article was published by the journal System.

As part of the study, 287 students from Turkey and China watched a ten-minute TED Talks-style lecture in English and answered questions about its content. The respondents’ language proficiency level was at least average. Students were randomly divided into three groups: some watched a slow-motion video (the speed was 0.75 from the original speed), others watched an accelerated video (1.25 from the original speed), and others watched the original video. The video was available to all participants in the experiment with or without subtitles.

After watching the video, respondents immediately proceeded to the next stage of the experiment – they began answering multiple choice questions. Eight questions were related to video content, three were related to playback speed. It took seven minutes to fill out the form.

Subtitles helped students better understand the video, which resulted in more accurate answers to questions about the content. The effect was positive for everyone, regardless of language proficiency level or video speed, but those who watched the lecture in slow motion saw a greater benefit.

Scientists have suggested that video speed can be a valuable tool in foreign language lessons and can be used for a variety of purposes. For example, if the teacher wants to focus on the general content of a video in a foreign language, you can show its original or accelerated version. If details and grammar features are important, slow down the playback. At the same time, in their opinion, there is no need to completely abandon subtitles. The study showed that they improve the results of even those students whose language proficiency level is initially high: “Teachers should show the video without subtitles the first time so that they can concentrate on listening, and then turn on the subtitles a second time. This will allow students to reconstruct details that they initially did not hear and missed” [4].

Another study also confirms the positive effects of using subtitling technology in foreign language learning.

Scientists from the USA checked how playback speed and the presence of subtitles affect the understanding of foreign speech in videos. The results of the work were published in the journal System.

We decided to study the effect of subtitles on comprehension because some previous studies have associated their use in foreign language learning with increased cognitive load and, consequently, with worse learning outcomes. Also, as noted in the article, some language teachers avoid videos with subtitles because they believe that in this format, students rely on reading and, as a result, develop worse ability to understand foreign speech by ear.

The study involved 287 students from China and Turkey, aged 18 to 30 years, with different levels of English proficiency — from intermediate B1 to advanced C2. Moreover, only those who could confirm their knowledge with a certificate from one of the international exams were invited to participate.

All the students in the study watched the same ten-minute TED Talks video in English about the reasons why learning new foreign languages ​​is beneficial. And then everyone took a video test. However, the viewing conditions were different. Participants were randomly divided into three groups based on video viewing speed — slow (0.75), normal (1) and fast (1.25). In each of these groups, students were in turn divided into those who watched with English subtitles and those who did not.

It turned out that the presence of subtitles had a positive effect on understanding the video in all cases. But the biggest effect was found in the group that watched the video at the slowest speed: here there was the largest gap in test scores between those students who saw the subtitles and those who listened to the speech. In the groups with normal and increased viewing speed, differences were also observed, but here the positive effect of subtitles was not so pronounced.

Another conclusion of the researchers is that subtitles help students with any level of language proficiency understand foreign speech, but they unexpectedly turned out to be most useful for the most advanced students. Presumably, students with a high level of knowledge can use subtitles to understand the most complex details of an utterance.

Based on the results of the study, scientists recommended that foreign language teachers use subtitles even with students of a fairly high level. And so that the presence of the text does not distract from listening, the authors advise changing the format depending on the task and watching some speeches twice. For example, during the first viewing, when students are required to form a general understanding of the video, show it without subtitles. And the second time, when you need to understand the details, add subtitles [5].

So, subtitles are a way to overcome language and cultural barriers between peoples, as they provide maximum opportunities for a complete understanding of audio and video. Films with subtitles have long been successfully used in learning foreign languages, as they help to adapt to foreign speech. Considering that the effectiveness of simultaneous perception of sound and image (in this case, we mean a graphic representation of sound) is higher than visual perception alone or the perception of sound, or the perception of text separately, original subtitles should be used as often as possible in teaching a foreign language.


1. Guide to subtitles: definition, purpose, creation and use: [Electronic resource]. – Access mode:
2. Ziyazova, I. R. Movies with subtitles as didactic material for learning a foreign language / I. R. Ziyazova // Bulletin of Nizhnevartovsk State University. – 2014. – [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: file:///C:/Users/Admin/Downloads/49385-84716-1-PB.pdf
3. Malik, N. E. Methods of working with subtitles in complex teaching of a foreign language / N. E. Malik // Multilingualism in the educational space: Collection of articles. Vol. 2 / comp. and ed. T. I. Zelenina, L. M. Malykh. – Izhevsk: Udmurt University Publishing House, 2010. – P. 138-143. – [Electronic resource]. – Access mode:
4. Linguists have figured out how subtitles affect watching videos in a foreign language: [Electronic resource]. – Access mode:
5. Researchers find out if subtitles are useful when learning a foreign language: [Electronic resource]. – Access mode: