You may think of subtitles as those pesky words at the bottom of the screen that always ruin punchlines.
Or maybe you see them as a way to watch TV at a low volume when your roommate is sleeping.
But have you ever thought of them as a language learning tool?
Watching foreign language movies with subtitles can actually be a great way to experience language immersion.
Subtitles translate words from a different language into the language you understand, they clarify words you may not have heard due to fast-paced dialogue and they allow you to pay attention to how words are written as they’re being spoken.
Sources for Subtitled Mandarin Chinese Media
We’ve wrangled up a few places to start your search for subtitled flicks:
- Netflix — Netflix has a selection of Mandarin Chinese movies and TV dramas with English, Japanese, Korean, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese subtitles. If you’re located in a country that primarily speaks Chinese, most content on Netflix will have the option of Chinese audio and subtitles. This means you can watch English movies with Chinese audio and Chinese subtitles.
- Amazon Video — Amazon provides Mandarin Chinese movies and TV shows with English subtitles. Just typing in “Chinese movies with English subtitles” brings up about 35 different titles from horror to comedy to sci-fi.
- Hulu — This service allows you to stream all those Chinese films and TV shows with English subtitles directly on any device. Need a recommendation? Well, are a Bruce Lee fan? Of course you are (who isn’t?)! Then check out the documentary “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey.” You’ll find this movie and tons more on Hulu.
- YouTube — YouTube has Chinese movies and TV shows with dual subtitles as well as single-language subtitles. You can search the show you want to watch with “English sub,” “traditional Chinese sub,” “Malay sub” or subtitles in whatever language you desire. To start you off, you might consider a drama that’s pretty popular in China right now, “Eternal Love,” a fantasy-romance replete with gods and demons!
- FluentU takes the best of YouTube and turns it into personalized language learning material. It lets you learn real Chinese from dramas, TV shows, commercials, music videos and more. It naturally eases you into learning Chinese language, and you’ll learn Chinese as it’s spoken in real life. FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos, as you can see here:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how they’re used. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
FluentU’s Quiz Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your vocabulary. It suggests content and examples based on the words you’re learning. You have a 100% personalized experience.
Now that you know where to look and you have a couple of recommendations, how do you best use subtitles to get the most out of your learning?
3 Ways to Maximize Your Chinese Learning Experience with Subtitles
The best thing about watching movies or TV shows with subtitles is that you can select which subtitle format is most suitable for your learning level.
Streaming platforms often offer subtitles in one of three formats: subtitles in one language, subtitles in multiple languages (but only one at a time) or dual subtitles. No matter which type of format your platform of choice offers, we’ll show you how you can use them to your advantage.
1. Start Slow: Subtitles in Only One Language
If your favorite streaming platform only has subtitles available in one language, think about your own language level and what you want to gain from your movie-watching experience. Do you want to become more familiar with phonemes, expand your vocabulary or practice reading? Subtitled movies can help you master any of these objectives.
Chinese movies with English (or native language) subtitles
This is great for beginners. Native language subtitles allow viewers to understand what’s happening in the movie while being exposed to the cadences of a new language as well as simple phrases and mannerisms. Keep a notebook handy to write down common phrases you encounter as you watch.
I suggest using pinyin because this is often easier than writing out the characters, especially since you don’t want to miss too much while you’re watching. Then after the movie is over, you can go back and write out the characters.
Chinese movies with Chinese subtitles
This is perfect for intermediate to advanced learners. For individuals who already have a decent vocabulary base and are able to understand day-to-day conversations, Chinese subtitles allow viewers to expand their vocabulary, practice reading and improve their writing skills. Keep a dictionary nearby while you’re watching so you can look up any unfamiliar words and take note of them.
English (or native language) movies with Chinese subtitles
This is an option suitable for learners at any level. Chinese subtitles on a native language movie or TV show provide a more targeted outlet for learning new Chinese vocabulary and reading Chinese characters.
However, it’s imperative to focus on the subtitles and purposefully search out any unfamiliar words. Since the dialogue is in your native language, you’ll already have an idea of what those words mean just from watching the movie.
2. Mix It Up and Flip-flop Between Subtitles
Some streaming platforms offer subtitles in multiple languages but you can only select one at a time. However, with a selection of multiple languages, you have the additional capacity to switch between languages any time you like.
Challenge yourself to watch one scene entirely in Chinese
You’re not ready to see an entire film with Chinese subtitles because you don’t want to be completely lost. We get it. So take it slow and watch the next scene with Chinese audio and subtitles and see how much you understand.
Or you can rewind the movie and watch that killer action scene again and try to say the lines along with the characters (fight moves are optional). Do this as often as you like throughout the movie until you’re ready to go without subtitles.
Another option is watching a scene and translating the words at the same time. Then go back to see how your translations fared against the given subtitles. Sometimes you’ll be right on the mark, sometimes you’ll be way off. No matter! You’re getting some awesome practice in and you’ll see improvement in no time!
Switch the subtitles within a scene
If you’re watching Chinese movies with native language subtitles, you can switch to Chinese subtitles to see how a specific word is written. In Chinese, there are a lot of characters whose pronunciation is exactly the same but are actually completely different words.
Therefore, switching to Chinese subtitles can help you clarify very quickly which character the sound of a word corresponds to. This is really nice for beginner to intermediate learners because you automatically have a translation into your native language as you watch. Also, you still have an easy way to augment your vocabulary and distinguish between similar sounding characters in Chinese.
If you’re watching Chinese movies with Chinese subtitles, you can switch to native language subtitles when you’re uncertain about a word or phrase. This is useful for intermediate to advanced learners because it forces you to listen and read in Chinese but instead of looking up unknown words in a dictionary, you have the capability of switching subtitles for a quick translation.
3. Fill the Screen with Language by Using Dual Subtitles
Dual subtitles refers to a format that displays both Chinese subtitles and subtitles in your native language at the bottom of the screen. This is the most useful format for learning a new language. Dual subtitles allow you to understand the meaning of what’s being said while introducing both oral and written Chinese. It’s suitable for learners at all levels but is especially helpful for beginners.
Pause frequently to focus on new or interesting vocabulary
Taking note of words you don’t recognize is much easier since you have both the words (Mandarin characters) and native language translation in front of you on the screen. Therefore, you can simply pause to jot down the unknown word or phrase, its definition in your own language and the context in which it was used. This will be very useful in helping you understand how to use those words yourself in daily conversation.
Watching movies or TV shows with subtitles turned on is a less tedious way of learning a language.
Sometimes, you may not even feel like you’re actively learning! However, by constantly reading and listening in Chinese, you’re instinctively absorbing subtleties of the language—all while being entertained!
Jandy Gu is an anthropologist, ethnographer, writer, editor, teacher, curriculum designer and aspiring polyglot. She is a native English speaker, Mandarin Chinese heritage speaker, and Brazilian Portuguese language learner. Her passions include traveling, eating, social justice issues and cuddling with dogs—not necessarily in that order.
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