Give me a foreign language video and subtitles to match and I will learn that language. – Archimedes, probably
Subtitles are the unsung heroes of language learning.
But you’re not here to hear about plain old ordinary subtitles.
Because as helpful as those can be, it gets much better.
You’re here to make use of what seems like it should be such a simple, effective language learning hack but is surprisingly rarely used: dual language subtitles for authentic video content.
Maybe you thought of this concept yourself.
Maybe it just popped into your mind while you were watching a vlog in the language you’re learning and for the umpteenth time found yourself in the position of switching back and forth between two sets of subtitles that weren’t even necessarily accurate.
Or maybe you snuck a glance at a video on someone else’s phone that was running dual subtitles and thought to yourself, “What is this wizardry?”
Well, good news: Having the option of not just one, but two sets of subtitles working for you—one in a language you know and another in the language you’re learning—as you watch the kind of content that’s intended for native speakers of your target language is not an impossible dream.
In this post, we’ll show you how it’s possible.
And we won’t just show you how to have instant translations for all the content in movies or videos you watch, but also how to use this tool to fully grasp the structure, grammar and writing of your target language.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Dual Subtitles: How Language Learning Can Be Twice as Nice
How to Set Up Your Own Dual Subtitles Home Theater
Now that you know dual subtitles are possible, you may be champing at the bit to get started. However, using dual subtitles is a little tricky, and requires a little bit of technical literacy and patience to get right. There’s no such thing as a free lunch!
Or is there?
A Really Easy Option: Just Sign Up for FluentU
Actually, if you’re not tech-savvy and would rather not mess around with video and subtitle files on your computer, there’s a super simple solution for obtaining dual subtitles on a huge number of select authentic videos: FluentU.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
A Still-not-too-hard Option: Setting Up Dual Subtitles for Video Files on Your Computer
But maybe you already have FluentU, and in addition you want to be able to watch full movies and TV shows in a dual-subtitle format. Or you’re learning a language that’s not yet available. Or you just want to geek out over as many options as possible.
Not a problem!
Here’s a short tutorial on getting and using dual subtitles with the video files on your computer:
- First, you’ll want to download subtitle files from OpenSubtitles.org. There are a few different sites where you can download subs, but OpenSubtitles is the oldest and most respected. The collection is enormous, spanning around 50 languages and thousands of films and TV shows.
They even have their own forum and blog for advice. But all you really need to do to get started is search for the name of the movie or show you want.
- Then, select the language of the subtitles and download the SRT files you need. One SRT file is one set of subtitles—simple!
- Put the SRT files in the same folder as your video file, and make sure they have a similar name. For example, if you’re watching “Toy Story,” maybe your video file is toy-story.mp4, your English subs are toy-story.en.srt, and your Spanish subs are toy-story.es.srt.
- Next, make sure you have or download a good media player, like KMPlayer, VLC or Kodi, that will automatically allow you to choose between your sets of subtitles when you play the file. In the “Toy Story” example, you’ll see options for subtitles in English and Spanish.
But how to play them at the same time? Some players already include options to play more than one file at once, but you can also take the additional step of combining two sets of SRT files into one using a free service like DualSub.
Depending on your media player, you may get smoother results by combining your two SRT files into one ASS file.
Enjoy your dual subtitles!
Now, let’s look at what you can do with them.
How to Use Dual Subtitles to Learn Languages
Use Dual Subtitles to Improve Your Listening Comprehension
First off, let me be clear that all dual subtitles all the time aren’t for everyone. This is why both of the options we recommended above can easily be adjusted to accommodate single-subtitle or no-subtitle watching. If you’re advanced enough in your studies, you may not need subtitles anymore at all. Just watch and understand and enjoy your hard-earned fluency.
But for the rest of us, when a native speaker opens their mouth in a target-language video, it can be overwhelming.
Simply listening along with a transcript is one of the best ways to get used to natural speech. But if you listen just one time, it might be tough-going.
Listening multiple times and following along with the subtitles or a transcript will bake those language patterns and vocabulary words into your brain in no time.
Use Dual Subtitles to Learn Foreign Alphabets and Tough Spelling Systems
Did you know that same-language subtitling can boost literacy?
The applications for second-language learning are enormous. If you’re struggling to get your head around unfamiliar writing systems or complicated spelling, take a break from laboriously copying out the alphabet.
Switch on some videos with dual-language subtitles and just concentrate on the sounds and the writing. You can use the translations for understanding, but it’s the target language you’ll want to mainly be focusing on. Then go back to your instructional materials and watch as you make astonishing progress in reading your target language.
Use Dual Subtitles to Check Your Understanding
When you watch a video in your target language, you may think you understand everything.
And when you read the target-language subtitles, you may also believe you’re following along perfectly.
But what dual subtitles bring to you is a way to instantly check if you’re actually understanding your target language or just getting the gist.
Cover up or turn off the “answer” (your native language) and play a short section of the video. Rewind and check to see if you got it right. It’s that simple! (With a FluentU Plus plan, Quiz Mode takes care of this part for you—and keeps track of the vocab you’re learning so it knows when you need to review something.)
Then repeat over and over. With hundreds of lines of dialogue in any film or TV show (and so many YouTube videos in existence!), this might be the most efficient and convenient listening practice exercise out there.
But what else can you achieve with dual subtitles?
Use Dual Subtitles to Compare Two Foreign Languages at Once
Lots of language learners like to double things up and study more than one foreign language at the same time.
That’s great, and I’m all for it. Learners like this have a special way to benefit from dual subtitles—listening to content in their native language and comparing two different translations.
Let me explain: You’ll hear your native language, which is effortless to understand. Then you’ll see translations of what was just said in both of the languages you’re studying.
This way you can get reading practice in both target languages and see where they might differ in terms of vocabulary.
Norwegian and Danish, for instance, are very similar in their written form.
By comparing the subtitles line by line, you can get a sense for where they do differ and strengthen both at the same time. Talk about efficiency!
Use Dual Subtitles to Understand Nuances in Target Language Content
Here’s another tip that can work for multi-language learners.
Imagine you’re watching a film in one of your target languages and you understand it at a high intermediate level.
You know what the characters are saying, what they’re thinking and how they relate to each other.
If you put on subtitles in your native language, you’ll understand the meanings of the lines.
But if you add subtitles in a different language that you also understand, you’ll see how another translator from a different background rendered those lines, too.
This can actually add a lot of depth to your understanding of the film and the language.
Oftentimes films from other cultures have nuances that are hard to appreciate from the outside.
Let’s say you’re watching a film in Italian, and you understand French well, too. By comparing French and English subtitles for the film—you’ll see how the Italian lines were understood by two different translators and interpreted for two different audiences.
With a second opinion on the language used in the film, your understanding will be a lot more complete.
However, even if you don’t have a third language or set of subtitles for this extra context, you’ll still gain understanding of a lot of nuance from comparing a target-language transcript that you already understand to a full translation your native language. This is one way that advanced learners can still benefit from translations, and it also shows the value of another simple exercise: Working out a translation yourself and then comparing it to someone else’s translation.
Of course, there are a million and one ways to learn a language.
Whatever gets you thinking in and thinking about the language—that’s the best way to study.
Dual subtitles are just one of many tools available to you, but they’re one of the best.
Try them out today and see how they work for you!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.