Learn German with Subtitles to Improve Your Comprehension, Vocabulary and Fluency
The magic of subtitles captured me a long time ago.
I started using German subtitles while watching TV shows and movies because my German-speaking girlfriend requested them.
Sometimes the spoken English was too fast for her.
Sometimes, after a long day at work, it was just too tasking to mentally translate all evening.
Little did I know that such a little switch in the routine would turn into a very useful, not to mention often very funny, way to learn German.
Subtitles are a fantastic way to learn a language, and they even teach us certain aspects of new languages better than any textbook. Plus, learning German with subtitles is much more fun than thumbing through pages of a grammar book. You could be watching your favorite series and learning German at the same time! What could be better than that?
Actually, with the great variety of video content on the internet these days, there are quite a few places around the web with easily accessible German shows with English subtitles or English shows with German subtitles. Netflix is a virtual goldmine of films and shows with German audio or subtitles. But with all this access to media that can help you learn German with subtitles, what could you actually learn?
As I’ve spent a lot of time watching TV and movies on Netflix and other places online, I’ve learned that there are three basic ways using subtitles can help you learn German. You can improve your comprehension, expand your vocabulary and learn a more natural way of speaking German. What you learn depends on what, how and in which language you watch, as I’ll explain below.
How German Subtitles Can Help You Learn 3 Vital Language Skills
1. German Shows with English Subtitles for Comprehension
Watching a German show without subtitles is already pretty helpful, even if you don’t understand what’s being said.
It helps you to get a sense of the cadence and rhythm of the language.
However, if you turn the English subtitles on, it becomes a very effective way of building mental connections between hearing German words and understanding their meanings.
It’s a more subconscious way to learn German with subtitles. Without understanding each German sentence perfectly, you probably won’t be able to learn particular German words very easily. But that’s not what this technique is meant to do.
By listening to the German and understanding the general meaning through reading the English subtitles, you’ll still be able to make associations between the German sounds, sentence structures, tones and their actual meanings.
What to Watch
The best types of content to watch for this purpose are the more simple, modern and dialogue-focused films, TV shows and videos.
There are some great YouTube channels out there that pair German dialogue with English subtitles (and sometimes German subtitles as well!).
- Easy German — This a really fun and helpful YouTube channel with tons of content that ranges from the basics of the language to street interviews throughout Germany. The great thing about Easy German is that not only do you learn German that’s literally spoken today but you also get to learn about German life and culture through the videos as well. They provide English subtitles, and in addition, very accurate German subtitles as well!
- DontTrustTheRabbit — Trixie from DontTrustTheRabbit does most of her videos about German and living in Germany in English. However, she does have quite a few videos almost entirely in German, with English subtitles, like the one linked above.
- BookBox — This channel is a bit different from the previous two. It’s aimed specifically at beginners and consists almost entirely of children’s stories with both English and German subtitles. I found it quite relaxing and even fun to listen to these old German stories, they’re very easy to follow!
Aside from YouTube, there are several other places you can go online to get German shows and English subtitles. For many of these, you may need a VPN to access them as they’re often location-locked to Germany.
If you’ve heard the term VPN but haven’t used one before, it’s essentially a service that creates a connection between your device and a server somewhere in the world. Then, all the traffic of your PC is routed through that server. Basically, that server, wherever in the world it is, acts as your computer (to a certain degree) to the rest of the internet.
It’s not a perfect technology, and streaming services have become quite good at controlling their use, but some do still work. For more information on setting up a VPN and a bunch of spots online for this kind of German content, check out this post on the topic.
Here are some places outside of YouTube to find German shows and movies with English subtitles:
- “Löwenzahn” (with subtitles) — This is a page from a German studio’s (ZDF) website that contains all the episodes of “Löwenzahn,” (“Dandelion”) a very famous German children’s show, that has subtitles. Quite a few of them have (Englisch) next to the episode’s name denoting that the subtitles for that episode are in English.
- German Movies and TV on Netflix — As the streaming giant grows larger and larger, they have been expanding their store of foreign films as well. Some great selections would be “Remembrance,” “A Coffee in Berlin,” “Altes Geld” (“Old Money”) and “Night Train to Lisbon.”
- English shows with German audio on Netflix — Netflix is now offering the German audio dub for many of its popular US/UK shows including “Black Mirror,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Love,” “Narcos” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
2. English Shows with German Subtitles for Vocabulary
The next way you can use subtitles to learn German is by turning on those dreaded German subtitles for English movies and TV shows. This will be helpful for any level of German learner, and you actually get more out of it the more advanced you are!
This works best when you read along to something you’re already familiar with. Pick an episode of your favorite TV show or a movie you’ve seen before, for example. By reading the German as you hear the English, it’s very easy to learn new vocabulary as you watch. And because the words are written out in German, you can pause and look up a word that really stands out to you as weird or interesting.
You can even use this technique to learn new words in a specific theme that you’re interested in, and learn the jargon of that particular niche in the proper context as well.
What to Watch
For this strategy, you can watch anything you already enjoy watching that has German subtitles!
If you already live in Germany, or can use a VPN to access native German materials, then all of the English films and TV shows there will have German subtitles available. Also, other streaming services like Amazon Video sometimes have German subtitles as well.
Watch whatever you like!
This is where it gets interesting.
Like I said above, with this way of using subtitles to learn German, you can even dive into a particular niche and learn its vocabulary in a fun way.
Like crime shows? Watch “Sherlock” or “Luther” on Netflix or “The Wire” on Amazon with German subtitles. Want to learn about science and nature? Check out “Planet Earth,” “Cosmos” or “Life” on Netflix!
You get the idea. Basically, whatever niche theme or topic a TV show or movie has will have special vocab associated with it. It can be really fun to learn the wacky German words for your interests!
Even if a show isn’t on Netflix or other places like Amazon, you can still get German subtitles for essentially any popular film or TV show.
Because the internet is what it is, of course, there are substantial repositories of subtitles out there for you to use. Now, this may require you to understand what a .srt file is and how to import it into your video player, but once you can do that, you can add German subtitles to essentially everything you have. The first method described on this wikiHow article about adding subtitles demonstrates the general process I use.
As for finding subtitles for these videos, there are a couple of places I look around the web that have great search functions to help you find the exact subtitle track you need: subcentral.de and OpenSubtitles.
3. Watch German Shows with German Subtitles for Authentic German
Alright, this is where we get into the tougher stuff.
German shows, German subtitles. All German, all the time.
In order to learn a more “natural” German through subtitles, you really need to already have some understanding of the language.
Don’t worry, I’m not saying you need to be fluent—but you should understand the basic structure of the language first to really get the most out of it.
Just as English is full of numerous little quirks—contractions, idioms, loads of connotations and implications—German is too. When watching a German show with German subtitles, not only do you have the chance to hear the actual voices, but you can also read the text of what they’re saying. That way you can pause and look up whatever weird constructions or seemingly misplaced words stand out to you.
I’ll give you an example of a German idiom that makes no sense if you don’t know what it means.
Let’s take “seinen Senf dazugeben” (to add one’s mustard). Say you’re watching a show in German, and someone starts talking about putting their mustard (Senf) in something. Unless they’re talking about sandwiches, you’re going to be very confused. Luckily, with German subtitles, you can quickly pause, look up the phrase and find out that it just means “to put their two cents in.”
As a little side note: German idioms are hilarious and I highly recommend learning them. Enjoy playing “spot the German idioms” when watching your favorite show!
What to Watch
Your first stop should be FluentU, which provides authentic German videos and way more than just regular subtitles.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
When it comes to traditional subtitles, I highly suggest that more advanced learners look into German comedies. Ha ha, yes, I understand that German humor is no laughing matter. In all seriousness though, it’s great! Comedies tend to rely heavily on slang, wordplay and idioms to get a laugh, so they’re a great way to learn a more natural, colorful German.
With German subtitles on, as you hear a strange-sounding phrase, word or punchline, you can look it up and figure out how it’s used. I’ve found that, not only do I understand the words and phrases I pull out of TV and movies much better, but I remember them more easily as well!
Admittedly, it can be a bit tougher to find German comedies with English subtitles, but there’s actually a wealth of German short films and documentaries out on YouTube and around the web. “Fritten zum Mittag” (“Fries for Lunch”) will introduce you to some quirky characters in this German comedy short film.
You can find lots of content with subtitles on zdf.de, Germany’s national public television broadcaster. If you’re more into darker or satirical comedies, “Der Tartortreiniger” (“The Crime Scene Cleaner”) or “Mord mit Aussicht” (“Murder with a View”) might be right up your alley.
Even the TV miniseries of the German classic film “Das Boot” (“The Boat”) is on Netflix. This one is definitely not “natural” German today, but it does provide a very interesting insight into military terminology. This is a way of speaking that would be good to recognize (even if it’s only to avoid speaking this way).
So really, we have so many options out there online to help us learn German with subtitles.
Whether you want to improve your comprehension, learn some new vocabulary or learn a more informal or slang German, using subtitles is a fun and interesting way to do it.
Now, fire up those subtitles and start watching!