Rated R for Russian: How to Learn Real Russian with Subtitles
Wouldn’t it be nice if learning Russian was as easy as watching a movie?
You can use TV shows, movies and YouTube clips to level up your Russian… all you need are subtitles.
A lot of people seem to think subtitles are just a crutch for beginners.
But the truth is, if you know how to use them right, subtitles can help kick your Russian learning into high gear.
- 6 Pro Tips for Keeping Your Focus When Learning Russian with Subtitles
- Level Up Your Russian Learning with Subtitles: Easy, Hard and Boss Modes
- And One More Thing...
6 Pro Tips for Keeping Your Focus When Learning Russian with Subtitles
1. Warm up your brain with some old-fashioned study time. For maximum focus and motivation, don’t just jump in cold. Activate the Russian you already know by reviewing beforehand. That might mean skimming a textbook, running through some flashcards or listening to a song you’ve basically memorized. It could also mean doing some exercises in Duolingo or a video from FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Whatever works best, make sure you have what you need at your fingertips to start warming up quickly.
2. Go into it with a mission and game plan. You don’t have to prepare a detailed mission statement about what you want to learn, but you also shouldn’t expect to advance in Russian simply by sitting back and soaking up subtitles. What skill do you want to practice? Is there any special vocabulary you should keep an eye out for? Zero in on your main goal and keep it in mind as you watch.
3. Watch more than once. The first time you watch a video (especially a film or ongoing TV series), it’s easy to get lost in the storyline and turn your attention away from the language. In fact, if that happens, that means you’ve chosen your resources well! But, it also means you should watch at least twice, if possible. The first time, just enjoy the experience. The second time, dig deeper into the language without getting distracted by the unfolding story.
4. Go solo. If you watch alone, you’ll have much better focus than if you watch with a group of friends. It’ll also give you the opportunity to pause and rewind without driving people crazy.
5. Take a trusty notebook along for the ride. You can translate “notebook” as the paper or digital kind (ноутбук means “laptop” in Russian), but either way, having one around is a smart idea when you’re studying subtitles. Not only does it allow you to note down words and phrases you like, but it also serves as a physical reminder that this is primarily study time, not an excuse to veg out.
6. Do follow-up activities to consolidate what you’ve learned. Your learning doesn’t end when the credits roll. After the film, take your notebook and start looking up anything you don’t know.
Don’t be satisfied with one instance in the film—Google the word or phrase to find more context online. Is it slang or formal language? Does it have a positive or negative connotation—or both, depending on the situation? After your research, make a special flashcard deck to quiz yourself later. You could also do a number of dictation-translation activities, which the FluentU French blog did an excellent job of presenting (seriously—try them out, especially if you’re an intermediate or advanced speaker!).
Level Up Your Russian Learning with Subtitles: Easy, Hard and Boss Modes
Easy Mode: Russian Audio with English Subtitles
How to maximize progress on Easy Mode:
- Listen first, read second. Do your best to listen without relying on subtitles. It’s tempting to simply read everything, but you’re going to miss a lot of language and visual cues if your eyes are constantly going down. Instead, use subtitles as a back-up to confirm your understanding. And note: even if you don’t have an advanced level of Russian, you can still try to pick up common phrases and patterns.
- Make use of that rewind button! Remember that tip about going solo? This is where it comes in handy. As you’re watching, actively listen for things you want to learn, according to your game plan—and when you hear them, rewind to listen again. Then pause to write it down.
- Watch a second time on Boss Mode. Once you’ve got a good idea of the plot of the movie—or the content of the documentary—challenge yourself to watch again, this time without subtitles. This is Boss Mode: full immersion. Keep reading to learn more about Boss Mode.
Where to get your ammo:
- Order DVDs on Amazon. This option may be a little expensive, but it’s worth it if you want a wider range of options and maximum replayability. You can also buy Russian films on Google Play or iTunes, but make sure you can turn off the subtitles. Some films online have built-in English subtitles, which will keep you from ever enjoying the challenge of Boss Mode. Tip: If you need recommendations, start with this list of Russian movies.
- Explore YouTube in Russian. Subtitled videos are readily available on YouTube for those who know where to look. Sometimes it’s as easy as typing “Russian films with English subtitles” in the Search bar, or searching specific titles in Russian. To get started, check out the 1967 two-part film of “Anna Karenina” (a personal favorite), an animated version of Pushkin’s “The Tale of Tsar Saltan,” or the subtitled collections on the Mosfilm channel (which include the comedies “Ivan Vassilyevich Changes Occupation” and “Afonya”). Many Russian cartoons are also available with subtitles.
- Dig up Russian movies on Netflix. Russian-language entertainment may not be as plentiful on Netflix as oh, say, Spanish… but you can still find a number of shows with Russian audio (original or dubbed) on their Russian audio index. Online you can also find curated lists of worthwhile Russian films on Netflix.
Hard Mode: English Audio with Russian Subtitles
How to beat the odds and level up on Hard Mode:
- Don’t underestimate the speed-reading involved. You might think this should be dubbed Easy Mode, since the audio is in English, but keeping your focus on this mode is actually hard. The pace can be fast, and if you want to keep up with the subtitles, you need to work on your skimming and speed-reading. It’s good practice, though. It’ll help you later if you have to skim information in Russian, like when you’re doing a search online.
- Pay attention to the translation of idioms, slang and social “scripts.” One problem many language learners share is that we try to direct-translate what we would normally say in our first language into a foreign language. As a result, the native-speaking listener often gets confused… or worse, misunderstands what we’re trying to say. As you’re watching videos in English, pay attention to how the Russian subtitles translate what’s being said. This will give you clues on how Russian speakers might naturally speak in the given situation.
- Bonus Boss Mode version: Take the mute button challenge. Once you’ve run through the video once or twice and have a pretty good idea of how it goes, try testing your speed-reading one more time by muting the audio. Should be a piece of cake by now, right?
- Beware inaccurate (and amateur) translations! Not all subtitles are well translated—even if they were “professionally” done. (Once, while watching a classic Russian film, I found myself apologizing to my family for awkward, nearly incomprehensible translations.) You should be especially wary of subtitle files downloaded online, which may be independently created and inaccurate. When studying the translations, try to cross-check with research online.
Where to get your ammo:
- Go on a treasure hunt through VK. If you have an account on ВКонтакте (VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook), you can do a video search for English-language movies subtitled for Russian audiences. Try searching “фильмы с субтитрами” (films with subtitles).
- Download subtitle files online. A quick Google search will lead you to a number of websites where you can download subtitles, often in multiple languages. As I mentioned above, though, you have to be careful—some subtitles may be unprofessionally translated.
- Search Netflix movies and TV shows. Just as you can do a targeted search for Russian-audio films on Netflix, you can also browse materials with Russian subtitles by using this index.
- Go to a movie theater in Russia. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to visit a Russian city, browse the websites of local movie theaters to find subtitled films. Frustratingly enough, many movie theaters prefer dubbed films (to the exclusion of original audio), but in a large city, you should be able to find popular films screened in the original.
Boss Mode: Russian Audio with Russian Subtitles
How to be a boss on the Boss Mode:
- Watch in layers: first the forest, then the trees. The first time you watch the video, run through it without pause or rewind in order to get a general impression. (And test how much you understand!) Then play it a second or third time, this time with stops to pick up details and check your understanding.
- Match up the words on the screen to how they’re actually spoken. What intonation patterns do you notice? Which words are stressed? Which are so unstressed they’re almost swallowed? Honing in on these details will sharpen your ear for authentic Russian conversation.
- Write down whole scenes and study the text. When you come across a particularly interesting scene, take advantage of the Pause button to write down the whole dialogue from subtitles. Later, sit down with the text and write a translation—or simply perform it aloud to practice your pronunciation. (Pro tip: this is another good time to go solo, unless you’ve got a loyal language buddy who won’t think you’re crazy!)
Where to get your ammo:
- Raid Netflix’s small but serviceable treasury. Sift through the Russian subtitle and audio indexes on Netflix for things that overlap—that is, shows that have both subtitles and audio in Russian. Your best best is anything originally filmed in Russian, like the cartoon “Маша и Медведь” (Masha and the Bear) or any of the films on this list.
- Search for captioned YouTube videos. Mosfilm provides some Russian films subtitled in Russian, including the comedy “Афоня” (Afonya). Lower levels will also be happy to know there’s a series of animated children’s books in Russian on the Book Box channel. I recommend “The First Well,” “Four Friends” and “The Little Pianist.” (All super cute.)
- Order DVDs on Amazon. Buying a DVD outright is a great way to get your hands on a resource you can watch and re-watch to your heart’s content… but be careful. Not all Russian movies come with Russian subtitles, which is sadly the case with my own favorite, that 1967 “Anna Karenina.”
After you’ve chosen your game plan and difficulty level, you’re halfway into a new adventure with your Russian-learning “secret sauce.”
The other half is just doing it. So get out there and start watching!
Приятного просмотра! (Enjoy the show!)
And One More Thing...
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