Using subtitles when learning a language

Watching movies and television in the target language is a recommended tool for language learning, be it with subtitles - in the target language or in English - be it just with the original audio track in the target language - or even an internationally well-known film dubbed in the target language. Learners usually agree on the importance of audiovisual input for language learning. They just do not seem to agree on the best time for starting.

Some learners say that one should watch videos right from the beginning, while still studying from textbooks. They believe students will learn unconsciously as they follow the dialogues, and as they make progress with the planned, oriented textbook study they start to meet the words and expressions from the textbooks in the movies they watch. This brings up a lot of reinforcement for their learning. Other people are maybe too afraid of trying and keep on postponing their encounter with native videos until they think they are good enough. The problem is that this 'good enough' moment never happens until they have actually tried and acquired some experience with watching movies and TV.

I personally find it a bit annoying and disappointing to watch a story when you cannot follow a single line of conversation. I prefer to wait till I can actually benefit from consciously watching the video - and not only unconsciously. But when to start?

In the case of Mandarin, I can name the benefit that videos and TV usually have subtitles within China, as not everyone will have the best command of the spoken common language. If you can also get the English subtitle and have it played at the same screen - and still follow the story despite all the lettering - all the better. It is not that bad. I have managed to watch quite a few Chinese series with both English and Chinese subtitles. At my current level, I can understand the sounds and I get an extra boost of comprehension by looking at the Chinese subtitles. Needless to say, I still have to keep an eye on the English subtitles in order to understand the story. There is just not enough time for me to read the English, decode the Mandarin sounds and fully decipher the grammar of the Chinese sentence. Ideally, I should pause at each sentence and process them, but I believe this would spoil all the fun of learning through video. At this stage, I have to be patient and acknowledge the progress being made each day. As the exposure to the language increases and the characters start 'repeating themselves', I become able to decipher sound and text quicker; soon I might be able to follow sound, characters and the English translation at a good pace.

Chinese has the advantage of being a major language and having a profusion of audiovisual learning material aimed at different levels. It is not always that easy with other languages, though. In the case of Norwegian, although it is relatively easy to get native media with subtitles, I do not know about videos aimed specifically at teaching the basics of the language through fun stories. So, what I usually do is translate the subtitles into English. I have started this two weeks ago and fortunately I need to translate full sentences less and less often. Next stage will be watching the video with subtitles in Norwegian without resorting to English. Then comes the final stage: watching native media directly in the target language, with no subtitles. I have reached this stage for French after using subtitles for a while, but when I started I could already understand written French, so, it is essentially not the same situation I have to deal with in the case of Norwegian.

The more obscure the language, the harder it will be to get even a simple video with subtitles. In the case of Georgian, I have found a few native Georgian videos with English subtitles, but no videos with Georgian subtitles. I thought I could get along with dubbed foreign films, but the ones I found are dubbed with voice over the original actors' voices, and this is a bit too annoying.