Subtitles to learn a second language – good or bad?

I’ve already made several posts on this blog pointing to evidence and examples of how subtitling can improve literacy and help same language learning via SLS (Same Language Subtitling). But what about learning English as second language? (ESL) I came across an article online recently that gives some strong arguments as to why using subtitles may not be the best method:

(a) reading and listening constitute two very different brain functions, which, when attempted simultaneously, tend to cancel each other out. Or do your most scintillating conversations with your spouse take place when he or she is reading the Sunday papers?

(b) As an EFL learner, you can visit England, Scotland, Canada or New Zealand; but not Subtitled England; Subtitled Scotland; Subtitled Canada (“ay?”) and Subtitled New Zealand. If we want to equip learners to function in English in the real world, we shouldn’t create an artificial learning medium which simply doesn’t exist in that real world.

(c) A corollary to (b): half the battle in language learning is building up self-confidence in the target language, even if not everything is understood and production mistakes are made. To lull learners into a false sense of security via subtitles, only to yank them away in real-life situations when they really need to execute on unassisted comprehension, can do much to harm a learner’s self-confidence. That’s why the first phase of our Video Booster video-based exercises on English Attack! is called Survival Test. The exercise is designed to foster confidence in understanding the gist of a video passage, without subtitles, even if not every single word or fact is understood: in fact, it’s healthy to convey to learners that even mother-tongue English speakers don’t understand every single word in an English language film (Trainspotting, anyone?).

SOURCE: English Attack!

On the other hand, the musicESL channel on You Tube encourages learning English through music with its subtitled videos:


I’m not a multi-lingual person and I always struggled with learning other languages at school. I was much better at reading a foreign language than I was speaking it or understanding someone speaking it. Some people I’ve spoken to have told me that when learning ESL they used subtitles on DVDs to help. I think subtitles can help, but perhaps more in learning to write the language than a real life scenario of understanding speaking and speaking the language back? What are other people’s views?