If you’ve been studying a language for a while, you’ve probably heard hundreds of times that you should watch movies and TV series in that language. Some people fear watching content without subtitles because they think they won’t be able to fully understand the dialogues.

Other learners have hit a wall before and become frustrated, so they think, “How is it possible that after so long studying this language, I still watch content in its original language and don’t understand it?” You may be thinking and analyzing the situation so much that you don’t take the proper steps to overcome this problem.

This is known as analysis paralysis. It happens to all of us. We want to do something right and think deeply about how to do it correctly, and waste time not taking action.

So, when students ask us whether they should watch movies with subtitles in their native language, subtitles in English, or without any subtitles, we always tell them that the most important thing is to watch anything in the language they’re learning, and then worry about the subtitles later. That being said, omitting the subtitles looks pretty frightening at first.

Therefore, here are our tips on how to survive your first time watching something in English or Spanish without subtitles.

Practice Listening with Progressive Difficulty

You may already know the vocabulary you’re listening to but have issues truly understanding what you hear. In fact, if you read the transcript or the subtitles, you can understand the material just fine. However, you want to progress beyond this stage. You already know the words being used. You just don’t recognize them when listening.

So, what should you do? According to a research study about auditory identification, an effective way to address this problem is to practice listening through easy-to-hard training. In one experiment, participants were trained to perform a task related to hearing, with easy, average, and difficult levels of difficulty.

The participants were divided into two groups. The first group was trained to perform only the difficult version of that task. However, the second group was instructed to perform the easy and standard versions of the task first before performing the difficult versions.

When analyzing which group performed the complex version better, researchers determined that the second group performed better, despite having less training.

Therefore, this study suggests that if you have difficulty doing something, instead of doing the same hard thing over and over, it’s more effective to start with something easy and then slowly increase the difficulty as you improve.

So, how can you apply this knowledge to survive your first time watching content without subtitles? Easy peasy! Just follow these steps:

Step 1: Choose a small fragment of the content you want to watch

By input, we mean the exposure you’ll have to authentic language in use. For example, sitcoms or movies. Usually, for regular-length movies, the first 10-15 minutes of the film are crucial to understanding the story.

During these minutes, we get to know the characters, the plot, the subplots, and other vital details. This makes a more manageable chunk than a whole movie for someone who is just starting to watch content without subtitles. You can also choose a short clip, like a 5-minute TedTalk or a video from YouTube.

Step 2: Change the playback speed

Most video players have an option to slow down or speed up the audio. Nevertheless, if you don’t have it, you can get software or an app that helps you change the playback speed. Then, you can slow down the audio whenever you have difficulty understanding it.

This gives you more time to think, make out words that aren’t pronounced clearly, and guess the meanings of new words and phrases. The idea here is to make it easy in the beginning by slowing the speed to better understand what’s going on (we aim for around 70%). Of course, if you don’t mind it being slow. Also, make sure to choose speakers that are clear.

Step 3: Gradually increase the difficulty

Go from easy to difficult. Challenge yourself by speeding the video up. But, how to tell which speed is the right one? A fair rate is the one where you understand the general ideas, but you still feel a little bit uncomfortable, and this is okay. You should feel this way as you become more familiar with listening to quick speakers.

However, the discomfort should not be unbearable. Think about it as something between your current language level and the next one.

Step 4: Address your mindset

If you watch The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, or even Friends without subtitles in your target language, you will NOT understand every single word. Especially if you are a beginner*.

Your goal is not to understand everything. You aim to have fun and understand the script’s context and main ideas (we aim for 70% to challenge yourself).

So, in your mind, let go of any frustrations like, “I can’t understand that phrase,“Oh, I missed that expression,” or “That word is strange .” No matter what, let it go; the purpose here is to understand the context.

*If you are a true beginner, ask your fluency coach for suggestions on beginner shows, like cartoons for 2 and 3 year olds.

Step 5: Expand your comfort zone

Some people speak about “getting yourself out of your comfort zone,” but we like to see it differently. Instead of getting out of the limits of your comfort, we believe you can expand them. If you keep listening to straightforward content like news broadcasts and learning podcasts, your progress will stop.

So, you have to keep challenging yourself. Keep watching the scenes at faster speeds. Or, put the subtitles on once, read them quickly for context, and then watch the scene three times.

Step 6: Add variety to your exposure

Watch different types of content so you don’t listen to the same person or people repeatedly. Listen to other people with varying styles of speaking.

Watch the remakes of the films and series you’ve watched before, and compare the speaking styles.

Step 7: If you are completely lost, then watch the movie with subtitles in the original language

This is by no means a step back from your goal! Let’s say that it’s the best of both worlds. Delay the subtitles a little bit.

For example, the first 3 times you watch a 10-minute segment enjoy the film or TV show. Practice listening and then verify if the words you caught are correct by watching with subtitles.

Or, if you’re completely lost, read to understand what’s going on, then relisten for ear training.

Step 8: Make it a sustainable habit

This isn’t about watching one film or series and then continuing to watch it in your own language. This needs to be a long-term habit. Also, the option you choose depends on your objectives, your language level, and how you feel on that day, at that moment.

You probably don’t want to watch a film without subtitles if you’ve had a long hard day at work or school and you’re tired. You might prefer to relax and watch the movie in your native language. And, that’s fine.

But take this into consideration each time you sit to watch a film and make sure that if you want to omit the subtitles, there’s an added effort you’ll have to make, and you need to have the energy for it.

So, practice listening without subtitles on a day when you have time and energy. Or, give yourself a 5-minute rule: every time you sit down to watch TV, you have to watch 5 minutes in your target language before switching to your native language.

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