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Have you ever watched a foreign language film and seen captions whizzing by along the bottom? They seem like such a good idea, but what if you were to turn them off?

Why are the captions there in the first place?

Captions allow non-native speakers to enjoy foreign language movies. They are not just aimed at people who don’t speak the language at all. But also at people who could do with a helping hand every now and again. This allows a much bigger audience to enjoy some great stories and see a whole new range of titles without being restricted by their language proficiency.

The great thing about foreign movies is…

…They let you enjoy far more than just the standard Hollywood blockbusters that everyone has seen a million times.

The thing about Hollywood is that it’s very good at churning out a particular style of movie. If you watch films from further afar then you get to see all manner of different styles of shooting scenes, acting, and writing. They are also far more likely to introduce you to new cultures and traditions that will pique your interest. This is something that will surely add a refreshing element to your movie watching sessions and give you something new to get excited about.

Captions are a good way of allowing you to watch a film when you’re not completely fluent in the spoken language. But what are the downsides to relying on them too heavily?

Captions can alter the context of what’s being said

If you want to understand the importance of context in translation then watch a movie in your native language with subtitles for people who are hearing impaired. You’ll see that certain intonations and patterns of speech you’re hearing, aren’t well reflected in the captions.

You can imagine how this problem will only be compounded when the captions are in a different language to the dialogue. If you want to really get a feel for what the characters are saying, and how they’re saying it, then there’s no substitute for turning off the captions.

It may seem like a brave step, you may even feel like you’re diving straight into the deep end, but you’ll get more out of the story. If you want to really get to know the different characters and what makes them tick, then it’s just something you’re going to have to do.

Switching the captions off can help you improve your oral language skills

Probably the biggest benefit of turning off the captions is the improvement you’ll soon see in your oral language skills. When you want to learn a foreign language you can spend as much time as you want speaking out loud and practicing your reading and writing. The tricky part is being able to get good enough that you can listen and take everything onboard in realtime.

With so many different accents, paces of speaking, and intonations to get used to it can sometimes feel like you don’t speak the language at all. Captions are great in that they allow you to fill in the gaps, but they don’t really extend you in anyway. If you want to push yourself then turn them off. That way each movie will turn into a highly engaging lesson where you get exposed to dozens of different accents.

Because what you’re seeing will be highly contextual and conversational, you’ll learn a lot about how subtle changes in speech can completely alter the meaning of what’s being said. Ideal if you want to reach a level of fluency where you can easily hold a conversation with a group of half a dozen or so native speakers.

Captions can distract you from the cinematography

Another benefit of turning off captions is that they can sometimes prove to be a distraction from the visual elements of the film. If you’re forever flicking between the centre of the screen and the captions, then you might miss those telling looks to camera or sly glances that will give away a character’s real thoughts.

Clearly if you want to be able to enjoy the film as the director intended then you need to switch off the captions and immerse yourself in the world in front of you. This will not only enable you to enjoy it that bit more, it’ll also push your language skills to new heights. You’ll be able to sit back and relax as you take everything onboard in ways that you couldn’t before. And you won’t feel tired at the end of the film because you’ve been reading on and off for several hours.

What if I don’t like watching movies without captions at first?

This is a question that you’re bound to ask yourself. It’s only natural if you’ve gotten used to having them as your safety net. In reality you will probably find yourself a little bit confused and not quite up to speed the first time that you switch them off, but that’s nothing to worry about.

The secret is to practice, practice, and then keep on practicing. As you watch movies more often without the captions you’ll get to recognize patterns of speech and changes of pitch far more naturally than if you were just reading along the bottom of the screen. This will allow you to build your confidence and see that with a little perseverance you can get by without captions. Believe in yourself, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve when you put your mind to it.

How can I get used to not having captions on my movies?

It’s easy to tell someone to practice, but not so easy to come up with some specific ways of doing it. A good way to get started is to watch a film whose story you’re already familiar with. This will allow you to focus on what the characters are saying, but give you the benefit of knowing the overarching themes of the movie.

That way you’ll be able to unpick difficult sentences and scenes using the benefit of prior knowledge. You might think this is cheating, but really it’s just a way of building up your confidence by easing yourself off your dependency on captions. Another thing you might want to try is sticking to shorter movies that are no longer than about an hour and a half long. This may seem a little bit unadventurous, but there’s no use struggling through a 4 hour epic on your first attempt if you don’t enjoy it.

Final Thoughts

Turning off the captions on your favorite foreign language movies is a great way to brush up on your language skills. By getting used to different accents and ways of speaking without the safety net of captions, you’ll find that your ability to keep up with the dialogue progresses very quickly.

The most important thing is not to be put off if you feel like you’re struggling at first. It’s only natural to want to put the captions back on, but persevere and you’ll be all the better for it. Now all you need to do is choose one of your favorites and get started!

This guest post was written by Pauline Farris. Pauline speaks Portuguese, English, Spanish and Italian and currently she works as an interpreter for TheWordPoint. She travelled the world to immerse herself in the new cultures and learn languages. Today she is proud to be a voting member of the American Translators Association and an active participant of the Leadership Council of its Portuguese Language Division.


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