Improve Your Chinese With: Subtitles

There are quite a few language learning services that help you learn Chinese by giving you audio with matching text. It’s a great approach, because you can reinforce your listening and reading at the same time.

The listening-and-reading method has benefits that are more than the sum of its parts. When you stumble on a word or character, you get an audio prompt that may nudge you onto remembering it. Strengthening the links in your knowledge is just as important as building the knowledge itself.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could have an infinite amount of this material completely for free, forever?

Film subtitles are a Chinese learning goldmine

I’m sure you saw this coming, but film subtitles are your answer. Chinese is a particularly well-served language when it comes to subtitles. Pretty much everything on TV here has them, and so do most films, even in the cinema. Chinese cinemas often display subtitles in two or even three languages (Mandarin, another Chinese language and English).

The fantastic thing is that there are oceans of freely downloaded subtitle files available online. No matter what the film, there always seems to be a dozen people who’ve gone to the trouble of producing subtitles for them.

Quite often you can get the official, professionally produced subtitles for a film or TV show. The rest of the time you can fall-back on what we’ll call ‘enthusiast’ subtitles.

Well, maybe not gold

This is one of the drawbacks to this method. Free subtitle files you’ll find online may not meet the standards you expect. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The subtitles are produced from the script, and the actual lines said by the actors varied slightly.
  • The subtitles have been edited for clarity and speed on-screen.
  • The person writing the subtitles was a little bit crap.
  • The person writing the subtitles had no idea what was going on in the film and was making up their own story as they went along.

That last one does actually happen with Chinese subtitles of films in other languages. They pretend to be a translation when they’re actually just wild guesses based on the images on screen. Whilst these can be hilarious, they may not be the most beneficial thing for your Chinese.

The first three, though, don’t make a great deal of difference. I would actually argue that they’re good for your brain’s language learning module, because they keep it on its toes (Yes I just mixed metaphors. Please write to me and tell me if it bothered you.)

So get listening and viewing.

Where to get the goodies

If you are opposed to typing film names + 字幕 into Baidu and Google, I will hereby reveal some secret online sources of endless subtitle goodness.

You’ll probably only need to search one or two of those before you find the subtitle file you want.

Note that the most common subtitle file format is .srt but you’ll probably see a few other ones now and then. The usual advice applies about being careful with what you download.

If you’re wondering how to play films and include subtitle files, then the VLC media player is your answer. It’s one of the most feature-rich media players there is, and it’s free.

Don’t be 盗版ing

You do of course need films to go with your subtitle files. I’m certainly not suggesting that you steal films or download a car or anything like that. There are plenty of legal ways to get hold of films, and they often come with subtitles! So do it that way. And not the illegal way.

Do you watch Chinese films? Do you use the subtitles to study?

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