Yesterday I watched a movie that was in Mandarin. Now I have never claimed that my Chinese is very good, elementary and day to day stuff is all I can really do. And I watched the movie with English translation subtitles. What was interesting to me, throughout the whole movie, was how much of the Chinese I understood, because of the accompanying translation. That is to say, if I had not had the visual translation in front of me, I might not have understood some of the phrases. But, since I had the English phrases in front of me, it was enough to recognize the Chinese words as they flew by. At my elementary level, I was literally able to hear and understand words that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
And sometimes the translations were different enough from the original, that the hints were subtle. For example, at one point one character was calling for another. The English translation was “wait, wait” but the original Chinese was “jie jie” (older sister). Clearly the context was the same, whether shouting “wait, wait” or calling “sister, sister.” In another instance the English subtitle said “take care” and the Chinese phrase was “xiao xin”. With my limited Chinese, I had always associated “xiao xin” with “be careful.” Somehow the phrase “take care” has expanded the situations in which I can now use “xiao xin.”
All this is to say that at my elementary-level Chinese, the English subtitles were not just a lazy way to understand the movie, but they were a catalyst to being able to recognize more Chinese phrases. At some point I may not need them as much, but for now it was a great help.