June 10, 2021

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Can you learn a language by watching subtitled movies?

Can you learn a language by watching subtitled movies
Countries with an authoritarian past favored dubbing: Spain, Italy and many places in Latin America continue to be heirs to this practice.
Countries with an authoritarian past favored dubbing: Spain, Italy and many places in Latin America continue to be heirs to this practice.

Among the most widespread forms of audiovisual translation are the well-known dubbing, the Subtitled and the voice-over. The latter allows us to listen to the translation and the original soundtrack, in the background, simultaneously. The reasons why most countries have opted for one of these three options are economic (subtitling is the cheapest option and its result is obtained much faster), but also ideological.

Authoritarian political regimes favored the replacement of oral dialogue in films by dubbing to have control over the message that was given. Some countries like Spain and Italy they continue to be heirs to this practice; also in the countries of Latin America, with exceptions like Argentina.

Despite the fact that many people associate subtitles with an artistic and elitist cinema, the truth is that most European countries screen foreign films in their original versions and with subtitles in their respective languages ​​in their large theaters. And in them more foreign languages ​​are spoken than in those who don’t.

Watching television or cinema with subtitles is more effective learning of a second language because it requires both visual and auditory information to be processed.
Watching television or cinema with subtitles is more effective learning of a second language because it requires both visual and auditory information to be processed.

In addition to allowing the viewer to access the film in a more direct and authentic way, Noa Talavan warns us that the way in which we see the cinema and especially television translated is intrinsically related to linguistic competence in second languages.

This is reflected in the comparison that Talaván establishes of two maps of Europe. One of them comes from the report Study on the Use of Subtitling, carried out at the request of the European Union (EU), where audiovisual translation practices are presented on television in most European countries. The other map, taken from Europeans and Their Languages, illustrates the percentage of speakers who acknowledge being able to carry on a conversation in at least two second languages.

From this comparison it can be deduced that in countries where television is viewed in the original language, subtitled in the mother tongue, a large part of the population dominates two foreign languages. Among these are Denmark, Finland, Holland, Luxembourg and Sweden.

The map on the study on the use of subtitles highlighted in yellow the countries that subtitle, in red those that dubbed and in green those that voice-over.
The map on the study on the use of subtitles highlighted in yellow the countries that subtitle, in red those that dubbed and in green those that voice-over.

On the contrary, in most of the countries where it is dubbed, such as Spain and Italy, the population barely speaks foreign languages. In addition, the report also presents the following results: 66% of the Irish, 62% of the British, 59% of the Italians and 56% of the Spanish admit that they cannot communicate in any second language.

It is not insignificant, therefore, that in those places where subtitling is a common practice, the population is exposed to listening to other languages ​​on a daily basis and, therefore, tends to have a higher level of understanding and oral expression in the language. foreign.

In case of Great Britain and Ireland it is not contradictory. Although they are subtitling countries, they hardly offer linguistic diversity in their television broadcasts. This means that its inhabitants mostly watch television in English with English subtitles.

The map "Europeans and Their Languages" illustrates the percentage of speakers who can carry on a conversation in two second languages, from darker (can more) to lighter (can less).
The “Europeans and Their Languages” map illustrates the percentage of speakers who can carry on a conversation in two second languages, from darker (can more) to lighter (can less).

From these data it is clear that watching movies in the original language is a fantastic method of learning a foreign language. No prior knowledge, schedules, or strategies are needed, just continued exposure to the language.

So much so that there are several researchers who investigate this form of audiovisual translation as a didactic tool that could well be used in language classrooms. Among them are Jorge Díaz Cintas, Lupe Romero, Olga Torres-Hostench, Noa Talaván and myself, with several articles that emphasize the advantages of subtitling from different perspectives.

Captions promote literacy

As if this were not enough, the visualization of audiovisual material with subtitles contributes to the literacy of the population. So much so that Henrik Gottlieb points out that in his native country, Denmark, “Subtitles are the first reason that encourages children to learn to read.” Obviously, otherwise they cannot, at an early age, understand television.

"Watching movies in the original language is a fantastic method of learning a foreign language", stressed the expert.
“Watching movies in the original language is a fantastic method of learning a foreign language,” said the expert.

Not in vain are there projects and websites that promote the population’s literacy through subtitles. Díaz Cintas points out, for example, Bookbox, a website created in the India that combines children’s videos that tell stories with subtitles in different languages ​​for this purpose.

In addition, audiovisual materials are more effective learning because they require us to process both visual and auditory information, which helps us memorize it more quickly.

On the other hand, all these materials give us the opportunity to really immerse ourselves in other languages, unlike the educational materials that have been created for teaching and that are usually aimed at practicing certain structures in a sometimes tedious way.

Learn to pronounce

At the same time, this exposure to oral language makes it easier for us to learn the language as it is pronounced, without exposure to written texts that lead to numerous errors, especially, for example, in the case of English.

Subtitling also allows for real immersion in other languages, unlike educational materials created for teaching.
Subtitling also allows for real immersion in other languages, unlike educational materials created for teaching.

Ultimately, this involves continued linguistic immersion without being asked to make oral speeches for which we are not yet ready. This demand usually leads us to start talking too soon and internalize mistakes that are difficult to eliminate.

The key is to start with materials that we already know or are especially interested in, because we will be willing to see them again and we will look for other similar ones. If we feel confident enough, one option is also to see the subtitles in the second language. Thanks to television and digital platforms, almost all the content that is broadcast already has quality subtitles for free in several languages, which is also a great advantage.

In addition, in the case of films, we can follow the rhythm of the story with the help not only of the subtitles, but also of extralinguistic information such as the gestures of the actors and actresses, the sets, photography and music.

Watching movies and television in the original language and with subtitles represents a wonderful opportunity to learn a language. Obviously, the results are not immediate, but let us bear in mind that language immersion will be very enjoyable and attractive for us as it is carried out with entertaining and easily accessible materials.

The Conversation

* Originally posted on The Conversation. The author is an expert in translation and interpretation, professor at the University of Malaga

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