Subtitles: The Reason for Understanding

With only three weeks left until the end of the semester, I find myself being crushed by alternate waves of panic and procrastination. As to the former, this comes whenever I catch myself thinking of the looming and increasing pile of academic requirements I have yet to accomplish. The latter creeps up on me at the oddest moments—halfway through a chapter of Comparative Anatomy of the Vertebrates, scrolling through a journal article, and just seconds after I open up a new Word document to start working on a paper.

Honestly, these are the days that I feel nostalgic for summer. Summer was the time I spent countless hours glued to the bed watching movies and television shows on my laptop. It was during this period that I discovered foreign treats, so to speak. I got hooked on the UK version of The Office and tried watching a couple of episodes of Skins as well. There was also a time I went on an Australia’s Next Top Model marathon. For the aforementioned shows, one thing holds common: Everything was spoken in an accented version of English, a foreign language to my native Filipino self. Now, even if I consider myself to be with adequate comprehension of the English language, when the accents of the speakers were factored in the speech of the people on the screen, there were times that I found myself being unable to understand the words spoken. Perhaps, I would have been able to catch the words better had subtitles been used. However, research has shown that not all subtitles may aid in speech perception.

Ricky Gervais, star of the BBC America's "The Office"

The girls of the fourth cycle of "Australia's Next Top Model"

Mitterer and McQueen (2009) investigated whether subtitles in foreign audiovisual media (e.g., television shows and movies) support perceptual learning of non-native, regionally-accented speech. Specifically, in their study, the two hypothesize that the subtitles used should be in the foreign language itself and not the native language of the listener. They believe that because subtitles in the language of the media presented indicate which words are being spoken, it’s possible that the subtitles will boost speech and lexically-guided learning about accented foreign speech sounds. With the combination of the foreign language subtitles and the heard speech sounds, listeners are believed to better adapt to the talker’s unusual speech; thereby, allowing them to understand the talker better.

To test the idea in the previous paragraph, 121 participants from the subject pool of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics were gathered for this research endeavor. All were native speakers of Dutch and possessed good command of spoken and written English. Additionally, they had not been to Scotland or Australia for longer than two weeks; thus, were unfamiliar with Scottish and American English. Participants watched either the 25-minute long fifth episode of the first season of Kath & Kim—an Australian sitcom—or a shortened 25-minute version of Trainspotting—a movie about a Scottish drug addict. For both videos, participants were exposed to one of three conditions: no subtitles, with Dutch subtitles, or with English subtitles.

After viewing the video, participants were tasked to repeat back 80 audio excerpts spoken by the main characters seen on the screen. These were called old items. Another set of 80 audio excerpts, called new items, were taken either from unused parts of Trainspotting or from another episode of Kath & Kim, specifically the second episode of the first season. In total, 160 audio excerpts must be repeated by the participants, but they need not imitate the accent of the speaker. The old and new items were presented in random order. Repetition accuracy was scored by two judges who were blind to the purpose of the experiment.

Results showed three significant findings. First, audiovisual exposure to an unfamiliar regional accent improves speech understanding. Speech understanding is believed to be shown when participants are able to correctly repeat words even when subtitles were not used. Consequently, this demonstrates a form of learning by rapid perceptual adaptation to a foreign accent in a foreign language. This is noteworthy for previous studies have only established this type of perceptual adaptation in the recognition of speech with a foreign accent but in the listener’s native language.

Second, the native-language or Dutch subtitles helped in the recognition of previously heard words (old items) but harmed the recognition of new words (new items). Harmed recognition of new words is indicated by being unable to correctly repeat the words in the audio excerpts presented after the video material was shown. The researchers claim that the Dutch subtitles aided recognition of old items because they helped participants decipher which English words had been uttered; thus, contributing to better processing and accurate repetition of English words. However, using Dutch subtitles provided lexical and phonological information that was inconsistent with the English words being spoken by the talker in the video. This weakens the influence of English lexical-phonological knowledge on perceptual learning. On the other hand, when English subtitles were used, consistency with what was being read and heard facilitated perceptual learning. This is the rationalization behind the third significant finding which showed that foreign-language subtitles improve repetition of previously heard and new words; thus, demonstrating perceptual learning.

Undoubtedly, the results of this study are of significance in the field of education, specifically for those who are learning and who are teaching a foreign language. For the learners, it has often been said to them that constant conversational practice will help develop their skill in understanding a foreign language. However, in order for this to occur, they must have a partner who is also fluent in the foreign language. Such a partner may not always be present at home, and more often than not, the conversational practice is generally confined within classroom walls. Now, with this study, individuals may look into using movies as learning tools. For example, a young Filipino child who wants to better improve his or her understanding of English could watch English movies with English subtitles. Additionally, a college student who has an adequate comprehension of Spanish may choose to watch Spanish films with Spanish subtitles to meet the same goal. However, it should be remembered that all of the participants had a good grasp of the English language beforehand. This is important for those who are teaching a foreign language course. They should not expect that exposing their students—ones who have no background of the foreign language whatsoever—to foreign subtitles in foreign films will make them understand the language better.

However, I think that the study’s findings are more applicable for Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian. After all, these languages are basically represented by the same characters based on the Latin alphabet. It’s my belief that it will be more difficult for lexical-guided learning to take place when Asian subtitles are used in Asian films. There’s a wider range and variety of sounds and characters used among different Asian languages. Taking into consideration the Chinese and Korean languages alone, there are Chinese phonemes and characters not encountered in the language of the Koreans and vice versa.

My train of thought always seems to be carried away at the end of every blog entry. Writing my previous entry caused me to want to watch Happy Feet. Writing about this one on different cultures and languages suddenly makes me want to look at possible places to visit for the upcoming break. So, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go call my travel buddies to look at cheap air fare tickets to Bangkok. I’m in need of serious retail therapy.


Mitterer, H., & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Foreign subtitles help but native-language subtitles harm foreign speech perception. PLoS ONE, 4(11), 146-150.

Image Sources:

~ by myfivesenseworth on September 21, 2011.

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