The Potential of Subtitles for Language Learning

cine20967201-150x150The acquisition of foreign languages is one of the most studied topics in the field of linguistics. Today, due to the penetration of information technology as well as to prolonged exposure to diverse audiovisual content, we find ourselves faced with new ways of learning that, despite being absolutely incidental, are worth analyzing.

In order to better understand this phenomenon, we must take a step back to the political dilemma with which the different importer countries of North American cinema were faced in the thirties and forties: to dub or to subtitle. Nationalist and dictatorial regimes such as Germany, Italy, France, and Spain took advantage of dubbing in order to censure any content considered dangerous for the status quo.

With the emergence of television in the fifties, each country’s choice with respect to foreign films was switched to this new medium. This consolidated the different types of translation in each country and at the same time, each nation’s public became accustomed to one type or the other.

Aside from the material disadvantage that dubbing implies (it is estimated that it is fifteen times more expensive than subtitling), subtitling results in unforeseen positive effects in the acquisition of both mother tongue as well as foreign languages. It is known that the level of English as a foreign language is much higher in countries in which audiovisual content is subtitled, as opposed to those in which it is dubbed.

In contrast to what one might suppose, subtitles do not constitute an element of distraction, nor do they reduce the spectator’s capacity to concentrate. Moreover, the reception of information from three sources simultaneously — image, sound, and text (from the subtitles) — facilitates language acquisition, as the information is processed in parallel by three different types of comprehension which reinforce each other and facilitate comprehension of the plot as well as the incidental acquisition of the foreign language.


For the Spanish version of this blog, click here.