Benefit or harm: do films with subtitles help when learning a language - ForumDaily
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Benefit or harm: do films with subtitles help when learning a language?

We all know about the most popular ways to learn a language. And one of them is to watch movies or TV series with subtitles. But does this method really work? Figured it out in this edition The Conversation.

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The main purpose of subtitles is to enable audiences to understand dialogue in films in a language they are not familiar with, but subtitles are increasingly being seen from an educational perspective as well.

Obviously, watching a film in a foreign language is also a great way to improve your vocabulary.

However, the impact of subtitles on our understanding varies greatly.

On the subject: How to effectively learn a foreign language if you are already an adult

Different types of subtitles

Understanding a film involves processing both audio and video streams. The viewer must simultaneously perceive with the eyes and ears. And while subtitles are designed to make things easier to understand, they add a new source of information at a speed and pace we can't control, which means they can be harder to comprehend.

The different types of subtitles are:

  • a standard format that offers translation from one language to another, when the dialogue is in the original language of the film and the subtitles are in another language;
  • reverse translation format, when the dialogue is dubbed and the subtitles are in the original language of the film;
  • a "one-language" version, often used for people with hearing impairments, where both the film's subtitles and dialogue are heard in the original language.

One might assume that it is likely that the mixture of languages ​​presented to a movie viewer with subtitles is not a particularly effective way of remembering words in another language.


A study by Dominic Bairstow and Jean-Marc Lavore looked at two factors that can influence vocabulary learning: first, what languages ​​exist, and second, how that language is represented (orally or written).

The people who took part in this study had French as their first language and a moderate level of English proficiency. They were shown different versions of the film: with standard subtitles, with reverse subtitles, and with dialogue and subtitles in English. Although the study's authors found no noticeable difference between a film with English dialogue and subtitles and a film with standard subtitles, viewers who watched the inverted version (French dialogue and English subtitles) had the best results in terms of being able to reconstruct characters' dialogue.

The inverted version allows you to better reproduce words in the target language, that is, semantic connections between languages ​​are formed here more easily than under other viewing conditions.

Other researchers have found evidence of a beneficial effect of subtitles in the same language as the movie dialogue on word retention.

Adapting Subtitling Strategies

Everyone can have completely different abilities to perceive language, especially in films. Therefore, it is important to choose the most suitable combination of audio and subtitle language for you.

Lavore and Bairstow's study looked at the levels of film comprehension among beginning, intermediate, and advanced language learners.

Students of each level were divided into four groups and watched either the original version of the film without subtitles, or the “monolingual” version (sound track and subtitles in a foreign language), or classic subtitles, or the reverse version (sound track in their native language, subtitles in a foreign language). .

While the intermediate group's results were similar across versions, beginners achieved the best results in the two "multi-language" formats. In particular, it was in the inverse version (sound track in their native language, subtitles in a foreign language) that the beginners showed the best results.

But for advanced students, the level of understanding decreased when subtitles appeared on the screen. If they have good language skills, how do we explain this drop in comprehension when subtitles are available?

Cognitive load of subtitles

Subtitles are limited to their space on the screen. They appear over a period of time and, as a result, cannot exactly match the film's dialogue. Thus, they present a shortened, watered-down version of what is said in the film, which causes comprehension problems when a person cannot associate the words in the subtitles with the dialogue.

It’s difficult to stop yourself from reading subtitles - our eyes tend to read information automatically. One eye-tracking study found that when a viewer's gaze shifts to subtitles, it automatically shortens the attention span of what's on screen.

In the context of watching a movie, subtitles can divide the viewer's attention between the subtitles and the action, resulting in increased cognitive load.

This cognitive load explains the difficulties associated with parsing two languages ​​and two different communication channels at the same time. There is a wealth of evidence in the scientific literature about the cognitive costs associated with switching from one language to another.

If we think about classic and inverted subtitles, both involve rapid movement between two languages. This leads to a cognitive cost, which in this context results in viewers trying to match the dialogue they hear with the text on the screen.

Varying effectiveness of subtitles

Watching a clip of the film Real Women Have Curves (directed by Patricia Cardoso, in the original version of which the dialogue alternates between English and Spanish), it became known that moments in the film when the language changes are associated with poor understanding of the dialogue.

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Two factors can undermine viewers' understanding: alternating languages ​​and dividing viewers' attention between different modes. Therefore, if we talk about the benefits of subtitles in cinema, then this is a delicate question, depending on the desire of a particular viewer and his linguistic abilities. Subtitles make it easier to understand dialogue and the overall plot, but they can also reduce the ability to understand the film's action when their presence is not really needed (increasing cognitive load and making it harder to concentrate).

Thus, it must be remembered that the effectiveness of subtitles depends on both the combination of languages ​​and the viewer's level of proficiency in these languages.

In general, it can be recognized that such tools are very useful for getting to know a second language and, in this sense, contribute to the expansion of vocabulary. However, they do not place viewers in the position of active users of that language, which is vital for the development of language abilities.

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