I want subtitles!

Sorry for the delay, my summer mood kicked in and I’m winding down on everything…

Subtitles are a recent addition in our media experience and not much attention was given in academia despite its potential use in education or media enjoyment. According to google scholar, only a handful of articles investigated subtitles and Géry van Outryve d’Ydewalle has his footsteps on most of them. Subtitles began appearing as a choice with the introduction of the DVDs and that made comprehending characters that speak lousy English a tad easier. Of course, there’s closed captioning for the deaf and hard hearing, but when I was a kid, I didn’t know that and I thought it had something to do with the commercials. Subtitles in video games are used differently as it started as a means to communicate information compensating technical limitations. After CD-ROMs, they disappear due to the introduction of voice soundtracks (no subs in Myst or Command & Conquer). After some time, subtitles come back and turned on by default. Subtitles have good uses in language learning or simply enhancing media enjoyment.

Koolstra et al.’s article in the European Journal of Communication provided an overview of dubbing and subtitling, so much of this post will come from there, along with some bits from other articles.

Subtitles help the viewer comprehend what the actors are saying and therefore enhance their comprehension of the narrative. Despite the mental effort needed to listen and read, viewers have a better time comprehending the movies than those who just listen. A simple reason to this fact is that reading is usually faster than listening and those fast readers perform better than slow readers. Some benefits from subtitles are that it helps children develop their vocabulary and their reading ability.

Learning language through subtitles is one of the few things academia has looked into. The research focuses on non-educational television programs and hence the research is on incidental language acquisition. Subtitles act as a supplementary device in learning one’s native language. On the other hand, they are useful in learning a foreign language. But that depends on societal preference. The preference for subtitles versus dubbing in English-speaking countries is somewhat split because most foreign-language media are dubbed into English (in the U.S. anyway). Countries like France and Germany prefers dubbing, whereas Belgium and Finland prefers subtitles. Most of the research focused on foreign language acquisition from Dutch-speaking participants (children to adults) exposed to English or some other foreign language. The general results (from experiments to surveys) are that they picked up a good deal of vocabulary and have a general understanding of the grammar. Kuppens (2010) reported that video games (Dutch-subtitled, English soundtrack) were also helpful to Dutch-speaking children, especially the boys who play them frequently.

Google scholar failed to find an article on English-speakers learning Japanese from anime. But from my own experience and the internet, we do pick them up and spout them out like a bunch of…fanboys. If you would like, you can learn Japanese numbers (in pi) from this video. Subtitling in video games presents a peculiar venue for children and adults alike to learn a foreign language and subtitled Japanese games is right on our doorstep if gamers want to buy them. I don’t know if there are good French, Spanish or German video games, but these would be useful for someone who wants to learn them in a fun way.

Mahiru's (Working!!) blunder would have been lost if not for the note

There are some obstacles in learning a foreign language through entertainment. The language differences can determine how easy to acquire a foreign language, but also induce frustration. For example, English has a shared history with other languages, such as French, Spanish, German among them, since they share some grammatical rules and words. Japanese and Chinese, however, are totally different from English and can be difficult to adjust oneself to their syntax, grammar and vocabulary. Second, idioms or word puns can be difficult to translate and in some cases, a replacement joke is used instead. Some anime fansubbers kept the original joke supplementing it with a culture note for the viewer. Third, translation inevitably leads to some information loss due to condensation, therefore some language nuances are lost in the process. For example, the French pronoun “vous” means “you” in English, but it’s “you” as a group, but also a courteous “you” towards a stranger. The Japanese pronoun “boku” is a male personal pronoun and some more whereas “atashi” is female. Fourth, translation can be difficult and quality varies between translators, someone fluent in other languages might spot the difference when viewing the subtitles. A little aside is that subbers can ruin your media experience by fake subs. Nevertheless, the opportunity to incidentally learn a foreign language in a relaxed environment is still compelling to promote multiple language soundtracks, but it won’t do if there are no good motives to play.

The use of dubs and subs can make a difference in viewers and gamers’ enjoyment. I skimmed some Kotaku articles and the comments about subtitling and dubbing. The general consensus is subtitles, but it’s also about personal preference. My preference is subtitles everywhere because I’m the reader-type and a bad listener. Some of the common reasons for subtitles are that English dubs can be horrible or jarring to the ear. Asynchronous lips and sounds can be a very unpleasant experience. It preserves much of the authenticity, such as voice, mood and mannerisms. The same voice actor dubbing across different movies and different characters can ruin authenticity. In addition, they may fail to capture the emotional impact of the original soundtrack and end changing impressions. Speaking of authenticity, games like Yakuza 3 (which is immersed in Japanese culture) and Murasama: The Demon Blade have been published in the West with their original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles. In any case, dubbing versus subtitles is a entertainment choice people make based on various values, such as authenticity.

There I said it: I want subtitles in my Mass Effect, in Lost and in Angel Beats! So does a substantial proportion of internet denizens who want quality subtitles and dubbing as the global village is filled with diverse languages and cultural manners. With the internet, we have great opportunities to learn foreign languages outside of classes and learn a little about cultural diversity while enjoying ourselves. Foreigners are learning our language and culture through our entertainment, but we have yet to enjoy their entertainment culture (in mainstream) in their unedited form.


2 thoughts on “I want subtitles!

  1. Hi – you missed my research on Google Scholar! Do a search for Same-Language-Subtitling and you will find Kothari in India and McCall in Hawaii! I have been studying the use of dynamic subtitling with music videos/musicals/ and with media for about 10 years now. Check out my site – http://www.sls4reading.com or Kothari’s site http://www.sls4literacy.com

    for research lists: http://sls4reading.com/SubtitlingResearch.aspx

    or search Youtube for Same-Language-Subtitling!

    Try– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eem6EApCQlk (Children’s music video)

    or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPU9oV4PhFA&feature=related ( MLK Speech)

  2. “I don’t know if there are good French, Spanish or German video games”

    Just a note, there are many video games, including popular AAA titles have Spanish, French, German, Italian, and many other languages available. Games like the Assassin’s Creed series contains both Spanish audio and subtitles. The mobile TellTale Games Walking Dead supports multiple language options. Many non-educational video games are great passive, interactive learning language tools. That may be an exaggerated claim but you will definitely learn many vocabulary words, phrases and curse words.

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