Subtitles and Language Learning

T2-Subtitles-and-Language-Learning

It was a surprise to be offered a subtitled showing of Trainspotting 2. I’ve heard of this in the U.S. or even England but this was here in Scotland.  I am a huge defender of watching subtitled films, but when I do understand what is being said, then I too resent subtitles.  I find it almost impossible not to follow the written words at the bottom, even though I don’t need them, so I get distracted, end up comparing them to the speech and half-evaluating them as I go, and so on. I also dislike how the full effect of a line can be lost as you’ve read it before it is properly delivered by the actor.

Perhaps most people don’t think much about this, but at home my son watches most TV with the subtitles on – something he started doing when he was learning to read. I don’t know why he still does it (“…dunno, I just like it”), but it seems to have helped him somehow with language. It reminds me of a friend who said he learned English and Spanish simultaneously, living in the UK with Spaniards, all watching loads of TV, subtitles on.

Language learning can be reinforced and complemented in all sorts of ways if you approach it creatively, and TV, film and subtitles are actually an invaluable way to acquire new vocabulary, reinforce existing knowledge and just tune your ear to the native environment of your language.   For a translator not living in their source language countries, like me, it can even be an important factor in keeping up to date. The internet makes this much easier than before and we can read papers, journals, magazines, blogs and all manner of things online, as well as access TV, film, radio programmes, podcasts and so on, in almost any languages we want to.

Netflix, iPlayer, AmazonPrime etc. can all be our allies here – you can choose films and series by language or location.  I have admittedly watched a fair number of slow or disappointing films using this method, (Danish The Rain, please give me those hours of my life back!)  However,  I’ve also seen some excellent films and series, and am happy to admit that the process of tuning back in to spoken Danish was measured in part from Series 1 of The Killing – hanging on the subtitles like an amateur – to not needing them at all for the Danes in Series 3 of The Bridge; and owes a lot to how much I loved all three series, twice over, of Borgen in the meantime. (Not familiar with all the BBC4 Scandi dramas – never heard of Borgen? Well, I’m just not sure if I want to talk to you anymore.)

Of course, I didn’t recover a brilliant Danish ear by TV alone, but it was a help. Radio is another source: DR 6 Beat has been my preferred station for some time – it’s like a Danish 6 Music. Tune In radio app is a great tool which allows you to search by language or location.

I also go to radio, films and TV series online for Portuguese practice, and find plenty material on YouTube and podcasts too. Recently I ran through a string of comedy videos by Porta dos Fundos just for light relief, and found films like Que Horas Ela Volta, and Trash, in full, online. Regularly accessing  Portugal’s TV and radio online also helps me tune in better  to my European interpreting clients. I’m not sure where I would be without it all.

In the early stages learning a language, subtitles can show your progress, as you improve your skills, graduating from reading the subtitles in your own language, to watching and reading in the foreign language, which takes you a step closer to not needing any at all! This also adds the dimension of reading in the foreign language, which means taking in spellings and grammar too, and doubly reinforces your vocab uptake.

So let’s salute those subtitlers, producers and filmmakers supplying us with these lovely opportunities to access foreign lands – where we can hear the sounds of that language and place, and incrementally learn to understand.

I do wonder what the Trainspotting 2 subtitles were actually like. Were they written in good Queen’s English or written as spoken, or did that depend on where you were viewing? Either way I’m glad I didn’t have them cluttering my screen that day. It’s a good film – though not necessarily one for picking up nice English vocabulary and expressions to try out. Not without some caution…

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