The Magic of Subtitles

When I first came to the Netherlands, I was afraid that I won’t be able to communicate with the locals as I only speak very few Dutch. I was convinced that Dutch citizens, especially older people, would not be able to understand my English. However, there was a surprise waiting for me. Almost all people I talked to, no matter if young or old, were able to understand me and nearly all of them could answer me in fluent English. I’ve been really impressed by that. So, I started to think about how that could be possible. In my home country, Germany, most of the people lack proficiency in English. I am sure that more than half of the population age 50+ would not be able to communicate in English. I mean, these differences are partly based in the education system in school for sure but I don’t want to set my focus on that. In fact, I found another factor that is closely connected to the influences of the digital and that may be a crucial reason for the significant difference in proficiency in English: The way countries handle the movie industry.

I know that sounds very abstract in the beginning but let me try to elaborate a bit further on what I mean by that. Back home, we dub every big blockbuster, every series, every documentary and every tiny bit of television show into German. In my childhood, I’ve never been confronted with subtitles or movies in foreign languages. Our cinemas mostly provide movies in German, there are only few cinemas in big cities that allow you to watch the Original Version (OV). Until I moved out at the beginning of my studies, I wasn’t even aware of the possibility to watch movies in OV in cinemas because the small village that I am coming from did simply not offer to watch movies in other languages than German. However, comparing the situation in Germany to the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway, you’ll find a crucial difference. Around here, many movies and series are not synchronized into other languages, so they do not have any other option than to watch it in English with subtitles in the respective language. From early age on, people are confronted with the English language when they are watching foreign movies or series.

Subtitles – yes or no?

I am wondering why some countries use subtitles instead of synchronizing the whole movie and some do not. Why does Germany almost refuse to show anything in OV? Are there any historical or cultural reasons? I think the size of Germany and the amount of German speakers do not really justify the necessity for a translation. Sometimes I feel like a was robbed by the possibility to be more advanced in English because of the way the German media handles language barriers. Being exposed to the sound of a foreign language from early age on will definitely improve language acquisition and understanding. Children will already pick up some words and phrases from the movies which will improve their feeling for the language later on. Furthermore, they will struggle less with pronunciation and grammar issues. In fact, there is already some research investigating the influence of subtitles. For example, Koolstra and Bentjes (1999) investigated if Dutch children’s English performance can be trained with subtitles. They made a group of children from an elementary school watch TV with English soundtrack and Dutch subtitles and found out that they were performing better in a vocabulary task than children who watched Dutch television only. In fact, “vocabulary acquisition and recognition and recognition of English words were highest in the subtitled condition” (Koolstra & Bentjes, p. 51, 1999).

I am not really a fan of synchronization anymore. Now, that I am older and more experienced in English, I noticed that most of the jokes are getting lost in the translation process. I think it really harms the quality of the TV show and the script. Furthermore, synchronizing is also a matter of money. It is way more cost-intensive than adding subtitles. However, there are also downsides to adding subtitles that opponents would probably mention at that point. For example, subtitles can be somewhat distracting as the watcher always has to focus on the lower part of the screen. So, should Germany change their attitude towards subtitles and stop being one of the only countries that spends immense amounts of money towards this? Should we, for the sake of language learning, provide movies in OV instead of displaying bad translations in which half of the wordplays are lost?
I say yes, at least to a certain extent, there need to be a change. It is actually a nice starting point for a longitudinal study if Germany would change their behavior now. We could check in 10-20 years what improvement (or not) in language proficiency will be present in our children. I bet on a significant difference.