Succeeding with subtitles

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An experiment with Spanish students of English at B2 Level, previously reported in the Gazette, showed that watching movies with subtitles in English improved listening skills by 17 per cent on a listening test, compared to 7 per cent for those who watched the film without subtitles. Students who watched the same film with Spanish subtitles actually scored slightly worse on the post-test than they did on the same test taken before they saw it.

So, is it a good idea to get students to watch video with English subtitles? The answer is yes, if you want to improve their phonological perception and help them learn to link sounds and written spelling, according to authors Birulés-Muntané and Soto-Faraco. It can also help advanced learners decode unfamiliar accents, something that L1 speakers do naturally.

But they may not learn much vocabulary. In this study, students’ lexis improved very little, regardless of whether or not subtitles were used. The authors argued this might be because the programme they saw, a one hour episode of Downton Abbey, used too many low frequency words.

And don’t expect the students to understand the story. Only students who watched the programme with Spanish subtitles did well on the comprehension test!

Given this, is it worth doing? Of course! But consider letting students watch L1 subtitles first, perhaps as homework, so they understand the story. Or choose a film or programme the students are very familiar with. For millennials, something from Harry Potter or an episode of Friends is a good bet. And go for non-verbatim subtitles, those that don’t translate every word, if you want to improve comprehension.

■ Watching Subtitled Films Can Help Learning Foreign Languages, J. Birulés-Muntané, S. Soto-Faraco https://journals.plos.org/plosone/ article?id=10.1371/journal. pone.0158409

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