One common way to improve foreign-language skills is to watch videos in the foreign language. But if you’ve ever tried watching a foreign film, you know it can be quite difficult to follow along. Characters in movies talk in idioms, and faster than your high school French or German teacher might have done.
Even if you are fluent in a language, you might find it difficult to understand regional accents. A native English speaker from Texas who learned French in school could actually struggle more to understand Scottish English accents than textbook Parisian French.
Holger Mitterer and James McQueen wondered if video subtitles might help non-native speakers understand difficult accents. But what subtitles would work best? Mitterer and McQueen work in the Netherlands; would Dutch speakers learn to understand an accent better by watching an English-language movie with Dutch subtitles or English subtitles? Or would the subtitles hinder learning?
To find out, they showed 25-minute videos to Dutch student volunteers who had studied English for an average of seven to eight years. The students either watched excerpts from Trainspotting, a feature film about a Scottish drug addict, or an episode of Kath & Kim, an Australian sitcom.
The students were divided into three groups; one group saw English subtitles, one saw Dutch subtitles, and one saw the videos with no subtitles. Then the students were tested by listening to short audio-only clips from the videos. Their task was to repeat back as many words as possible from each clip. They were also tested on new audio clips that they had not seen, from other parts of Trainspotting, or another episode of Kath & Kim. Here are the results:
The students who saw the videos with English subtitles did the best, whether they were tested on words they had seen in the film previously or on new words: clips from other videos with the same accent. The students who saw videos with subtitles in their native Dutch did slightly better than the group with no subtitles when tested on words they had seen in the movie, but when tested on new words, they actually performed worse than the group that had seen the video without any subtitles at all!
As a control, all students were also tested on the accent they had not seen—so the Trainspotting group also took the Australian-accented Kath & Kim test. As expected, this group performed the worst of all.
So if you are trying to learn how to understand a variety of accents in a foreign language, watching a video definitely helps. But subtitles in your native language actually hinder more than they help in the critical case of understanding new words. When you are learning a language, you don’t just want to understand the words spoken in the video, you want to be able to generalize that knowledge to other words, so you can understand them when you encounter them in novel situations—whether you are trying to catch a train in Sydney or just catch a new episode of Kath & Kim.
It’s most helpful to watch the videos with subtitles in the foreign language you’re trying to learn, but these results suggest watching with no subtitles at all is better than subtitles in your native language. So if you want to be able to understand Corsican French, watch a Corsican movie with French subtitles, not English subtitles.
Why do the subtitles seem to help? Mitterer and McQueen suggest that many languages have sounds that seem to fall into the perceptual gaps. In English, for example, the letter P and B have very similar sounds; it’s only the context of the video and seeing the written word that helps language learners understand what is actually being spoken. Even if the word “ball” (starting with B) wasn’t spoken in the video, the viewers might have seen “bag” and “pack” spoken, and read the subtitle to learn the subtle difference in how P and B sound when spoken in a particular accent.
Mitterer H. & McQueen J.M. (2009). Foreign subtitles help but native-language subtitles harm foreign speech perception., PloS one, PMID: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19918371