Foreign subtitles improve speech perception

Second-language listening ability improvement by watching movies with subtitles

November 11, 2009

Do you speak English as a second language well, but still have trouble understanding movies with unfamiliar accents, such as Brad Pitt's southern accent in Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglorious Bastards'? In a new study, published in PLoS ONE on November 11, 2009, Holger Mitterer (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics) and James McQueen (MPI and Radboud University Nijmegen) show how you can improve your second-language listening ability by watching the movie with subtitles. That is, if these subtitles are in the film's language! Subtitles in one's native language, the default in some European countries, are harmful to learning to understand foreign speech.

Mitterer and McQueen show for the first time that listeners can tune in to an unfamiliar regional accent in a foreign language. Dutch students showed improvements in their ability to recognise Scottish or Australian English after only 25 minutes of exposure to video material. English subtitling during exposure enhanced this learning effect; Dutch subtitling reduced it. Mitterer and McQueen explain these effects from their group's previous research on perceptual learning in speech perception.

Tune in to accents

Listeners can use their knowledge about how words normally sound to adjust the way they perceive speech that is spoken in an unfamiliar way. This seems to happen with subtitles too. If an English word was spoken with a Scottish accent, English subtitles usually told the perceiver what that word was, and hence what its sounds were. This made it easier for the students to tune in to the accent. In contrast, the Dutch subtitles did not provide this teaching function, and, because they told the viewer what the characters in the film meant to say, the Dutch subtitles may have drawn the students' attention away from the unfamiliar speech.

Boosting listening skills

These findings also have educational implications. Since foreign subtitles seem to help with adaptation to foreign speech in adults, they should perhaps also be used whenever available (e.g., on a DVD) to boost listening skills during second-language learning. Moreover, since native-language subtitles get in the way of this kind of learning, such subtitles in television programmes should be made optional for the viewer.

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