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Voilà! Foreign-language subtitles improve acquisition of that language

A new iMinds - ITEC KU Leuven Kulak study found that language learners watching foreign-language television subtitled in that language not only show better comprehension, but also pick up new words faster.

A new iMinds - ITEC KU Leuven Kulak study found that language learners watching foreign-language television subtitled in that language not only show better comprehension, but also pick up new words faster.

In her doctoral dissertation, Watch and Learn!, Maribel Montero Perez studied the impact of different types of French subtitles in French video material. She looked at listening comprehension and vocabulary acquisition in French language learners. "Dutch-speaking, first-year law and economics students with an average to high level of French were divided into five different groups. Each group was shown a different subtitle type while watching various video fragments," says Montero Perez. "We enriched authentic French television reports with full subtitles, full subtitles with highlighted keywords, keyword subtitles, or keyword subtitles with an 'on demand' translation of the keyword. We compared these four groups with a control group that received no subtitles."

Students from the four groups with subtitles scored significantly better on vocabulary tests than the control group. "Various aspects were touched upon in the vocabulary test, such as word form recognition, meaning recognition and translation," explains Perez Montero. Only students with access to the translated 'on demand' keywords scored higher in the ‘translation’ category. Students shown full subtitles scored highest for general comprehension.

A survey conducted subsequent to the vocabulary test showed that the students found foreign-language subtitles very helpful. "The most common observation we heard from students was that the subtitles helped them decode the phonetic flow of the foreign language, allowing them to better grasp the general content and notice new words."

Eye tracking

To objectively measure whether students actually looked at the subtitles, the researcher made ​​use of eye tracking technology. "By tracking a student’s eye movements and the duration of fixation on certain words, we were able to identify individual subtitle reading habits. We found a positive correlation between fixation time on an unknown word in the full subtitles and the student's score for that word in the vocabulary test."

Eye tracking technology allows researchers to trace the movement and duration of a viewer's eye movements. The researchers found a positive correlation between fixation time on an unknown word (in this case, 'frôler le naufrage') in the full subtitles and the score on that word in the vocabulary test.

Same-language subtitles are common in Flanders. Between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of same-language subtitled programmes offered by Flemish public-service broadcaster VRT rose from 56% to 94%. As of 2012, commercial broadcasters with a large market share are required to include same-language subtitles in 65% or 75% of their total Dutch-language content.  "That evolution is not only welcome news for the hearing impaired but can be of real help to non-native viewers looking to rapidly expand their vocabulary and improve their language skills," concludes Montero Perez.

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