December 13, 2011

Can TV subtitles help teach reading?

The NYT has a run-of-the-mill article on Finland's high PISA test scores. Here's something interesting that my Finnish commenters have brought up before:
Besides high-quality teachers, Dr. Sahlberg pointed to Finland’s Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

The notion that subtitling TV shows might improve reading doesn't strike me as obviously absurd. It seems like the kind of thing that could be tested in a controlled experiment: give 100 poor families with a first grader a big flat screen TV with subtitles permanently turned on and 100 poor families a TV with subtitles permanently turned off. Check back each year for a few years to make sure they haven't sold it or broken it and track reading scores. Not a cheap experiment, but hardly overwhelming for, say, the Gates Foundation to pay for. 

In the meantime, Univision should be required to subtitle all its Spanish language programming in English.
Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population — 5 percent are foreign-born — and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

But according to Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 decision in the Grutter affirmative action case, a "homogeneous" student body makes for lousier learning. 

36 comments:

iselilja said...

We have these subtitles in Norway as well - and we are Lutheran and Social Democratic too - but we do not have the good reading result that Finland has, so I doubt this theory.

Besides, Finland is doing equally well in maths and science. The reason for their success seems to remain a mystery. My guess is that the high status and quality of their teachers maybe is the most important factor, along with some diffuse cultural factors that make their pupils more motivated than most other Western pupils.

JohnF said...

Subtitling definitely helps. In Sweden the development has been almost no English language media up through the 70:s with more and more being used throughout the 80:s to finally explode during the 90:s. To the point where virtually everything watchable were an American or English import. During this period the quality of schooling has steadily dropped and every generation has spoken better and better English.

So basically Swedes' English has improved the more subtitled American movies we've watched, despite our schools becoming worse and worse.

For reference, someone born in the fifties or sixties is expected to have a terrible accent and speak broken, but reasonably functional english, anyone born from 1980 and onward who can't keep a fairly fluid conversation going is looked at as pretty dim.

Compare this to the English skill of the rest of Western Europe, who've all had overdubbing as a standard for foreign movies as well as their own, incredibly crappy, television and movie industries. Even among the kids who've grown up with constant English exposure through the internet there seems to be a fairly big gap.

Maya said...

Stupid question... Do the Finns make sure that their friggin subtitles actually match what is being said? When we first came to America, it was suggested to my parents to leave the TV on permanently, and to not sign up for our own ethnic language channels. We, the older kids, didn't watch TV at all at first because it wasn't very rewarding, then we started to watch by reading the subtitles more than listening. In about 7 months, as we started to hear English more clearly, we began to discover that what we were hearing often didn't exactly match what we were reading; close enough for the meaning to stay the same, but not identical. Of course, this kills it as a learning to read by listening and learning to listen by reading tool. Oh, and when years later I needed some practice in the new language i was learning, I thought that overdubbed American shows was a way to go because I actually wanted to watch them for pleasure, so i figured this will give me a lot of practice. Bad idea. The subtitles and the audio track had almost nothing in common. To give a stupid example, the audio would play "Apples are pleasing to my taste buds" while the subtitles would read "I think apples are tasty". Gotta be careful with those things.

anony-mouse said...

Weren't the screens of TV's in 1957 extremely small? Not much good reading if your eyes are gone.

Anonymous said...

I love what's implied by pointing out that Finland's population is "homogeneous." Didn't Charlton Heston get into trouble with Michael Moore a few years back for making this point? Sean68

Anonymous said...

When I was learning foreign languages I liked to watch familiar films with the foreign subtitles. It helped me reconcile what I was hearing to what was actually being said. Now sometimes the subtitles were shorter paraphrases but that was like a two fer because I would learn two ways to say the same thing.

Maya said...

JohnF,
That's interesting. Everything I've read about Scandinavia suggests that you are right. But do you still put a lot of effort into it, or does the English just sip into your brain? I find that if the subtitles are in the language with which I'm comfortable, and the audio track is more of a challenge, I can ignore the sound completely, and just concentrate on reading. It just happens to the point that I don't know how to pronounce the names of the character anywhere close to correctly, even though I should've heard those names a million times while watching the movie.

Five Daarstens said...

The Netherlands also has subtitles for most English language TV, in fact they air the American program "Little House on The Prairie" with Dutch subtitles to teach the children English there. It seems to work very well, even working class Dutch people understand English very well.

Dr. Lexus said...

I've watched foreign films with native audio but English subtitles turned on.

For learning a foreign language, it's better than nothing. However, it does require a moderate and constant level of focus that takes away from the spontaneity of a film.

This technique will probably result in dramatically different results depending upon the conscienciousness, langauge facility and intentellecual endurance to focus.

Of course, as an American learning other langauges like Spanish I had to endure pretty crappy movies and television. For foreigners learning English, the crap Hollywood produces is far more appealing.

Dr. Lexus

Anonymous said...

I am sure that subtitles can help teach reading for a population with a high average IQ.

On the other hand ...

Chicago said...

At last, a way to close The Gap.

Anonymous said...

"Didn't Charlton Heston get into trouble with Michael Moore a few years back for making this point"?

Only in the minds and world of liberals and egalitarians and politically correct circles. What he actually said was the plain truth.

Anonymous said...

Subtitling obviously helps (a lot) with learning english (when the NYT says "foreign", they mean "American with a sprinkling of BBC drama and documentary"), but I doubt it does that much to explain the good results of Finland.

Norway and Sweden score significantly lower on the PISA/TIMMS than Finland, despite being both eager subtitlers and even better at English than the Finns.

Anonymous said...

It should be added - as always - that the "broken schools", "teacher´s union mafia", etc. hysteria in the US is almost entirely driven by factors related to "diversity".

US white kids do just fine on these tests.

Anonymous said...

I am interested in the 5% foreign born statistic that is implied to be important for success. In the UK the current estimate is 11.6%. The last time the number was at or near the 5% level was 1961's figure of 4.9. This also corresponds with an economic boom time.

tinpot dictator said...

Uh yeah, let's get those Univision Ingles titles mandated pronto. It's critical for us to monitor what Sammy Sosa and that Shakira woman are up to

outstripp said...

In Japan, there are subtitles in Japanese for many TV programs. I'm not sure why, but maybe it's for deaf people or maybe it makes the screen more visually interesting.

My reading ability in Japan, which is not thrilling, improved a lot due to the exposure.

Clean spoken lass said...

It was essential in our house to watch "The Wire" using English-language subtitles as there was literally no way we could fathom what the "street" characters were saying otherwise. We could understand the actors playing the police perfectly, of course, without the subtitles.

The debasement of our language has been expanding over the past 50 years, and nowadays is accepted as inevitable. I have never understood why some people (especially intellectuals) consider vulgar speech to be "liberating."

slumber_j said...

It's not at all absurd in my opinion. For contrast see Spain, where Generalísimo Francisco Franco--a big movie fan and indeed author of the unwatchable film Raza--did the exact opposite, mandating dubbing for all foreign productions. Literacy did not skyrocket during his reign as supreme Caudillo. It should also be pointed out that his regime was neither Lutheran nor Social Democratic...to put it mildly.

By the way, during my years in Spain, the only TV show or film that was dubbed *well* (with appropriate voices, inflection, etc.) was The Simpsons. Dunno whether it was that the professional dubbers were egged on by the supremely good voice actors in the original or what, but it was good and everything else sucked.

Anonymous said...

Japanese love comic books and have sound educational achievement. Logical conclusion. American kids should real more comic books, especially manga.

Anonymous said...

Germans are pretty smart. Kids are allowed to drink beer from an early age. Logical conclusion: we need to make America kids drink more beer.

Anonymous said...

"Finland is doing equally well in maths and science. The reason for their success seems to remain a mystery."

Maybe it's a boring place and there isn't much else to do but hit the books. And being close to Russia, maybe Finns think, 'Russia big and strong, so we have to be be smart since we're small.'

Anonymous said...

I knew a guy who taught himself to read and speak French by using DVD's of TV shows. He would watch a episodes with French subtitles and English audio for a while, then switch to French audio and English subtitles. He told me he watched a couple of shows a day and could hold conversations in a few months.

Anonymous said...

In Japan, there are subtitles in Japanese for many TV programs. I'm not sure why, but maybe it's for deaf people or maybe it makes the screen more visually interesting.

Could be a dialect issue. I noticed a lot of the reality shows hosted by regional dialect speakers often have subtitles when they're speaking, presumably so people in Tokyo can tell what the hell they're saying.

Anonymous said...

Maya said... "we began to discover that what we were hearing often didn't exactly match what we were reading; close enough for the meaning to stay the same, but not identical.... To give a stupid example, the audio would play "Apples are pleasing to my taste buds" while the subtitles would read "I think apples are tasty"."

Yes, that is a problem with subtitles, but I still found that watching Norwegian language programs with the closed-captioning on helped me to learn Norwegian (as poorly as I have). At least I could figure out, oh! they're talking about apples and not oranges! ;)

Subtitles are also sometimes good for some real howlers. Examples: translation of "It's a chopper, baby" into Norwegian wound up to be "It's a helicopter, baby"! And, from the Sopranos: "going to mattresses" got translated to "going to hospital." :)

Lost in translation. ;)

Doug1 said...

I wish we had a more homogeneous population.

Doug1 said...

Maya--

Stupid question... Do the Finns make sure that their friggin subtitles actually match what is being said? When we first came to America, it was suggested to my parents to leave the TV on permanently, and to not sign up for our own ethnic language channels. We, the older kids, didn't watch TV at all at first because it wasn't very rewarding, then we started to watch by reading the subtitles more than listening. In about 7 months, as we started to hear English more clearly, we began to discover that what we were hearing often didn't exactly match what we were reading; close enough for the meaning to stay the same, but not identical. Of course, this kills it as a learning to read by listening and learning to listen by reading tool

Yeah I know what you mean. I'm not very good in French any longer, but I know it well enough still to often see that English subtitles on French movies often translate freely.

I think subtitles should really always be literal translations. I certainly think that will help in learning the language. People can figure it out. Also literal translations give one more of a sense of how thinking goes in that foreign language, which is generally subtlety different.

Doug1 said...

Besides, Finland is doing equally well in maths and science. The reason for their success seems to remain a mystery. My guess is that the high status and quality of their teachers maybe is the most important factor, along with some diffuse cultural factors that make their pupils more motivated than most other Western pupils.

The Finns tend to be very introverted, innit?

Very introverted people tend to be more studious, don't they?

That might be a lot of it. Together with being about at the top of the average Euro IQ range, though that's something they share with Norway, Sweden and Poland. Don't recall about Denmark, probably same thing.

Ray Sawhill said...

In defense of subtitlers, they aren't being paid to come up with literal translations. They're supposed to be trying to catch the tone of what's being said while also conveying the meaning of it. Most dialogue isn't plain straightforward neutral language, it's slang, and it's full of color and spin. A literal translation would often lose the dramatic/comedic meaning entirely.

French is the only foreign language I can manage semi-competently, but I'm often very impressed by the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the people who do the English subtitling on French movies.

SGOTI said...

"Germans are pretty smart. Kids are allowed to drink beer from an early age. Logical conclusion: we need to make America kids drink more beer.

Now THAT is my kind of fallacious logic!

As an aside: I was an exchange student in Germany in high school. I greatly enjoyed nipping down to the local Bierstube after class with my best buddy who went on exchange with me.

We continued to do a lot of "home schooling" when we got back to the US with good fake IDs. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Finns are the most introverted people in the world.

Reg Cæsar said...

Finns are the most introverted people in the world.

They sure are. Just ask one.

Oh, wait... never mind. Don't bother.

Hyvää yöta, Iriina.

.

Aaron Baugher said...

I'd think any time spent listening to a language and seeing the words would have to be beneficial. That's essentially how many study-at-home language courses work, after all. Of course, as others have said, sometimes subtitles can vary a lot from the audio, and closed captioning sometimes looks like it was already translated to another language and back.

I tell my Latin students to practice their vocabulary and inflections as many different ways as they can: read them, write them, type them, say them out loud, sing them if necessary. The more different ways you take in a piece of information, the better the chance it'll stick.

Of course, I've never understood how people can live in a country for years and not learn the language by accident. I'm constantly reading everywhere I go -- driving down the street, I'm reading signs and shop windows; while eating breakfast I'm reading whatever's nearby on the table, even if it's junk mail. If I'm watching TV with the subtitles on, I can't help reading them even if I can hear fine. My eyes are just drawn to words, and it'd be the same way in a foreign country. (I'll find myself trying to translate the foreign language instructions on the shampoo bottle during a shower.) My Latin and French teacher said the fastest way to learn a language, if you can afford it, is to go live there for a couple months and force yourself to get by without English.

But we have immigrants who have been in the US for decades and still can't speak English (let alone read and write it), so clearly it's possible to avoid learning it if you really try. So maybe for a lot of people the subtitles would just be an irrelevant blur going by, like all the other words that flow past a person's eyes and ears in a typical day.

Maya said...

"But we have immigrants who have been in the US for decades and still can't speak English (let alone read and write it), so clearly it's possible to avoid learning it if you really try."

They HAVE GOT to be faking it. My own mother announced that the part of her brain responsible for learning languages is faulty, and that even her own birth language was her least favorite subject in high school. She proceeded to sign up for many English classes and ditch every single one of them. She has only ever worked within our own ethnic community. After 10 years in the country, she can watch TV, look up information on the Internet (yes, in English), go to her doctor's appointments alone,chat with the neighbors, and 6 months ago, she enrolled in our local community college to study medical billing. My grandparents moved to America just to be close to us. They never intended to learn English. Fast forward 5 years, everyone is able to go to their own doctor's appointments without a translator, shopping, historic bus tours, you name it. Grandma found an ad in a newspaper regarding a mother's assistant/nanny for adopted toddler from somewhere around her region of origin. She went on a whim, passed the interview (the mother didn't speak our language) and started to work there, interacting with a bunch of adults who speak only English. I worked in Asia for a year and a half, and I didn't really care about learning their language; it was a temporary situation. By the time I left, I could somehow read, write and hold a basic conversation. It just happens! You have to be locked in a basement to avoid learning the language of the country where you live.

Anonymous said...

Japanese love comic books and have sound educational achievement. Logical conclusion. American kids should real more comic books, especially manga.

On a more serious note, I've found comic books an excellent resource for learning Spanish, particularly for colloquial expressions (although you have to be careful because they can differ so much from country to country).

The artwork provides your brain with a visual connection to what's being said, which may also make a contribution to the learning process. Or maybe not. But if you read stuff by Horacio Altuna you'll enjoy the visuals too much to care.

Silver

Brij Kothari said...

Yes, there are plenty of scientific studies that TV subtitles in the 'same' language as the audio, helps teach reading. An ongoing and decade-long experiment in India, backed by research, has proven this. Full disclosure -- I am leading this "Same Language Subtitling" project.

See this Boston Globe article: "Watch and learn: How music videos are triggering a literacy boom"