Subtitles versus Dubbing – Which Is Better For Language Learning?
Growing up in Denmark, I learned the English language through music and TV for the most part. The vast majority of the movies I watched had subtitles. Apart from some of the big Disney cartoons that were dubbed using some of the famous Danish actors at the time, subtitles were and are the norm.
It makes a lot of sense given the amount of time Scandinavians spend watching movies and TV (subtitles rather than dubbing) that they speak English as well as they do. Had everything been dubbed I wouldn’t have been as exposed to the English language as much as I was.
Not too long ago I had a conversation about dubbing with a friend from Germany where almost all foreign television programs and films are dubbed. The same thing goes for countries such as France, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, and on this side of the pond in Latin-America they are also hugely into dubbing everything into their local languages.
We discussed which system is better – and although a survey from Europe shows that the system you grew up with is often the one you prefer – my German friend and I both agree that for language learning purposes subtitles is the better way.
I will give you four reasons why in the subtitles versus dubbing war, subtitles win, but in the spirit of keeping an open mind, I will also give you four reasons why dubbing might also have some benefits. Reasons, I never really thought of before.
As always, if you have any opinions on subtitles versus dubbing, let me know all about it in the comments below.
Four Reasons Subtitles Beats Dubbing
First a couple of obvious things…
1 – Subtitles Are Great for Learning a Language
Whether you are watching a movie with subtitles in your target language, or in a language you already know, you will be exposed to two languages at once. I did this with Spanish on Netflix and it was amazing. Watching a super exciting movie in your target language means picking up a few phrases here and there, and if you enjoy movies like I do, you almost forget that you are trying to learn.
2 – Countries That have Subtitles Are Often Better at Foreign Languages
I already mentioned this but it is true, especially in Scandinavia. Countries that have subtitles for the English-language television programs, usually have a higher level of spoken English than countries that dub everything.
To have the opportunity to listen to spoken English helps both pronunciation and listening comprehension. So there you go! I really think that movies and music in English are a key factor to Scandinavians having a higher level of the language than some other countries (where movies are usually dubbed). It is not the only reason, but exposure to a language is really important.
3 – Certain Things Can Get Lost In Translation
This goes for subtitles too of course, and is a problem of translation in general. Sometimes when watching an English speaking movie with Danish subtitles I have had a good laugh due to weird translations that make very little sense. Certain cultural nuances just can’t be translated correctly and the translated result is rather weird.
However, by completely removing the original language there might be even bigger misunderstandings, even plot holes. For example, in the 90s TV-show Friends, the character Joey had a catchphrase: ‘How you doin’?’, which he would say when he met an attractive woman. In the European Spanish dub, however, the catchphrase changes every time, meaning that it is no longer a catchphrase.
4 – Acting Is More Than Body Language
I mentioned this briefly, but ggggrrrr when the mouth and the words don’t go together, it just rubs me the wrong way. Besides, not since the era of the silent movies, almost 100 years ago, have actors relied solely on their body language. Half of the emotions that are being played out are in the actor’s voice and what is being said.
To me it seems that a lot of the actor’s artistry is lost when his or her voice is dubbed. I am sure there are great voice actors that do their very best to duplicate the voice and intonations of the original actor, but it is super strange to see someone talk using another person’s voice
And as promised here are…
Four Reasons Dubbing May Not Be All Bad
OK, so dubbing a movie is pretty useless for language learning purposes, but that doesn’t mean there are no benefits at all.
1 – Subtitles Are Distracting
‘If I want to read, I open a book.’ This is often the argument used by English-speaking people who only watch English-speaking movies.
I guess the argument is used by pro-dubbers too, and perhaps they have a point in that subtitles take up space on the screen, it can be difficult to read and pay attention to what is happening all at the same time, and you may miss some of the fancy cinematics if you are busy reading the subtitles.
2 – Cartoons Are Better When Dubbed
Cartoons don’t need subtitles, they are usually made for kids. When I was a kid one of the few kinds of movies that was dubbed in Denmark was Disney movies, and that was OK. Perhaps it was the fact that the mouth of a cartoon character seems to fit any language, or at least the dub people and actors are really great at making it look that way. For cartoons, you don’t get those weird unsynchronized mouth movements. Little kids deserve a break too, where they can watch a cartoon in their own language before they can read.
3 – Voice Actors Will Never Be out of a Job
Never really thought about this, but apparently when an actor in a dubbing country gets assigned the voice of a Hollywood actor, he will be that person’s voice forever. That means for as long as the American actor keeps working there will be a regular job for his Japanese, Spanish, German etc. voice actor. That is a pretty sweet deal.
4 – People Usually Don’t Watch Movies to Learn a Language
Those of us who love language learning may watch movies for the sole purpose of improving our skills in a target language, but let’s be honest, a lot of people watch a movie purely for its entertainment value.
Those people might just want to switch their brains off for a few hours and concentrate on the movie’s plot, and having to read subtitles can get in the way of that.