Foreign-Language Acquisition by Watching Subtitled Television Programs
by Géry d’Ydewalle
The visual image (not including the subtitle) and the sequence of events in the movie typically provide abundant information which makes sometimes either understanding the spoken language or reading the subtitle superfluous. Moreover, it has been claimed that people
unconsciously lipread to a certain extent.
Moreover, the time spent in processing the subtitle did not change when reading the subtitle was made either more important for understanding the program（by switching off the soundtrack）or less compelling（when the subject knows the foreign language very well）. Therefore, it was concluded that reading the subtitle at its onset presentation is more or less obligatory; it is unaffected by major contextual factors such as the availability of the soundtrack and important episodic characteristics of actions in the movie.
In Experiment 1, American subjects watched an American movie with English soundtrack and subtitles. Despite their lack of familiarity with subtitles, they spent considerable time in the subtitled area. Accordingly, subtitle reading cannot be due to habit formation from long-term experience. In Experiment 2, a movie in Dutch with Dutch subtitles was shown to Dutch-speaking subjects. They also looked extensively at the subtitles, suggesting that reading the subtitles is preferred because of efficiency in following and understanding the movie.
Although the attention pattern of fourth- and sixth-grade children did not differ from the pattern of adults, the pattern of secondgrade children depended largely on the movie shown. For example, second-grade children watched a subtitled “Garfield”（a heavily verbally loaded cartoon） exactly as adults did, but they did not read the subtitles in “Popeye”（an action-oriented cartoon）. This suggests that reading subtitles is not yet completely compulsory for young children, although they are well able to read them（as evidenced by their behavior when watching “Garfield”).
The Dutch-speaking subjects were divided into four conditions: a Dutch film, a German film, a Dutch news broadcast, and a German news broadcast, all provided with Dutch subtitles. The results can be summarized as follows. With news broadcast, subjects had a greater need for subtitles as they started to look at the subtitles at a faster pace and read them for longer periods, even when the spoken news broadcast was in their own language. Elderly people complain more about subtitles than other age groups.
...with longer subtitles, younger people looked longer at the subtitle than the older people. As younger people read faster than older people and therefore finish reading earlier, younger people start re-reading the subtitles and therefore, linger longer in the subtitles.
WHAT ABOUT THE SOUNDTRACK?
While so far it is clear that reading the subtitles does occur, and switching the attention from the visual image to reading the subtitles happens to be effortless and almost automatic, the next question is whether the soundtrack is also processed to a certain extent simultaneously.
In Sohl（1989）with adults, a double-task technique was used. Apart from watching a television program, the subjects had to react to flashing lights（+ a sound beep）as fast as possible. The reaction time to the flashing lights was taken as a measurement for the amount of processing done with the first task, which was the viewing of a television program.
The results showed that the presence of subtitles consumes resources, and independently, the presence of voice also slows down the reaction times. The slowest reaction times with adults were obtained whenever both a speaker and a subtitle were present, which suggests that the adult participants do make an effort to follow the speech.
Since both subtitles(in the native language) and sound track (in the foreign language) are
processed almost in parallel, there may be language acquisition in such a context. Simultaneous viewing of the subtitles and listening to the soundtrack may be a factor in language acquisition.
(Comment: In this scenario the foreign language voice, the most difficult component, receives the least amount of attention. Adults do make an effort to follow the speech, however, partly because they're aware that subtitles do not tell the whole story and partly because the brain is wired to pay attention to human speech. The thread of the story is perceived in the mother tongue and the foreign language serves as a backup for additional information and a mood-setting background. The most easily discernible elements in this situation would be individual words and phrases. Learning occurs, it is beneficial but incomplete and inefficient. However, one important factor missing from everyday viewing activities is conscious language analysis.)
The standard condition is of course when the foreign language is in the soundtrack and the mother language in the subtitle; reversed subtitling refers to the condition where the mother language is in the soundtrack and the subtitles are in the foreign language. The adult participants were shown the subtitled cartoons for about 15 min long; immediately thereafter, foreign language acquisition was tested. The findings established without any doubts that there is considerable incidental language acquisition simply by watching a short subtitled movie.
(Comment: People are able to pick up more vocabulary reading foreign subtitles because they're proficient readers and they do not have to struggle with foreign sounds. They're following a simplified version of the story and reading it with their own inner voice. This defeats the main purpose of watching a foreign movie. Following the same line of reasoning it is far more efficient to read parallel texts.)
Surprisingly, there was not necessarily less foreign language acquisition when the foreign and mother languages were vastly different.
The study showed real but limited foreign-language acquisition by children watching a
subtitled movie... There was not more acquisition by the children in the present study than by the adults in the former studies, and again, acquisition was largely restricted to the vocabulary.
German is obviously more similar to Dutch and also sounds more familiar to us (the Dutch) then the Swedish language. Recognizing spoken words and sentences in such an unfamiliar language might just be too hard for children. Adults performed significantly better then children in the standard condition... In contrast to children, who showed an overall poor performance, they seemed to posses a mental processing capacity that required them to attend both information channels, at least partly or alternatively.
INCIDENTAL FOREIGN GRAMMAR ACQUISITION
With the next two experiments we wanted to investigate under which circumstances foreign
language acquisition is most likely to occur, and whether or not children are in advantage when it comes to acquiring a foreign language in such an informal way as watching a television program.
(Comment: The participants watched a subtitled television program, for a very short period of time. Both circumstances are worth pointing out).
Some participants in the second experiment ...were explicitly instructed to draw attention to the foreign-language soundtrack and to the endings of the words especially, in order to search in what way a movie could help in acquiring the grammar of the foreign language.
The beneficial nature of explicit language learning is a matter of dispute. Ellis and Laporte (1997) distinguished implicit learning and explicit-selective learning, the former proceeding incidentally and unconsciously, and the latter intentionally and consciously through searching for hidden rules in the data.
All performance averages in conditions without advance rule presentation were at, or close to chance level, either with or without movie presentation. When the rules were presented in advance (explicit rules), performance on items where the explicit rules were to be applied was best when no movie had been watched.
According to a strong interface view, explicit learning is of great importance in further acquiring new, implicit rules. In Experiment 2, there was no such evidence...
Grammar, contrary to vocabulary, may be too complicated to acquire from a rather short
movie presentation. Pienemann... pointed out that large mental or grammatical complexity could prevent rules from being learned through simple presentation of the language. Upheld attention and sufficient motivation are necessary and basic ingredients for foreign-language grammar learning to occur, even in real-life situations.
According to Reber... the most appropriate instructions for more complex and non-salient rules would be incidental, but intentional for less complex and salient rules. Moreover, acquiring less salient rules incidentally could require exercise instead of merely observation. Possibly, a sequence of several movies, spread over a longer period of time, could solve both problems and provide conclusive evidence that vocabulary acquisition due to subtitled television programs is supplemented with grammar acquisition.