Use subtitled movies and TV to level up comprehending and speaking in regional accents

4ec58eafafe33cddf324e73f85c3bd51Check out the latest soundcloud for my ABC Radio pop culture segment with Leon Compton on 936 ABC Hobart. This week I’m talking about using subtitles for a film or TV series to level-up your language dialect skills
I came across an interesting academic journal article which argued that the best way to use movies to familiarise yourself with a foreign language or accent is to use the subtitles. As someone who continues to try and maintain a second language of some proficiency (Japanese) this was a welcome motivator to go back to the anime collection and Kurosawa collection and start levelling up. However, some important caveats with this advise – first you already need to have a very strong language proficiency in reading a foreign language. No points in doing this if you’re constantly missing words, context and terms. Also, this audio-subtitle in foreign language tool is being used to learn a regional dialect or national dialect. Eg: a non-native English speaker trained in standard American English textbooks wanting to stretch themselves to better comprehend Australian or Scottish English. As was the case in the paper. Also, don’t try and make life easier by using your native language subtitles – as this was shown to actually reduce the ability to hear and comprehend access compared to using non-native subtitles.
This recent academic paper “Foreign subtitles help but native-language subtitles harm foreign speech perception”
argues that the key is to make sure your reading the foreign language subtitles and audio together to have the greatest impact. As they say:
“We asked two questions. First, we tested whether audio-visual exposure allows listeners to adapt to an unfamiliar foreign accent. Second, we asked whether subtitles can influence this process. Our results show that this kind of adaptation is possible, and that subtitles which match the foreign spoken language help adaptation while subtitles in the listener’s native language hinder adaptation”
Interestingly it uses the example of non-native English speakers learning Australian or Scottish dialects through subtitles.
– for TV you can also use ‘close caption’ choice. Challenge is when the subtitles lag a bit or don’t match. Or if they are ‘fan subtitles’.
Of course, watching TV and films in the foreign language you’re learning is not a new idea. Many people have been doing this, and the benefits are well known – you get to re-watch it multiple times learning context, intonation, etc. However, what is interesting is to see the advantage of complimenting the spoken language with subtitles in that foreign language. This is particularly beneficial where the learner already has strong reading skills and familiarity with the standard language and wishes to stretch themselves to comprehend a regional or national dialect.
It raises some interesting questions
– is this a good way for people who might know a standard textbook English to learn the Australian dialect? Which movies for which regions of Australia?
– can you still watch the movie if you’re doing this? Obviously multiple viewings might be needed.
– what are the limitations? The subtitles need to spot on, and not create more confusion or contradict the spoken word – so don’t use amateur subtitles you find on the net or via closed caption TV (see above image)
– could you ‘accidentally’ adopt a movie actors distinctive accent?
– your reading of the foreign language needs to be excellent, there’s no point in using foreign subtitles if you can’t read them all quickly and correctly.
An amusing, if somewhat unlikely consequence of this method is that if the non-native speaker was to learn and mimic the Australian accent through watching a TV show like Kath & Kim (as was the choice in the research paper) they may mistake character catchphrases for common expressions – eg: Kath’s parody of the bogan drawl ‘look at moooeeeeiiiii’. Which wouldn’t quiet work in everyday colloquial Australian settings.

But it is an opportune time to be doing this given how relatively easy it is to pick up DVDs and Blu-rays with multiple audio and subtitle options. Obviously it’s always best to be learning from a native speaker or immersing yourself directly within that culture, but if those aren’t possible, then this presents a cheap and accessible way of beginning that journey. And if you’re already excellent at reading the foreign language then this is an excellent strategy to develop greater familiarity with regional dialects or national accents outside the standard textbook language.
Another really interesting point – there are foreigners living overseas who make a career out of speaking a regional dialect. In Japan for instance there is a foreign-born TV celebrity who speaks ‘inaka-ben’ – a distinctive, rural based accent which is distinct and surprising for a non-‘inaka-ben’ Japanese speaker to hear a foreigner using.
For a further discussion on the pros of subbing vs dubbing also check out the Pop Cosmopolitan show this week 2014-09-11. Listen on demand here:

Academic paper:
Websites discussing this approach

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