We study the influence of television translation techniques on the worldwide distribution of English-speaking skills. We identify a large positive effect for subtitled original version broadcasts, as opposed to dubbed television, on English proficiency scores. We analyze the historical circumstances under which countries opted for one of the translation modes and use it to account for the possible endogeneity of the subtitling indicator. We disaggregate the results by type of skills and find that television works especially well for listening comprehension. Our paper suggests that governments could promote subtitling as a means to improve foreign language proficiency.

That’s from TV or not TV? The impact of subtitling on english skills, a clever study with a useful finding.

I cannot help but note that our Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics videos at MRU (and linked to in our textbook) are subtitled in English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic and other languages so perhaps we can help teach languages as well as economics.


If anyone with access could expand on which method they use to account for that the causation doesn't run the other way (i.e. English profficient countries are more inclined to choose subtitles), I'd be extremely happy! Thanks!

The article is the 3rd result in Google after you search for "TV or not TV? The impact of subtitling on english skills" Somehow I can't post the address.

The article offers an historical perspective in section 2.1 and 2.2. The choice between subtitles and dubbing was made when sound movies became mainstream, between 1930-1940. English was not a public school subject until the end of WW2. It seems widespread English proficiency came 10-20 years after the dub/sub choice. So, the causation could not run the other way.

Also, the most impacted English skill is listening comprehension. Reading, writing and speaking are less impacted by TV. It makes sense that listening to English only makes you good at........listening to English.

Thank you for the help! :-)

I'm in no way questioning the findings, I've rather been assuming that's been the case all along but without empirics to back it up.

I do however question the identofication strategy a bit. If one of the main reasons behind the choice is scale, is it truly exogenous then? I mean the relative importance of commanding a second language is greater for people which native tounge is smaller. If anyone can enlighten me why I'm wrong I woud be really happy as I'd like to be able to claim this with empirics to back me up! :-)

Oh, we went one more level inside the issue =)

The article states subtitling is preferred over dubbing for small countries because dubbing is relatively expensive for a small market (<10 million people). But, it doesn't feel like a good answer.

So your question: do people from small countries (or speech communities) is more motivated or benefits from knowing a second language? I have no idea, we need a linguist =)

I think humans "in the wild" tend to diversify language. Only through great educational efforts, sometimes violence, our natural tendency to diversify has been countered and then large geographical areas with a common language have arisen.

With subtitling, you get exposed to both languages at the same time.

With dubbing, you only get one.

We needed a "study" to tell us the first one is better?


If I watch a French movie that has been dubbed to English, I learn absolutely nothing about French. If it has been dubbed, though, I might learn something.

Yep. Thanks to hours of Jackie Chan flicks I know how to count to five and scream for help in Cantonese. Not necessarily useful skills, but more than zero. I also know Cantonese when I hear it - maybe a more useful skill.

File under 'water is still wet'.

Yes, we do need a study for this.

Just because a relationship seems intuitive doesn't mean it actually exists, and is large enough to make a difference. The potential of subtitles to teach a language is obvious. The fact that they do actually teach language, to the extent that it shows up as having a large impact on the national level of language proficiency, is not obvious, and is an important finding.

Supposing that your utility function peaks when you achieve profficiency in English. However learning English doesn't make you any smarter, culturate, social, but rather an alien in your home country.

Anything on income? Smarter, culturate and social are optional.

Same with computer games. I learnt English from Leisure Suit Larry back in the day. At nine years, the game probably wasn't age-appropriate. Anyway they dub these routinely now. The kids don't get good education any more.

"The kids don't get good education any more."

No, the game market has just changed. I worked with two young French-Canadians last year. They said they became fluent in English playing on-line shooters.

In an ignored comic masterpiece, How To Murder Your Wife, Jack Lemon's bride, Virna Lisi, learns English by watching television without dubbing or subtitles. Unfortunately, most of the vernacular she absorbs is provided by commercials for pain relievers.

I learned English by watching (undubbed and unsubtitled) reruns of 50's and 60's TV sitcoms. I was shocked when I found out people don't say "Gawlly" or "Shazaaaam" anymore.

As an aside - when my wife moved to the UK she suddenly discovered the voice of Sean Connery, Meryl Streep, Robert Deniro etc. All of her film experiences were dubbed into French - by the same actor each time.

Switching to subtitles speeded up her English learning AND had the added benefit of hearing the actors real voices for the first time.

I find watching dubbed films really distracting - if the voice is out of sync with the lips , it's a game changer. The byproduct is that my knowledge of languages is improving all the time!

The French likely knew that subtitles would help people to learn English. Hence the dubbing. It was the same in Quebec.

Interesting observation. While staying in a motel in Quebec I briefly watched some TV; the Robert Duvall movie "Tender Mercies" was on and I noticed it was dubbed rather than subtitled. I remember being surprised because foreign language movies in the US are usually subtitled rather than dubbed. Also hearing Robert Duvall "speaking" French was kind of trippy.

But it makes sense that Francophone Quebec would try to maximize the use of French on TV (and minimize English, by over-dubbing it).

I'm also reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit where Jerry Lewis visits France and meets the guy who's been dubbing his voice into French (played by Tim Kazurinsky). I can't find a video clip online, just a transcript.

People routinely mock dubbed movies because the lips are not synched with the dialogue and this looks absurd. It probably looks absurd in pretty much all the cultures of the world. People probably lower the status they accord to dubbed films because of this.

With subtitles, these can still be absurd but you have to try harder to get mocked for it. Like really mess up the translation, or do what Netflix did with Roma where they provided Iberian Spanish subtitles for a movie made in Mexico.

And at least one comedian made a career on that. Can't remember his name.

It has been a long time since I watched a dubbed show in its entirety, but my sense is that the imperfect lip sync becomes edited out by the brain.

I find myself doing more reading than watching if subtitles are on. I guess this forms mental impressions the same way a book does, aided by the illustrations I frequently glance at.

With my hearing loss, I use subtitles even for English movies.

One interesting data point is that Germans usually speak pretty good english but they dub all their movies.

One interesting data point is that Germans usually speak far worse English than Dutch or Scandinavians, all of whom subtitle all their movies.

Yep, the Dutch as a group are much better English speakers than Germans as a group, in my experience. However, in the case of the Dutch, that may have less to do with subtitling, and more to do with the fact that the BBC is easily received in the Netherlands, without any subtitles at all.

If I recall correctly, English is a required second language in the Netherlands while in Germany it is one of several options. Germans who choose English speak it very well. So your conclusion may be clouded by endogenous choices.

I'm unfamiliar with Scandanavian education.

I haven't been to Germany, but the Netherlands is about the most English-friendly place I have been (where English is a second language). It's almost impossible to even get a chance to use a few Dutch phrases, if you are trying to learn them.

Actually, it probably ranks above some native-English places. A non-local native English speaker will probably have an easier time understanding the residents in the Netherlands than in Scotland, Ireland, the American South...

I have met many Swedes who don’t speak English as well as they think.

The absolute worst approach is the Polish/Russian strategy of having a man just talk over the native dialogue. Yet Poles speak excellent English.

And Filipinos on average probably speak English better than any of those listed. Not sure if they subtitle or dub.

Were American public educators to introduce foreign language instruction to elementary/primary instruction, American proficiency with foreign languages (as of English itself) would quite likely rise significantly in short order.

In Anglophone Canada it's mandatory to learn French in primary school and yet most anglophone Canadians have a pretty poor grasp of French.

As a consequence of American public education, most Americans enjoy a more feeble grasp of English than most Canadians are able to enjoy however firm or feeble a grasp of bi-lingualism.

Anglophone Canadians' dim regard for the French language surely is as much the product of Canada's specific history as it is of the earlier historical rivalries between France and England.

How does Francophone Canadian mastery of English compare with Anglophone Canadian mastery of French?

Former Canadian here from Montreal. I barely speak French. My parents brought me to the US very young and, while both fluent in French, they rarely spoke it with me. They were also both fluent in their native language, Polish, and I also know almost nothing of that. I never thought to ask whether their exclusive use of English was a deliberate choice and for what reason. I assume they wished to fully assimilate with their children to American culture.

Nope. Spanish instruction in elementary schools is reasonably common, but doesn't seem to have much lasting effect. There are a few language immersion schools where half the day's subjects are taught in the foreign language, and I'm sure that works. But there are nowhere near enough Spanish-fluent elementary school teachers around for that to be a viable general approach.

I disagree, and the foundation for my disagreement is the poor overall quality of pedagogy in US public schools (WHAT ELSE might account principally for American adult illiteracy and sub-literacy rates of over 20%?).

"Elementary education" in the US is a fine institution for fostering and foisting lifelong afflictions of infantilization, in language instruction as in all other intellectual domains it serves so poorly.

We'll be stuck with institutional (and cultural) stultification along these lines as long as we equip elementary/primary public education to be nothing more than aggrandized babysitting, if in fact it is THAT competent.

I do a lot of work in Latin America. I've met a lot of 35 to 45 year olds who claimed that they learned English from watching The Simpsons when they were kids. I think remember reading somewhere that The Simpsons is the most widely distributed television show in the world, which makes me wonder what kind of influence they've had on English as a second language. And ideas on American culture.

An interesting parallel inquiry might be to look at the rise of K-Pop and K-Drama and Korean as a second language in the world.

In a world of Netflix and YouTube this is an obsolete discussion. Subtitles, or just English with closed captioning in English, is rapidly becoming the norm for most Europeans under 25. A bigger issue is whether German, Polish or even Russian will survive as important cultural languages into the 22nd century.

German, the 2nd most spoken EU language? Germany is the big one, Austria is underrated, the Swiss have a strong attachment to their variety of German, for the people from Alsace and South Tyrol their local varieties are a matter of identity, it's one of the 3 languages of Luxembourg. Spoken by ~100 million people across different countries.

The 22th century is too distant. Anyway, it's hard to imagine a future where people say "I don't want to do business with or there's nothing to learn from DE, AT or CH".

Yes, I would tend to agree somewhat. If the EU is to function as one democracy and one people (which it needs to function as one democracy), or even as one bureaucratic state and one people, it will tend to need one language. Or even should it be able to function as one market, which is again the EU's ambition.

It's hard to see that being German or French (let alone Spanish, Italian, Polish).

Of course, I'd rather see a world where it's so much the worse for the EU and so much the worse for a single, mobile market, and so much the better for linguistic diversity, with lots of closed cultural islets rather than one big linguistic continent. But the EU states don't seem to see it the same way!

(This is distinct from the EU preserving local languages in kind of bijou, ornamental symbol of its respect for linguistic minorities, which of course it puts more effort into than the nation states which make it up!).

If I am understanding the study they are saying those who watch original English language shows with subtitles do better with English speaking skills than those seeing non-English language shows with English dubbed in.

Does anyone find that surprising, and possibly having nothing to do with the subtitles?

My personal experience with subtitles is that I "hear" the English I am reading and it, at times, overrides the foreign language I am listening to. In someways it is better to just listen to the foreign language, seeking to identify the words and grammar I know.

Sometimes I will pick up new linguistic constructions that I then have to research the usage and meaning of. Later I can then start picking those out of the dialogue.

From what I can tell what they have found is that people interested in learning a language that then listen to native speakers speaking naturally do better. Those trying to learn a language listening to a translation of another language into the language they want to learn do less well. While that does support the dubbing is second best that may be entirely due to the difficulty of verbal translation that are done by dubbing services for films and shows.

This was explained to me as the reason why English skills are better in Portugal than in Spain. Portugal is a small country, so except for the shows dubbed for the Brazillian market everything is subtitled in English. In Spain, most of the TV shows and movies are dubbed into Spanish.

Belgium offers a good anecdotal example. In the Flemish part of the country, subtitles. In the Francophone part, dubbing. Guess which group speaks English better by far?

I use subtitles for foreign movies and cc for English ( in order to better understand what's being said.) I make an exception for Chinese martial arts movies where the dubbing enhances my viewing pleasure.

The authors should watch more subtitled TV since the title of their article "TV or not TV? The impact of subtitling on english skills" proves that they have not yet learned that names of languages start with a capital letter.

I wonder how much this stuff (a subtitles effect in language learning) depends on your general preference for reading vs listening in communication.

As quite a quick and voluminous reader, I find with subtitles I often pick up very little of the language in subtitled films. I know what's going on anyway just from reading the subtitles, and I prefer it that way, so don't learn the language I'm hearing very well.

But for folk who don't read much or quickly and tend to focus on sounds and speech more, they might tend to be more likely to try and pick up words to help their understanding along.

I don't see how this is not endogenous. Countries that are able to promote English in the schools or in public can switch to subtitling more easily. Or in the US, as foreign language films have not taken off they've mostly given up on dubbing in favor of subtitling. This is not due to foreign language proficiency in any second language but the general unwillingness of Americans to put up with less than perfect dubbing. However, the same is less true for cartoons where the breaks between mouth movements and words are almost irrelevant. So cartoons are easily dubbed into English.

Hearing a foreign language (in context) with a written explanation of what it means in a language you already know, leads to better listening comprehension of the foreign language, compared to NOT hearing the foreign language at all, with NO explanation at all.

This would be mind-blowingly obvious, but in a certain major country (with four distinct seasons, famous for earthquakes, judo, and sumo) with a government "commitment" to improving English language competence, the idea is regarded as not "serious enough" for instructional purposes. Kids should not be enjoying watching movies in class, they should be hitting the books and "studying hard".

Finally a paper that explains why Switzerland has been doing so well economically since the advent of film sound: It's the original versions with subtitles, stupid!

The research focused on TV, not movies. TV is usually dubbed with low-cost techniques that speeds up production so a show can be deployed quickly around the world after the English language premiere. Watched some Discovery Channel and National Geographic in my native language back in the day, but their documentaries were full of bad scientific translations and garbage lip-sync.
However - feature films mostly employ professional translators and professional actors who normally work on translating fine literature and people who sing and act for a living even when not in a recording studio. Disney is known to take this very seriously and they produce very high quality dubbing for their animated movies (YouTube is full of funny multilanguage Disney songs).

I have using subtitles for unknown language movies. so the subtitle is used for all peoples who don't know the languages

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