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How foreign language subtitles give speech perception a boost

New research suggests people should read subtitles in the original language of the film being watched if they want to really improve their second-language listening ability. Contrary to what most people think, reading subtitles in your native language will lessen your ability ...
How foreign language subtitles give speech perception a boost
New research suggests people should read subtitles in the original language of the film being watched if they want to really improve their second-language listening ability. Contrary to what most people think, reading subtitles in your native language will lessen your ability to understand foreign speech. The findings of the study are published in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE.

Holger Mitterer and James McQueen, the researchers from the Netherlands' Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (MPI) in Nijmegen and Radboud University Nijmegen, demonstrated how reading subtitles that are in the same language as that being used in the film is most advantageous.

'Imagine an American listener, fluent in Mexican Spanish, watching El Laberinto del fauno [Pan's Labyrinth]. She may have considerable difficulty understanding the European Spanish if she is unfamiliar with that language variety. How might she be able to cope better?' the study's authors wrote. 'We argue here that subtitles can help. Critically, the subtitles should be in Spanish, not English. This is because subtitles in the language of the film indicate which words are being spoken, and so can boost speech learning about foreign speech sounds.'

The researchers found, for example, that Dutch students were able to better recognise Scottish or Australian English after listening to video material for 25 minutes. However, the learning effect was heightened when English subtitles were used, not Dutch ones.

In the study, participants watched an Australian sitcom and/or a Scottish film with English subtitles, Dutch subtitles or no subtitles. The subjects were then asked to repeat back as many words as they could from 160 audio excerpts (some of which were new and some of which were taken from the excerpt they had just viewed) spoken by the sitcom's main characters. Testing participants on words that they had not heard in the original excerpt allowed the researchers to assess how well the participants had adapted to the accent.

According to the team, optimal performances were recorded for subjects who read English subtitles. While Dutch subtitles enhanced performance on previously heard material, they failed to help listeners on new material.

The team speculated that the subjects used the semantic (meaning-based) information in the Dutch subtitles when listening to the English speech. Therefore, while the participants were able to decipher which English words had been articulated in older material, they were unable to 'retune' their phonetic categories in order to boost their understanding of the new spoken words.

The researchers said listeners can adjust their perception of speech that is spoken in an unfamiliar way by using their knowledge about how words ordinarily sound.

The education sector could potentially benefit from the study's results. Because the use of foreign language subtitles seemingly helps with adults' adaptation to foreign speech, they should be used whenever possible in order to strengthen people's listening skills during second-language learning.

Source: PLoS ONE journal; Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

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