Captioning and Subtitling: Undervalued Language Learning Strategies
Audiovisual material enhanced with captions or interlingual subtitles is a particularly powerful pedagogical tool which can help improve the listening comprehension skills of second-language learners. Captioning facilitates language learning by helping students visualize what they hear, especially if the input is not too far beyond their linguistic ability. Subtitling can also increase language comprehension and leads to additional cognitive benefits, such as greater depth of processing. However, learners often need to be trained to develop active viewing strategies for an efficient use of captioned and subtitled material. Multimedia can offer an even wider range of strategies to learners, who can control access to either captions or subtitles.
Keywords/Mots-clés: captioning, language comprehension, language learning, learning
L’audiovisuel, lorsqu’il est accompagné par l’écrit est un puissant moyen pédagogique qui peut améliorer les compétences en compréhension orale des apprenants de langue seconde. Ainsi, le sous-titrage intralinguistique, surtout s’il ne va pas au-delà des connaissances déjà
maîtrisées, facilite l’apprentissage en aidant à visualiser ce qu’on entend. Quant aux sous-titres interlinguistiques, ils peuvent augmenter non seulement les capacités de compréhension, mais aussi les acquis cognitifs, par exemple en approfondissant les processus de traitement de l’information linguistique. Cependant, on doit souvent former les
apprenants à des stratégies actives de perception pour arriver à une meilleure utilisation de ces écrits à l’écran. Avec les multimédias, on peut envisager d’autres stratégies d’acquisition.
In countries where viewers rarely watch subtitled programs, for example in the United
States, language students often experience feelings of guilt or annoyance when first
exposed to subtitles, while language teachers themselves tend to be openly hostile
to their use. In such cases, subtitles are most commonly viewed as distracting: They
are accused of encouraging viewers to rely on the written text, taking attention away
from the actual spoken language, and even fostering a form of laziness bordering on
cheating. Yet, many Europeans claim to have learned English from their regular
exposure to subtitled American films and television programs. So how much of this
learning can be attributed to the help of subtitles, and should greater effort be made
to encourage the use of subtitled audiovisual material to foster second – or
foreign-language acquisition in and outside the classroom?
A partial answer to this question can be found in a number of recent empirical studies
examining ways in which standard subtitling (i.e. interlingual, translation subtitles in
the native language), but also other forms of subtitling, can actually improve the
effectiveness of audiovisual presentations and develop viewers’ language skills. The bulk of the research has focused on the use of captions (called teletext subtitles in Europe, with subtitles in the same language as the sound track), which are primarily used in the context of the hard-of-hearing population. We will first review the findings of the most significant experiments dealing with the relationship between second-language acquisition and captions (also labeled bimodal, same-language, unilingual, or intralingual subtitles in scholarly literature), especially in relation to the processing of the spoken language. But we will also point to the limitations of captions in some instances and argue that standard subtitling can provide language learners with additional valuable assistance, as in the case of the incidental language learning occurring in Europe with spectators of American films. However, to derive the greatest benefits of both captions and subtitles, we will finally stress the importance of teaching students how to consciously adopt effective learning strategies, which ultimately play a fundamental role in improved listening skills and successful language acquisition.
1. Benefits and Limitations of Audiovisual Material
It is now commonplace to say that audiovisual material, with its rich context, is a powerful instructional tool known to have a motivational, attentional, and affective impact on viewers, which in turn facilitates auditory processing (Baltova, 1994: 510-1). In addition, film, television, video, and now digitized images usually expose students to larger amounts of authentic oral language input, which in the long run
should improve listening comprehension in face-to-face interaction with native speakers (Herron et. al., 1995).
Indeed, audiovisual media are closer to real life because visual clues and context make it possible to “view” the message as much as listen to it (Baltova, 1994: 508).
As a number of researchers have shown, listening comprehension is an “active cognitive process” involving “speculating and predicting” rather than individual sound deciphering because incomplete acoustic input often necessitates filling in missing information (Noblitt, 1995). Comprehension is also influenced by visual information and cultural knowledge (for example interpreting facial expressions), as lip-reading research has demonstrated (Baltova, 1994: 509). The positive effect of visual clues was confirmed by an experiment involving 53 intermediate-level Grade 8 Canadian pupils in a core French program. Those who watched a 15-minute clip in the video-and-sound condition obtained scores almost twice as good as in the sound-only condition (Baltova, 1994: 511, 513).
However, beyond global understanding, visual clues do not necessarily assist with the comprehension of the actual spoken text, as this experiment also demonstrated. In fact, students’ performance in the video-and-sound condition was very similar to
results in the silent viewing condition (Baltova, 1994: 513). In order to analyze actual listening comprehension gains, Baltova set up a second experiment comparing the same video-and-sound condition with the sound-only treatment but focusing on a
more text-dependent comprehension test. This particular test revealed no significant difference between the two groups and confirmed the poor level of distinct textual understanding (Baltova, 1994: 516). These results point to the limitations of video alone and the need to find techniques, such as captioning and subtitling, to improve the pedagogical effectiveness of the medium.
2. Listening Comprehension Benefits Through Captioning
Various studies have demonstrated the positive effects of captioning on productive skills such as verbatim recall and retention, reuse of vocabulary in the proper context, as well as communicative performance in specific oral and written communication tasks (Vanderplank, 1988: 276; Baltova, 1999: 38; Garza, 1991: 245; Borras & Lafayette, 1994: 63, 65, 68; Neuman & Koskinen, 1992: 102). However, since the main objection to the pedagogical use of subtitles stems from the perception that they hinder the development of receptive skills, the main goal of this article is to examine whether captions and subtitles can also improve listening comprehension.
General ideas can often be made understandable through images alone or even advanced organizers such as oral and written summaries or video clips, but captions have proven to be more beneficial for the comprehension of details pertaining to characters and plot (Chiquito, 1995: 219; Chung, 1999: 300-1). In terms of comprehension, captions can in fact assist students at different levels of linguistic ability. Markham had 76 advanced, intermediate, and beginning ESL students in an
American university watch two 2 H – and 4 H-minute-long educational television
programs. The results of the multiple-choice comprehension tests based on the vocabulary and syntax of the captions showed that within each level, responses were more accurate when captions had been available. Thus captions helped students perform beyond their proficiency level (Markham, 1989: 39, 41).
In addition to comprehension, captions can help with word recognition and vocabulary building. Neuman and Koskinen conducted a nine-week experiment with 129 seventh and eighth grade ESL students (mostly at an advanced level) watching nine 5- to 8-minute long segments of an American children-oriented science production. The researchers found that captioning was more beneficial to vocabulary recognition and acquisition than traditional television watching, or reading while listening. A series of increasingly complex tests demonstrated the beneficial effects of captions. These tests ranged from weekly word recognition exercises which entailed distinguishing written target words from nonword distractors, to sentence anomaly exercises testing word comprehension in context, and on the most difficult level, meaning identification of words presented in isolation (Neuman & Koskinen, 1992: 101).
Even audio text strongly supported by images that undoubtedly clarify and contextualize it can become more comprehensible with captions. Garza conducted an experiment comparing the comprehension ability of 70
high-intermediate/low-advanced ESL learners as well as 40 third/fourth year American university students of Russian, who viewed five discursive types of 2- to 4-minute-long videos with and without captions. Subjects were tested through multiple-choice content-based questionnaires requiring the identification of target-language “informational paraphrases, basic deductions, or synonym identification” of a term made visually explicit in the video segment. Results revealed significantly improved performance for the captioned condition in both language groups. Thus, captions may help make the audio input more intelligible by bridging the gap between reading comprehension skills, which are usually more developed, and listening comprehension (Garza, 1991: 241-243, 246).
Skeptics may still contend that even if captioning allows for language gains and improved comprehension, students are not being truly trained to develop their listening skills without written support. To respond to these objections, we will now turn to a few other studies which have attempted to measure pure listening comprehension gains, tested independently of any written components.
To examine the effect of captioning on aural word recognition skills, Markham designed another experiment involving multiple-choice tests administered orally. 118 advanced ESL students watched two short video programs (12 and 13 minutes) with or without captions. In the subsequent listening tests, subjects heard sentences directly taken from the script and immediately followed by four single words (one key
word which belonged to a sentence just heard and three distractors) presented orally too. The tests showed that the availability of subtitles during the screening significantly improved the students’ ability to identify the key words when they subsequently heard them again (Markham, 1999: 323-4).
Some may still argue that the improved listening comprehension resulting from the specific context of a captioned audiovisual program does not necessarily prove students’ ability to better comprehend new scenes without captions. To test how subtitling affected listening ability regardless of semantic information, so as to assess recognition memory in relation to sound alone, Bird and Williams focused on the implicit and explicit learning of spoken words and nonwords. Implicit learning pertained to auditory word recognition, while explicit learning referred to the intentional recollection and conscious retention of aural stimuli. A first experiment with 16 English native and 16 advanced nonnative speakers demonstrated that subjects in the captioned condition were better able to implicitly retain the phonological information they had just processed. They also showed superior explicit recognition memory when asked to aurally identify words that had been presented in a previous phase. A second experiment with 24 advanced ESL students found that captioning had a beneficial effect on word recognition and implicit learning of nonword targets paired with two rhyming and two nonrhyming aural cues, especially in the rhyme condition. Thus, captioning clearly aids with the phonological visualization of aural cues in the minds of listeners, who become more certain of
ambiguous input, can more accurately form a memory trace of the words, and can later more easily identify identical sounds without textual support (Bird & Williams, 2002).
In short, captioning seems to improve the actual language processing ability of second-language learners, who could be described as “hard of listening”
(Vanderplank, 1988: 272). The benefits of this “hearing aid” become even clearer over time, as shown by longer-term experiments. One study over an 11-week period involved grades 5 and 6 Canadian pupils who had attended a French immersion program since kindergarten. Tests measuring phrase form, contextual meaning, and comprehension demonstrated that captioning increased in effectiveness through time (Lambert & Holobow, 1984: 3). A long-term protocol analysis in another study may explain this improved effectiveness. 15 European ESL students ranging from high-intermediate to superior, and 8 Arabic ESL students from low-intermediate to advanced, were asked to watch captioned programs one hour a week over a nine-week period while reflecting on the experience. After a few hours of practice with the captions, the subjects felt that they were able to process longer stretches of verbal and written texts, i.e. their “chunking ability” had improved (Vanderplank, 1988: 274-5). Thanks to improved processing, subjects also remarked on their ability to “find,” note, ask about phrases totally new to them, and extract terminology (Vanderplank, 1988: 275; Vanderplank, 1990: 225).
3. Limitations of Captioning and Need for Comprehensible Input
In spite of the beneficial aspects described above, captioning may not be suitable for all materials and viewers at all levels of language proficiency. In particular, it may be helpful to beginners only if the material is carefully adapted to their level and contains many familiar phrases that can be activated and reinforced by the audiovisual presentation. This point was illustrated by an experiment in which full text or keyword captioning was added to the authentic language video clips designed to accompany a French beginning textbook. Guillory, who tested 202 American subjects in second semester French classes, found that even with captions the comprehension mean scores for two video clips from this program were at best 72%. If the material is too advanced, as in this case with nearly 28% of the words used in the video not listed in the textbook glossary, captions cannot sufficiently compensate for the fast rate of speech and the difficult vocabulary level (Guillory, 1998: 95, 102).
Thus, even with captions, visual input which is too far beyond the linguistic competency of the viewers may yield poor language gains. For example, in an experiment discussed earlier, Neuman and Koskinen found that in spite of the additional contextual support provided by the video, students with limited linguistic abilities learned less from the captions than viewers at the mastery level (Neuman & Koskinen, 1992: 103-4). Another experiment involving “relative beginners” (grade 7 Canadian pupils who had had 45 minutes a day of French-as-a-second language instruction since grade 1) indicated that captioning offered limited benefits compared to forms of subtitling incorporating native language input (Lambert & Holobow, 1984: