Subtitles Are Key To The Immigrant Experience – They Helped Me Learn English

Research shows subtitles are more popular with young people. It's no surprise.
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There are two camps of TV watchers in this world: team subtitles and team dubbing. I sit firmly in the former, because as Parasite director Boon Joon-Ho famously said, you can access a richer catalogue of culture if you overlook the “once-inch barriers”. But closed captions are also hugely helpful when learning a new language.

As a first-generation immigrant who came to the UK at six years old, I couldn’t speak the language, trailing behind my peers in my reading skills. But then I started watching TV with subs, consuming anything from CBBC cartoons to grown-up soap operas such as Neighbours and Home and Away, always with the captioning on.

Though it took me a while to be able to read quickly enough to catch the action, soon I did it effortlessly. In watching different worlds come to life on the screen, my own world began to widen as I understood language, grammar, punctuation.

Today, I enjoy subtitles because they enable me to catch details that are missed with audio-only viewing, but also because they deepen my connection to the English language. And I’m not the only one. Subtitles have closed the gap between cultures oceans apart.

One of the BTS band members, RM, who is the only fluent English speaker in the group, said he learned English through watching Friends and reading translated subtitles.

Adrienne Houghton, who hosts TV show The Real, also went viral when she shared a story of how reading subtitles as a child while her immigrant dad learned the language, secured her career success.

Many others, immigrant or not, can relate to the practice, whether conscious or subconscious.

The Friends cast helped RM – and many others – learn the lingo.
NBC via Getty Images
The Friends cast helped RM – and many others – learn the lingo.

Initially launched for deaf people and those hard of hearing, subtitles have grown in popularity in recent times. In fact, recent research found that young people are four times more likely to use subtitles than older cohorts.

Four out of five 18-25-year-olds prefer to have captioning all or part of the time, according to the charity Stagetext. That figure for 56-70-year-olds is less than a quarter, despite this group being more likely to be hard of hearing.

And now, youngsters want more events to be subtitle-friendly. Stagetext’s research found that 45% of young people would go to live events if there were captions on a screen in the venue. Among over 65s, this figure was 16%.

There’s certainly an appeal in having text accompanying action, not least because of how impactful it can be for non-native English speakers.

Alp Ozcelik, who works for The New Yorker, grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and says subtitles were “absolutely instrumental” in him learning English growing up.

“I was already learning English in school, but subtitled American TV was what really taught me the accent/correct pronunciation of words and the slang that I really couldn’t have picked up at school,” the 31-year-old project manager from New York says. “I also would like to credit video games with voice acting and subtitles here as well; they taught me a lot of vocabulary!”

Now, having subs is a habit Ozcelik can’t get out of. “I absolutely still use subtitles on all the TV I watch; it allows me to pick up more of what’s being said and also all of the names of people and places that sometimes get lost,” he adds.

As a child of the 90s and early 00s, Ozcelik says Friends and Gilmore Girls were big contributors his language lessons, alongside reruns of older American TV, like Married with Children and Cheers. “But I watched a lot of other primetime TV as well,” he says. “Sex and the City and Gossip Girl also come to mind.”

Alp Ozcelik learned English watching Friends and Gilmore Girls.
Alp Ozcelik
Alp Ozcelik learned English watching Friends and Gilmore Girls.

Like Ozcelik and myself, Steph Santa, a 24-year-old fraud investigator from Washington D.C, also picked up English by watching subtitled television.

Born in Peurto Rico, she travelled to the States when she was eight, where she had trouble learning English. But soon, from watching Disney shows and films, Santa was able to acquire the skill.

“When I was first learning English I had some knowledge thanks to my grandparents but I was nowhere near being fluent. The use of subtitles helped me learn how words are spelled and what they sound like,” she says.

“I remember alternating shows and movies in English with Spanish subtitles or Spanish with English subtitles until I was comfortable enough to put both in English.”

And like many others, Santa has carried on using subs, but wishes they were available in more settings. “I still use subtitles, it feels like I can’t hear what I’m watching if the subtitles aren’t on,” she says.

“I’m currently working on my masters degree and wish that the recorded lectures had closed captioning. I still struggle with some word pronunciations, but I think that’s a struggle any person that learned English as a second language goes through.”

Subtitles in lectures, or in cinemas or live events, would certainly be welcome, and not just to those who learned English as a second language, but for anyone who doesn’t want to miss all the whispers, the background detail, and the whole ambiance, not just the visual.

Sure, dubbing has it’s benefits too. But I will forever be team subtitles.

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