April 7, 2017
Subtitling, dubbing, and personal preference

Do countries with subtitles tend to speak better English than those who have dubbing? Does the integration of English into a foreign culture have an impact on that country’s fluency in English? The answers are fascinating!

The 2013 EF English Proficiency Index surveyed 60 different countries. The main countries, Norway, Netherlands, and Sweden, all use subtitles as opposed to dubbing for everything other than children’s programs. However, in France, Italy, and Spain, dubbing is mainly used for television and movies and the countries show only a moderate to low proficiency in English, with Spain ranking 23rd, France 35th, and Italy 32nd. It is similar in the Latin American countries, too, where Brazil ranked 38th and Uruguay came in at 29th.

So, do subtitles trump dubbing or is it the other way around?

The benefits of subtitles

  • Subtitles help people learn a new language – all you have to do is watch a few movies and TV shows in your target language and you’re sure to pick up several new words and phrases.
  • Some things get lost in translation – some subtitles can be rather weird and nonsensical. For instance, in the TV show, Friends, Joeys’ catchphrase was, “how you doin’?” When it was dubbed into Spanish, the phrase would change every time. So, completely moving the original language can make for some serious misunderstandings.
  • Countries with subtitling are better with foreign languages – compared to countries the dub pretty much everything, countries with subtitles tend to have a higher level of spoken English.
  • Acting isn’t just about gestures and posture – actors don’t only rely on body language to convey the message. Most of the emotions are played out in their voices and a lot of the artist’s meaning is lost when their vocals are dubbed.

Is it all a matter of preference?

Looking at the above points, it’s easy to assume that subtitling is the preferred option. It means we get to hear the actor’s real voices and tone whereas the lack of synchronization between dubbing and the actor’s mouth moving can be distracting. What’s more, dubbed TV shows and films often use just a couple of actors to perform multiple characters, making things even more confusing.

Subtitling vs. dubbing may come down to personal preference, but let’s not discredit a point we made earlier: subtitling allows us to learn new languages. By watching and listening to movies and TV shows in English, foreign language speakers are more likely to improve their vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

When we watch a film, it’s not necessarily our intention to learn a new language. Most likely, we want to be entertained. But, dubbing infringes on this enjoyment whereas subtitles tend to be more accurate than a possibly emotionless voiceover.

On the other end, reading subtitles means we may miss some, if not most, of the onscreen action. It can alter the way we watch shows and movies.

Perhaps the conclusion is somewhat subjective. Perhaps the best option is to give viewers a choice. With foreign language films continuing to soar in popularity, we suspect more people will start to pick a side: subtitling or dubbing!