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History And Function Of Subtitles English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5226 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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According to Wikipedia, subtitles are textual versions of the dialogues of the actors in movies and television programs, usually shown at the bottom of the film which can either be a form of written translation of a dialogue in a foreign language or the same language. Mostly, subtitle language follows the original audio, except in some multi-lingual countries where different languages subtitles may be provided to be chosen by the audience.

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Subtitle started as inter-titles to convey what the actors said in the movies to the audience. In fact, the very first subtitle was registered as a patent by M. N. Topp in 1909 as a “device for the rapid showing of titles for moving pictures other than those on the film strip” (Gilbert Chee, 2009, p4). With the invention of sound film in 1927, the idea of subtitling was revoked as the subtitling technique was quite complex and expensive at that time. Soon, optical method was invented where “a frame containing the title was kept in position while the film negative and the positive print strip were fed forward and exposed” (Gilbert Chee, 2009, p5).

Later, in 1935, a Hungarian inventor, O. Turchányi, registered a patent for a high temperature method. Before that, R. Hruska and Oscar I. Ertnæs improved the high temperature technique where this method is still in used as it was the cheapest process ever invented. After a few decades, Denis Auboyer and Titra Film in Paris developed the laser subtitling where laser is used to burn away or vaporizes the emulsion. With great success, this method has been commercialised since 1988. Soon, films were shown on television with subtitle. The first scheduled showing of a subtitled film was Arthur Robison’s Der Student von Prag on August 14, 1938 by BBC.

“Two main systems were developed after 1970s, which use a word processor with subtitling program which made it possible to write the subtitles in a film” (Gilbert Chee, 2009, p6). While the one of them is based on the teletext principle which uses a computer to generate hidden signals, the other system uses a “computer-controlled character generator” in the transmitting the movie data. Nowadays, there are lots of improvements and researches have been done to the subtitling system by non-profit organization such as Esist as well as some companies such as Media Movers, Inc. which has developed proprietary software which renders automated timing (spotting) for audio-video content.

The Functions of the Subtitles

Watching films, short series, and television programs are fundamental part of today’s entertainment culture. People watch all these either with or without subtitles. However, which one do they prefer more? “do some research”. The result shows that out of x people, y people liked to watch subbed movie. Why do people like it? Subtitle allows foreign broadcasting and movies to be shown in one’s country, enhances people’s understanding on what had been shown and lets deaf people enjoy the same entertainment as others.

In Malaysia, Movies are shown in different language– Chinese, English, Korean, Japanese, Malays and so on. However, not all Malaysian can understand these languages.

Thus, without subtitle, these movies cannot be shown in Malaysia as no one will know what the characters are saying. According to Mylot Forum (2009), from action, we can only understand the contents about 50%.Thus, if foreign movies are to be brought into a country, it is important for subtitle to be available in these movies.

Just like English, pronunciation of certain language may vary in different countries. The movie may be dubbed in one’s country first language but due to different in slang, it might be hard for the audiences to get what they are trying to present in the movie. However, with the aid of subtitle, audience can fully understand what had been shown in the movie. This is because there is a new source for audiences’ understanding which is visual rather than just audio only.

It is believed that there are many people who have weak hearing in the society. Also, there are people who can’t hear at all, and were called deaf. It would be a pity for these people to watch dubbed movies because they can’t hear what the characters are saying. However, with the aid of subtitle, the problem is solved. These people can understand the movies through the words shown at the bottom of the screen and can enjoy the movie shown as others.

In a nutshell, subtitle does help a lot in the entertainment world as it allows foreign broadcasting and movies to be shown in one’s country, enhances people’s understanding on what had been shown and lets deaf people enjoy the movie as well.

The Positive Effects of Subtitles

With the availability of subtitle, it has changed the way of movie, video and short series broadcasted in the mass media. Countries no longer broadcast these things in their own country’s first language, but also other language with the assist of subtitle. Moreover, as English become the international communication language, it can be seen that every movies shown in the theater is provided with English subtitle. As subtitle was being widely used, I believe it brings a lot of advantages to the society. Advantages of subtitle are the average cost for transferring the original movie to subbed movie is much cheaper than transferring it to other languages dubbed movie. Furthermore, it can enhance people’s vocabulary acquisition and the original voices of the actors can also be maintained.

Advantage of subtitle is subbed movies are cheaper than dubbed movies. It may seem illogic for subbed movies to be cheaper than dubbed movie because there were these extra tiny words appear below the screen and the cost should be higher. However, a research had been done by Lukyen (1991) and the results shown that the average hourly cost for transferring a dubbed movie to subbed movie is around 740 ECU (around RM3134) where else 11,000 ECU (around RM46592) per hour is needed in order to replace the original actor’s voice in the movies. This proved that subtitled movies are almost 15 times cheaper than dubbed movies. According to Lukyen, this is because it is much easier to insert subtitles into the movie than replacing the original voice of actors in the movies. Thus, subbed movies are cheaper than dubbed movies.

“…meaning of a word cannot be fully grasped unless the word is encountered in varied semantic and syntactical contexts…”

(Anderson & Nagy, 1991, p51)

Both, subbed movies and dubbed movies can help people acquire new vocabulary. However, it is believed that it is easier for people to understand certain word when watching subtitled movie. In dubbed movie, people can hardly get the spelling of a word since it was not shown in the screen. Thus, they can’t check it out even if they want to. Sometimes, you might also hear a word which has the same pronunciation but it would not appear to be the same spelling. These words are called homophones and it would be a trouble in learning such words in dubbed movie. Thus, there is a barrier to enhance your vocabulary for watching dubbed movie. D’Y Dewalle and Pavakanun (1997) had done a research on word recognition of students in subbed and dubbed movies. Students are separated into three groups to watch a 15-minutes television program in (1) Foreign language dubbed and first language subbed (2)First language dubbed. The result shows that students score better in word recognition for the movie with subtitle available. Thus, subtitles do help a lot in vocabulary acquisition.

Another advantage of subtitle is the actors’ and actresses’ original voice are maintained in subbed movies. People may not like to watch movie where the original voice of actors and actress are differed because it would be weird to see a foreigner to speak in our first language. Imagine an Indian lady speaking Malays or Chinese in an imported movies. Obviously, her original voice was being replaced by another person’s voice.

Also, the time taken to finish talking a sentence in different language is different. Sometime, you may see the actors still talking but there would be no sound coming out from the audio system and vice versa. This will cause distraction and dissatisfaction among the spectators. Also, some people prefer watching movie with the original voice of the actors maintain as the atmosphere will be different if the voice is replaced. This happened especially in Japanese video, which there are a lot of voice effects of Japanese which cannot be shown in English.

“…Children’s ability to acquire vocabulary through context is influenced by their level of competence…”

(Neuman & Koskinen, 1992, p52)

It is believed that people with higher knowledge can benefit more from subbed movies. Despite this, children should still be encouraged to watch subbed videos and movies as it can speed up their learning of new words in foreign or its country’s first language. No one will know how subtitle will become in the future. However, Cultura Inglesa (2010) is trying to provide subtitle in radio station. Also, it is believed that subtitle will be further developed in other profession related to mass media.

The Negative Effects of Subtitles

In 2010, subtitle has been commonly used in videos, TV programs, films and others. More and more people are slowly adapted to subbed movies but still there is a portion of people who still prefer dubbed and dislike subbed.

“..Subtitle may distract the viewer from watching the visual images, because the titles partly cover the film…” (Cees & Jonannes, 1997, p51)

Subtitle normally appears at the bottom of the scene to assist people to fully recognize what had been shown. However, some people will think that it is a distraction to them who can fully understand what the actors say. A research had been done to track the eye’s position when subtitle is available in the video. This research was done by Ross Bryant, Jill Constate, Mike Manna, Tony Sereechia, and Tawanna Starks using “Tobii Eye Tracker” and people in the experiment are asked to watch subbed and dubbed movie respectively. It was proven that in subbed movies, their eyes tend to refer to the subtitle where else in dubbed movies; their position of eyes is random. This shows that subtitle do distract people from hearing what the actor are trying to say. This would be bad as audience may miss some important scenes. In addition, subtitles were shown in multi-languages some time. This will cause more distraction to the audience. For people who know two languages, they will feel ambiguous because they don’t know which one they should choose to read.

Some time, the subtitles provided may not be translated accurately in the movie. No languages can be directly translated into other languages. As an example, in English, compound sentence is the combining of different sentences. “I eat after taking bath” is a compound sentence said by the actor, but when translated into Chinese, they would mention “take bath” first before “eat”. As this happen, the sentence that was shown in subbed may be different from what had been mentioned by the actors. Although the meaning may still be the same and the important point is still mentioned and maintained, the audience who understand what have been said by the actor find out that the subtitle does not follow exactly what had been said will feel uncomfortable.

Also, not all subbed movies are perfectly made. It is common have a technical problem in subtitles, especially for videos from in internet. These videos do not show subtitle at the right timing, they either show the subtitles before or after the actors speak. As more people like to watch movies in foreign language dubbed, not many of them can understand it fully. Just like Japanese anime, this is the favor of teenagers nowadays. Although they don’t understand, they still watch these anime in Japanese with the assist of English subtitle. Thus, if the timing is wrong, it will be a problem for them to understand the movie fully. This may irritate the spectators sometimes because they have to trace back what the actors are trying to say in the movie.

“…preference for either dubbing or subbing not seem to be motivated by…but by habit.” (Luyken, 1991, p54)

From this quote, it is proved that people who love to watch subbed movies because they are used to it and vice versa. Also, they will continue watching subbed or dubbed movies if given a choice to choose between them. However, watching too much subtitle is not good for people. People who watch too much subtitle will form a habit, becoming too reliable on subtitle and this will cause their listening power to decrease. They won’t be able to understand anything unless they try hard to when watching dubbed movie. This will cause a problem for those who want to enjoy movies or series without subtitle provided. They tend to replay the video so that they can understand what had been said and ruin their mood in continue watching the video.

Due to the problem stated in third and forth paragraphs, too reliable on contexts may sometimes cause problem to people who can’t fully understand the movie through speaking. Also, watching too many subbed movies will ruin people communication with others because hearing people talking is just like hearing people in the movie talking. Thus, most professors or people who have good education will prefer to watch dubbed movies rather than subbed movies.

Overall, both subbed movies and dubbed movies are beneficial to the society. Thus, mass media should provide their movies in both subbed and dubbed so that people are given choice to choose their own way of watching movies.

Previous study 1:

Exploiting Films and Multiple Subtitles Interaction for Casual Foreign Language Learning in the Living Room

By Victor Bayon


Films and movies have become a common entertainment in our daily lives. They are used as a kind of learning tool which helps people learn foreign language. Victor Bayon, therefore, developed a system to support the advanced usage of subtitles for casual foreign language learning in living room.


Interviews and discussions among designers and language course members were held to find out what out-of-class materials and activities had been used to reinforce learning in college. It was found that subtitles in foreign films had been commonly used. However, some challenges were discover, for example, problems among beginners. As a result, ideas for the initial application of prototypes were used to solve some of the problems within watching movies in living room.

Experiments and Results:

The output was a dual subs-view which displayed subtitles of two languages simultaneously. This enabled the shorter gap between understanding the language and following the movie with subtitles. Students could choose whichever language of subtitle to rely on.

A movie recommender held a database of vocabulary learned and an electronic dictionary which added new vocabulary when student searched a word. The highest recommendation percentage was one which students could have higher possibility to expose to new vocabulary. It made students know how complex the vocabulary in a movie is as compared to vocabulary of their course.

A remote control based on PDA was developed. It produced an interface which display subtitles on PDA. This enabled students to pause and read the words as well as check dictionary on the PDA system.

Previous study 2:

Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception

By Holger Mitterer1 and James M. McQueen


Listeners face difficulty in understanding unfamiliar regional accents of their native language, in part because the speech sounds of that particular accent match those of the language standard or listeners’ own accent wrongly. This kind of listening difficulty is magnified when the unfamiliar regional accent is in a different or foreign language. For listeners to cope better with foreign language, Holger Mitterer and James M. Mcqueen argued that subtitles of foreign language help. The reason is subtitles in the language of the film indicate which word is being spoken and hence, can boost speech learning about foreign speech sounds.

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Lexically Guided Learning:

Perceptual learning studies have shown that speech processing in listeners’ native language can be returned by their lexical knowledge, the knowledge on how words ought to sound. To be specific, listeners can learn to interpret an ambiguous phoneme on the basics of disambiguating lexical contexts. This study addresses whether this kind of perceptual learning aids listeners confronted with an unfamiliar foreign regional accent. The logic is subtitles indicate the words being spoken and could boost lexically-guided learning about foreign speech sounds. It was tested in a novel way whether subtitles can support learning unfamiliar regional accents in a foreign language. If so, this would suggest that subtitles help foreign speech understanding.

Experiment and Results:

Dutch participants were requested to watch videos containing unfamiliar accented second-language movies. They watched 25 minutes of video material with either strongly accented Australian English or strongly accented Scottish English. Different groups had English or Dutch or no subtitles. They were then asked to repeat excerpts from either Australian or Scottish materials. Repetition of novel fragments was worse after Dutch subtitles exposure but it was better after the exposure of English subtitles. Native language subtitles although appear to create lexical interference, foreign language subtitles assist speech learning by indicating which words are being spoken and hence boost speech learning.

Previous study 3:

Audiovisual Translation and Language Learning: The Promotion of Intralingual Subtitles

By Annamaria Caimi


Annamaria Caimi’s journal entitled ‘The Promotion of Intra-lingual Subtitles’ explains the two major functions of within-language subtitle, accessibility and didactic aids. Intra-lingual subtitling was defined as screen translation that involves the conversion of oral language into written language.

Functions of Subtitles:

Subtitles function as accessibility is for audiences who are deaf or have hearing problems. Vocal execution of acting and non-verbal sound cannot be heard by them. In this case, subtitles include descriptions like (a knock on the door) and (the door closes). This enables hearing impaired people to understand what is going on in films.

“When target viewers are deaf or hearing-impaired, subtitling is a mixed intra-semiotic and inter-semiotic type of audiovisual translation…”

(Annamaria Caimi, 2006, p.86)

The function of didactic aids is for those who are unfamiliar with the language spoken in films. Subtitles make these audiences able to grasp the words pronounced in films. It is an purposely combination of phonological expression of foreign language with its written subtitles to act as an aid for language perception. At times, subtitles are paraphrased for audiences of different cultures to make them understand better. Also, subtitles may simplify or omit certain portion of text due to insufficient space, speed of dialogues or subtitles duration.

In terms of language learning, it is shown that students who are given a pre-view of the vocabulary before watching the movie without subtitles once followed by with subtitles learn the most.

Film Review 1: Angels and Demons

“Angels and Demons” is a historical movie full with adventures and excitement. This movie adapts many historical knowledge and theories which are true, but presents it in another way, making the whole movie excruciating and unpredictable.

In the front part of this movie, the death of the Pope in Vatican occurred, followed by the kidnapping of the four cardinals who are the primary candidates to replace him. Robert Langdon who is asked for help soon finds out that the kidnapping is done by Illuminati, a former enemy of Renaissance-era Catholic Church. The Illuminati threatened to kill the four cardinals and blow up Vatican City with a stolen explosive called anti-matter. So Robert Langdon goes running around the city with Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) in search for the four cardinals and also the anti-matter. During the search, many symbols and histories are there to link the whole kidnapping case. It is like a treasure hunt movie, and it has this marvellous twist in the end, where the puppet master of the whole chaos is actually the person who saved Vatican from the fate of destruction.

Tom Hanks did a good job in playing the role of a symbologist who is desperate to save the four cardinals and also the city itself. Besides him, credit should also be given to Ewan McGregor, who acted as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna. Without his brilliant act, the whole twist in the end part of the story would not be so successful. He is indeed good in playing a character looks noble and innocent on the outside but not in the inside.

The great plot that contributed much to the success of this movie comes from the Dan Brown’s novel. Dan Brown has the ability to impress his readers as well as spectators of “Angels and Demons” The director Ron Howard did a great job too in making the pace of the movie just fast enough to make the spectators get the whole idea despite feeling the excitement of the movie. It is a movie that provides great entertainment.

Film Review 2: The man From earth

“The Man from Earth” is a science-fiction movie with no science-fiction stunts or scenes inside. To be more precise, it is a time travel movie that never travels through time where the story inside it revolves in different time zones without actually showing it.

This movie starts off with an impromptu goodbye of a well-liked college professor, John Oldman (David Lee Smith) after 10 years of teaching. John is surprised and touched when his colleagues gather around him before he leaves, which leads him to tell the truth that he is actually a cro-magnon who survived since the Palaeolithic, and now aged thousands years old. Then lots of questions from the colleagues who are intellectuals in their field start to appear, but all are answered by John easily, without any flaw. John’s theory is hard to believe. In the end, there is a scene that indicates that John’s theory is true in the movie, where his own son (Richard Riehle as Dr. Will Gruber) fainted, knowing that John is actually his father who left him many years ago.

The main actor, David Lee Smith remains calm the whole time in the movie, making it hard to tell that he is lying. There is one part where John reveals that he himself is actually Jesus Christ. This is where Edith (Ellen Crawford)’s great acting skill comes in. Edith is a Christian. When John’s theory overturns Edith’s perspective about her religion, she clearly shows her fear and also frustration. She is curious but afraid that she might lose faith in Jesus Christ, so she wanted to leave all the time. Ellen Crawford plays the role well too by showing us the desperation of a person who is about to lose faith in life.

Nevertheless, the ideas and notions presented in the film are interesting, all thanks to Jerome Bixby. The director (Richard Schenkman) should also be credited for this great film that is achieved wonderfully by cast and crew under a modest budget. This is a movie which shows extraordinary things in ordinary ways, it is a movie worth watching.


The movie “The Man from Earth” makes us understands better. “The Man from Earth” is an English movie using English and Chinese subtitle at the same time. When we cannot catch what the actors say, we are able to fully understand it by referring to the two kinds of subtitles provided.

Some may say that when two kinds of subtitles are provided instead of one, it can cause unnecessary confusion and distraction. That is also our initial perception, but after we watched the movie “The Man from Earth”, we found out that the perception is just a mere assumption that is not true at all. In the end, we agreed to the fact that when two kinds of subtitles are provided, it is much better than only giving a type. To be honest, we are not used to two kinds of subtitles in the first five minutes, but after that we found ourselves able to focus on different subtitles at different times to cater our own need to understand the movie. This is because both subtitles have their advantages in certain situation.

When watching a movie, everyone wants to fully understand it so that they can enjoy the movie to the fullest. The main problem that we face is we tend to lose track of what is being told in the movie, because we do not know the exact spelling and meaning of each and every word mentioned. This situation happens when we cannot follow the pace of the actor’s speech and when we run into a word that we never heard before or unfamiliar with. When we lose track of what one of the actors said, we may be leaving out important information that is crucial to link to the next scene in the movie. Then throughout the movie, there will be parts that we do not understand here and there, ruining the joy to watch the movie. This is when subtitles come into handy.

Firstly, the English subtitle shown is just the converting of speech of the actors into words. It preserves the originality and essence of the speech as it shows the exact words and phrase without changing anything in the context of the speech. Sometimes it is not that we do not understand English, but sometimes the actors speak too fast or speak of something which we never heard before like names of certain organization in the past. By referring to the English subtitle, we are able to catch what they say and indirectly understand the background of the story better. Nevertheless, the English subtitle below helps us to speed up our pace of understanding what is being said. The subtitle is very effective in giving us extra speed in understanding because when we combine what we hear and what we see, which are actually the same thing expressed differently, we will understand it much quicker if compared to using only one of the methods.

Besides helping us to catch up with what the actors say, English subtitle has other advantages. Sometimes we come across words that we do not know, or we may know the words but we are not sure of its spelling. By referring to the English subtitle, we can check the spelling of the words and better still, learn words that we never knew before. In this sense, the English subtitle can actually supply us with knowledge and also improve our vocabulary. Apart from having better understanding towards the words that are mentioned in the movie, we can be exposed to how they speak in certain countries and how they pronounce certain words. Their pronunciation will differ from ours and we can learn the correct way of pronouncing those words through them as English is their native language, not ours.

However, English subtitle cannot clear all of our doubts in the movie. What if we know the spelling of certain words but we do not understand what it means? It would be useless to read the English subtitle over and over again because no matter how many times you refer to it, you will only manage to get its spelling but not its meaning. So Chinese subtitle play an important role here, whereby it let us compare the two subtitles and guess the meaning out of it. When we do not know the meaning of one of the words in an English sentence, it will be easy for us to find out the meaning through the aid of Chinese subtitle. Of course, it is also important for the Chinese subtitle to be well structured. In some movies, when using subtitles of other language, the sentence formed is very awkward as they translate it word by word without considering the different way of expressing in different languages. This will result in confusing sentences that have to be rearranged to get the real meaning. In this case, the subtitle loses its function as it confuses the spectators more rather than helping them understand more.

In conclusion, by the aid of both subtitles we are able to understand the movie and thus evaluate the movie to make a film review out of it. The two subtitles have their own function and works best when they are used together.


On the whole, we think that the subtitles provided in movie do improve our English reading and writing skill. It enhances our vocabularies; make us understand the movie better. There are many evidences show that when students watch movies with English subtitles, their reading and writing skills show a great improvement. For example, in the movie, “Angels and Demons” and “The Man from Earth”, subtitles help us understand the plot better, as these movies contain a lot of foreign language as well as scientific, historic and religious terms such as Illuminati, preferiti, antimatter, Cro-Magnon, Palaeolithic, Hammurabi, and Resurrection; the subtitles help us to know what the actors and actresses say in the movie especially when they are using the American and Italian slangs which is quite difficult for Malaysians to understand unless we are able to cope with it.

However, too much reliance on subtitles does retard our speaking and listening ability. When we watch these movie, we will concentrate more on the subtitles thus we may miss some interesting scene of the movie. Moreover, when we are too concentrating on the subtitles provided, we will subconsciously neglect the audio part of the movie, where we will not listen the pronunciations of the words in the dialogue. Thus, this will retard our speaking ability as we didn’t know the word pronunciations well.

By considering all these pros and cons brought by subtitles, we should take into account whether we require subtitles to assist us when watching movie. What do you think about it? Without subtitles, can you understand the movie well? To ensure a balance development of reading, speaking, listening, and writing skills, should we watch the same movie twice, first without subtitle, and then again with subtitles?


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