Subtitles and Language Learning

Principles, strategies and practical experiences

by Yves Gambier (Volume editor) Annamaria Caimi (Volume editor) Cristina Mariotti (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 352 Pages


This book is meant to provide a scientific and educational guide for researchers, language professionals and students of applied linguistics. The collected articles incorporate past and recent research on the use of subtitles as foreign language learning tools, and describe some interesting teaching/learning experiences carried out by university scholars and school teachers to test the effects of subtitles/subtitling in tutored or untutored foreign language learning contexts.
It provides examples with didactic feedback on the use of interlingual, intralingual and reversed subtitled audiovisuals from the early eighties up to 2013. The opportunities offered by such multimodal, inter-semiotic learning aids are acknowledged to facilitate self-study and promote digital literacy, yet the pedagogical context, be it physical or virtual, always plays a prominent psychological role which affects foreign language acquisition.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Content
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Thirty Years of Research into Captions/Same Language Subtitles and Second/Foreign Language Learning: Distinguishing between ‘Effects of’ Subtitles and ‘Effects with’ Subtitles for Future Research
  • Subtitling as a Language Learning Tool: Past Findings, Current Applications, and Future Paths
  • Subtitles and Language Learning (SLL): Theoretical Background
  • A Survey on Stakeholders’ Perceptions of Subtitles as a Means to Promote Foreign Language Learning
  • Bringing the SLL Project to Life: Engaging Spanish Teenagers in Learning While Watching Foreign Language Audiovisuals
  • ClipFlair: Foreign Language Learning through Interactive Revoicing and Captioning of Clips
  • First Insights into the Combination of Dubbing and Subtitling as L2 Didactic Tools
  • Speech Segmentation in a Second Language: The Role of Bi-modal Input
  • Incidental Language Learning through Subtitled Cartoons: Is it Possible in a Dubbing Country?
  • Reversed Subtitles as a Powerful Didactic Tool in SLA
  • Subtitling in Language Teaching: Suggestions for Language Teachers
  • Multimodal Subtitling – A Medical Perspective
  • Subtitling and Language Awareness: A Way and Ways
  • Caught Red-Handed? : Teaching Foreign Idioms with a ‘Visual Head’ in Subtitled Cartoons
  • Author Biographies


Annamaria Caimi and Cristina Mariotti wish to express their gratitude towards Yves Gambier, who has been helpful well beyond the call of duty providing much needed intellectual advice. ← 7 | 8 →


← 8 | 9 →




On the occasion of the international conference ‘Subtitles and Language Learning’, held in Pavia from 13 to 14 September 2012, a group of participants, expert in the field, shared the idea to publish a scientific and educational guide on the same subject. Yves Gambier and the two organizers of the conference, Annamaria Caimi and Cristina Mariotti, took on the responsibility to collect and edit a variety of articles in line with the original idea.

The aim of this book is to offer an overview of updated research experiences on the use of subtitled audiovisuals in formal and informal foreign language learning contexts. In the early ‘80s some enlightened foreign language teachers such as Karen Price, chose to experiment with the use of subtitled films or TV programmes for educational purposes. The successful results achieved by Price1 and reported in her seminal paper may be reckoned as the flying start of a series of studies and experimental research carried out by applied linguists, translation scholars and foreign language teachers at an international level. In fact, subtitled audiovisuals turned out to be in keeping with the rapid advancements of digital technology, which favoured their widespread diffusion. Applied linguists and translation scholars investigated the acquisition potential of this newly acquired didactic aid by monitoring the learners’ reactions and analyzing their feedback in an ever-growing number of didactic experiments conducted both in the classroom and through the net with self-taught learners. Based on evidence from several studies, the practice of watching subtitled videos turned out to be adaptable to all second language learners’ levels with the main objective of enhancing their receptive skills. As a consequence, the European Commission agency EACEA (Education, Audiovisual & Culture Executive Agency), which is responsible for the promotion of multilingualism, started funding a number of lifelong learning projects on the use of subtitles, some of which are mentioned in the following. ← 9 | 10 →

The studies included in this volume represent a bridge between the past and future use of subtitled AV (Audiovisuals) for language learning as they bring together the state of the art and the most recent trends in this field of research. At the dawn of the second millennium, Audiovisual Translation (AVT) and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) bring about new synergies and lead to the creation of virtual communities encouraging self-tailoring of learning strategies and the social dimension of learning. Moreover, the onset of digital television and the passing of broadcasting laws in several European countries has provided viewers with the possibility of watching programmes in the original version with closed captions, thus paving the way to digital and visual literacy. At the same time, thanks to the revival of translation as a precious language learning activity, researchers and teachers involved in experiments with subtitled audiovisuals realized that the active translation of these didactic aids, both in the form of subtitling and dubbing, could be a motivating collaborative activity for intermediate and advanced language learners. Finally, recent studies confirm that subtitling promotes the integration of communicative activities and skills, and can also be considered a way of building identities because it enhances the socio-cultural dimension of learning foreign languages, it encourages learner autonomy, and it fosters a vision of learners as language users and social actors.

1. The contents of the book

The essays are divided into sections, and they provide a variety of scientific insights and practical experiences validated by the authors’ long-term theoretical, pedagogical and experimental knowledge in the field of audiovisual translation and its multifaceted role in foreign language learning contexts. In particular, the contributions focus upon the development of recent practices and methods applied both to the use of built-in subtitles, especially useful for receptive skills, and to subtitling, that is the translation or the creation of subtitles to promote productive skills.

The first section presents comprehensive articles which investigate the relationship between subtitles and language learning based on the results obtained by prominent researchers in the course of the last 30 years. ← 10 | 11 → The reader will benefit from historical references as well as the personal scientific and practical experiences of the authors. The editors’ objective is to offer a state-of-the-art presentation of the learning opportunities offered by these types of multimodal, inter-semiotic learning aids.

Robert Vanderplank’s article goes through the stages of the research on the use of subtitles for foreign language learning purposes that developed throughout the ‘80s and the beginning of the second millennium. It may be considered a state-of-the-art outline that summarizes the advancement of theoretical and applied studies and advocates new research-paths, especially in favour of informal learners. Multimedia technology has changed the way of communicating and the growing number of skilled interactive users have also become independent learners and many of them want to study foreign languages. Among the subtitling modes, interlingual or standard subtitles (audio L2 and subtitles L1) are more suitable for leisure viewing, because they help learners to identify the meaning of unfamiliar L2 words they are likely to miss during their listening activity. Conversely, bimodal subtitles (audio L2 and subtitles L2) help learners to identify the connection between spoken and written words. That is why they facilitate vocabulary intake and listening comprehension in motivated learning contexts. Research on reversed subtitles (audio L1 and subtitles L2) turned out to foster L2 acquisition also in terms of language structure, but the learners need to be highly motivated to work on this language combination. The large number of experiments mentioned by Vanderplank are mainly teacher-guided ones, but in the wake of studies on autonomous self-instructed learners, carried out in Brighton, Barcelona, Strasbourg and Brazil, the author advocates the development of effective strategies suited to the increasing number of this type of learner by means of intralingual subtitled audiovisual didactic tools.

Martine Danan is a well-known scholar who has done in-depth research on subtitling and the use of the three subtitle modes: interlingual or standard subtitles (L2 audio and L1 subtitles), captions or intralingual, unilingual and bimodal subtitles (L2 audio and L2 subtitles), reversed subtitles (L1 audio and L2 subtitles) to facilitate formal and incidental language learning. Her precious contribution to this collection offers a comprehensive overview of studies on subtitling from the early ‘80s up to now. She carefully explains the benefits of these types of audiovisual translation in L2 learning contexts and stimulates the reader by ← 11 | 12 → positing a variety of linguistic and pedagogical questions about the many beneficial effects identified by a lot of short quantitative experiments. Last, but not least, Danan highlights the importance of analyzing the mental processes by which the three-dimensional audiovisual input (image, sound and subtitles) is elaborated by individual learners. In order to comprehend and establish a hierarchy of the complex variables that come into play in the language learning process, Danan suggests that experts in this field should also engage in longitudinal and qualitative studies to understand how different learners benefit from subtitles over time and how to integrate subtitling effectively in language learning programmes. Some interesting reflections on EU projects and recommendations to promote multilingualism by means of audiovisual tools conclude Danan’s contribution.

Contributions from recent EU projects on Subtitles and Language Learning are grouped in a subsection, which is meant to highlight the commitment of the European Commission to fostering multilingualism by means of subtitled multimodal and multimedia foreign language learning tools. The theoretical guidelines of such projects are usually set by distinguished scholars, whereas class experiences are described by the teachers themselves.

Yves Gambier’s article describes and comments on the main features of a project (2009–2012) on Subtitles and Language Learning (SLL) funded by EACEA – Education, Audiovisual & Culture Executive Agency of the European Commission. The partners of the project recruited informants among language teachers and learners both from formal and non-formal language learning contexts, with a view to investigating the learning potential of subtitled audiovisuals and to confirm to what extent subtitles can enhance foreign language learning and foster motivation. Learners in formal contexts attended courses based on subtitled audiovisuals to learn a target language, whereas learners in nonformal contexts used audiovisuals on their own to reach the same goal. This made it possible to gather information about the learning strategies of a multifaceted population of informants taking into consideration both incidental and intentional second language acquisition variables. Questionnaires were used to collect detailed statistical information but, according to the author, it was clear in advance that the answers would provide only tendencies of the possible positive effects of subtitled audiovisuals on SLL. In fact Gambier points out that it is impossible to take into account all the psycho-social, cultural and pedagogic parameters ← 12 | 13 → because it is utopian to define the ideal situation and learning method with 100% accuracy. After sketching out the major fields of inquiry tackled by the partners of the project, he concludes observing that the pedagogical context and the relation with the learners may be more important than the technological aids which can be used to facilitate SLL. He suggests that instead of asking whether it is possible to learn a foreign language by watching subtitled audiovisuals, it would be better to identify the best methods and techniques that may improve the learning potential of subtitled audiovisuals and to observe and describe their positive effects on second language acquisition. The author ends his report by wondering whether it is worth promoting the use of subtitled audiovisuals in all foreign language learning contexts or whether they should be used specifically by learners who already know one or two foreign languages and have also acquired some familiarity with subtitles. Gambier’s conclusions should stimulate researchers to pursue new investigations in this field of study.

Cristina Mariotti’s article provides a detailed explanation of how the project introduced by Gambier was carried out, highlighting the pros and cons of its theoretical and experimental structure. The data gathered from the questionnaires show that in formal language learning contexts teachers consider subtitles a well-established supplement to the activities of the foreign language classroom, and useful mainly to improve listening comprehension, vocabulary retention and pronunciation. Formal learners also gave positive feedback on listening, which emerged as the skill they improved the most watching subtitled audiovisuals, but a significant number of students complained about the differences between what is written in the subtitles and what is said in the rapid flow of dialogues, which to most students is too fast to be fully understood. Learners in non-formal settings were mostly in favour of L2 audio with L1 subtitles, but a considerable number of those who really wanted to learn the target language privileged foreign language audio with foreign subtitles. Reversed subtitles were overall the least appreciated combination by all types of learners. In her discussion of the results of the questionnaires, Mariotti confirms Gambier’s assumption that motivation is the process that sustains all the learners who said they enjoyed the SLL experience. They acknowledged that subtitles facilitate language acquisition and consequently they said they would continue watching subtitled audiovisuals by themselves. Mariotti concludes by asserting that, thanks to the ever-growing accessibility of subtitled ← 13 | 14 → audiovisuals it might be worth repeating the experience of a project on subtitles and language learning. She suggests that it would be essential to meet the requirements of teachers who ask researchers for pedagogical and methodological guidelines in order to exploit all the learning potentials of subtitles and extend them also to written comprehension and production.

Stavroula Sokoli, another very active and motivated partner of the above-mentioned project, describes a work in progress, which she is coordinating with a group of researchers and whose description is welcomed as a valuable contribution to this publication. ClipFlair, in the wake of LeVis project, is a user-friendly web platform where learners are asked to become subtitlers and dubbers by translating the dialogues or revoicing the soundtrack of video clips. Thus, learners become active viewers, and in addition to carrying out activities that enhance their receptive skills, such as listening and reading, they are also called to improve their oral and written productive skills. The introduction of the second type of activities is in line with the most recent uses of audiovisuals in multilingual learning contexts. The detailed description of this internet-based project and the technical framework that characterizes it make ClipFlair a tool that can be adopted by all those who want to learn a foreign language and at the same time feel the need to consolidate their interactive digital skills.

The fourth article of the sub-section reports the experience of two Spanish school teachers of English as a foreign language, coordinated by Patrick Zabalbeascoa (also a member of the above-mentioned SLL research team). It describes a practical implementation of the SLL project carried out in Barcelona with groups of students between the ages of 13 and 16 who are perfectly bilingual since they can speak Spanish and Catalan. The two Spanish teachers confirm that students’ motivation is paramount for successful learning, especially when the learning support, in this case subtitled audiovisuals, is disguised as a recreational activity. Sara González and Rebeca Pascual provide a detailed description of the activities they chose, in order to make students practice the four traditional skills, plus the understanding of cultural elements which is referred to as the fifth skill. They explain the activities they experimented with in their classes and the students’ feedback in different situations.

The third section is devoted to the most recent studies of researchers who share a scientific approach based on accurate statistical data. ← 14 | 15 →

Noa Talaván and José Ávila-Cabrera report on an interesting didactic experience they carried out by means of an online collaborative experiment with a group of formal learners and a group of informal learners. It is now common practice that such experimental projects must be validated by tests and questionnaires administered at the beginning and at the end of the set period. This is also the case of Talaván and Ávila-Cabrera’s experiment which is supported by a professional quantitative and qualitative examination to assess the learning potential deriving from the translation of subtitled or dubbed video-clips. Their research is backed up by recent publications on active subtitling and active dubbing. Such scientific pre-requisites motivate and substantiate their choice of making their students tackle the translation of reversed subtitling and reversed dubbing to benefit from the multimodal input of audiovisuals.

The article written by Tenday Charles and Danijela Trenkic provides a clear and comprehensive example of one of the many advantages offered by the combination of watching, listening and reading same-language subtitled videos to facilitate L2 listening comprehension. The authors conducted an in-depth research restricted only to bimodal subtitles (referred to in the literature also with the terms intralingual, same-language subtitles or captions). They considered listening comprehension from a psychological as well as from a foreign language learning education perspective and conducted two experiments with groups of foreign university students in the UK. The aim of their study was to collect scientific data on the influence of bimodal input on second language listening comprehension as well as on how and to what extent bimodal presentation of input can help learners in L2 segmentation of speech. The results of this very interesting case study are stimulating not only for researchers, but also for teachers, who can complement their L2 listening comprehension activities by watching intralingual subtitled videos, and for informal learners, who can practice the same activity in front of their television set or their PC.

Anna Marzà and Gloria Torralba offer a well-balanced and documented report on a field-test, carried out with groups of Spanish school children (from 9 to 12), to assess the foreign language learning potential of interlingual subtitled cartoons. This is another interesting proposal for teachers and learners which offers technical and scientific insights concerning children’s subtitle acceptability and readability in a dubbing context. After the viewing activity the children had to write a self-report ← 15 | 16 → survey that was later discussed with the teacher. The experiment fostered incidental language learning and vocabulary acquisition, and it promoted multicultural values.

In Paulina Burczyńska’s article, three groups of adult students were monitored during an L2 learning experiment based on the reversed translation of subtitles in a Polish language school. Qualitative and quantitative research methods were introduced to assess the learners’ cognitive and linguistic feedback. This experience shows that the creation of reversed subtitles (L1 soundtrack and L2 subtitles) helps students to practice grammar structures, to spell words correctly, to enrich vocabulary intake and memorize complex and unknown words, thus improving the quality of their essay writing. All these valuable linguistic goals are a result of the synergy between Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and audiovisual translation. Learning through multimedia may also help learners to stimulate prior knowledge and connect it to new information, by selecting relevant images and words. The many advantages of this type of screen translation for learning purposes is richly documented by a specialized bibliography and the author confirms that a paramount advantage of screen translation is provided by the students working in groups, which increases the entertainment factor.

The fourth and last section presents a series of classroom-based studies that provide further data on the way subtitled audiovisuals affect language learning. This section is particularly useful for foreign language teachers who wish to fully exploit the learning potential of audiovisuals with their learners.

Jennifer Lertola’s contribution is based on the translation of subtitles as an L2 learning activity. She introduces the subject by offering an interesting diachronic overview of research on subtitles as foreign language learning aids and then provides some suitable activities for the learners and ad hoc material to be used by the teachers. Her experiment is based on the interlingual translation activity (L2 second language sound-track and L1 mother tongue subtitles), though she points out that translation is variably present in intralingual as well as reversed subtitles. She comments on the linguistic and sociolinguistic aspects that distinguish different cultures which emerge during the activity of translating subtitles. Detailed documentation of learners’ feedback is carefully reported together with the author’s satisfaction about what can be defined as a serious and effective experiment. ← 16 | 17 →

Since present-day university students belong to the digital generation, Deirdre Kantz emphasizes the importance of digital literacy to channel students towards ground-breaking L2 learning goals. Her case-study reports on a multimodal course of English as a foreign language for students of Dentistry at Pavia University. One innovative task students had to perform was to add the translation of subtitles to short socio-medical films. The subtitling activity made students reflect on the textual organisation of the script and the free interpretation of the text to be translated. As a result, subtitles were not in keeping with standardized rules, and each student used different subtitling solutions. In such teaching-learning context, Kantz says, mistakes were accepted because the ultimate goal of the translation activity was to stimulate creativity, innovation, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. This original experiment proved useful for medicine students because subtitling also facilitated the comparison of an Italian scientific text with an English one.

Lucilla Lopriore and Maria Angela Ceruti give an account of a teaching-learning experiment with a group of post-graduate students, whose task was to translate subtitles of documentaries from the L2 (English) into their L1 (Italian). Students were required to report on this foreign-language learning experience in terms of translation choices and difficulties encountered. As in Kantz’s experiment, the translation of subtitles led to different types of student feedback. This article shows that learning to use a foreign language by means of a multimodal text is a multisensory experience that provides useful linguistic insights, consolidates language awareness and promotes noticing activities.

The experiment carried out by John Sanderson is based on an entertaining way of teaching idioms to L2 students. The inter-semiotic nature of audiovisual segments of intralingual subtitled cartoons favours the disambiguation of idioms, proverbs and the like by means of the simultaneous reception of elements that convey literal and figurative meanings, through visual, auditory and written channels. Moreover, metaphorical structures, which are usually based on the tradition of a given culture, are more easily memorized because the disambiguation of the language in the written text is clarified by the context. The context is represented by the visual description of the cartoon storyline which, more often than not, enables the learner-viewer to read, between the actions of the characters, the literal meaning of the subtitled metaphor. This is the guiding principle of ← 17 | 18 → Sanderson’s research to encourage the learning of figures of speech by watching intralingual subtitled segments of cartoons.

Readers can now choose to go through the pages of the articles according to their interests and scientific or experimental priorities, and maybe draw inspiration for further research projects. ← 18 | 19 →


1   Price, Karen. 1983. “Closed-captioned TV: An untapped resource.” MATSOL Newsletter 12 (2): 1–8.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (October)
didactic feedback self-study digital literacy
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 352 pp.

Biographical notes

Yves Gambier (Volume editor) Annamaria Caimi (Volume editor) Cristina Mariotti (Volume editor)

Yves Gambier is Full Professor in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Turku, Finland. He has published more than 180 articles and edited or co-edited 22 books about audiovisual translation, translation theory, language policy and language planning. Annamaria Caimi is Associate Professor of English at Pavia University, Italy. She has done research in English for Specific Purposes (ESP) and the use of subtitles in language learning. She edited the volume Cinema: Paradiso delle Lingue. Cristina Mariotti is Assistant Professor of English at Pavia University, Italy. She has done research in English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) and the use of subtitles in language learning. She is the author of Interaction Strategies in English-medium Instruction.


Title: Subtitles and Language Learning
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354 pages