My recent efforts at speaking French whilst in the French-speaking part of Switzerland mostly provoked derisory laughter from the natives, so I know all about difficulties with accent and pronunciation. According to a new study, I could benefit from watching French films with French, but not English, subtitles.
Like the boundaries between colours, the boundaries between verbal sounds (or “phonemes”) are somewhat arbitrary, and they can especially vary according to regional accent. Now the psycholinguists Holger Mitterer and James McQueen have shown that foreign-language subtitles can help us retune our perception of these phonetic boundaries thus aiding our comprehension of a foreign language spoken with an unfamiliar accent.
One hundred and twenty Dutch participants, proficient in both their native Dutch and English, watched either a 25 minute clip of the British film Trainspotting (featuring characters with strong Scottish accents) or a 25 minute clip from the Australian English sit-com Kath and Kim (featuring Australian accents). Half the participants had the benefit of Dutch subtitles whilst the others had English subtitles.
Afterwards the participants were played dozens of audio excerpts (without subtitles) from both earlier videos, plus novel excerpts not featured in the earlier videos, and their task was to repeat back the utterances as accurately as possible.
The key finding is that the participants who’d watched Trainspotting with English subtitles were subsequently much better at repeating back novel excerpts from that film than were participants who’d either watched the film with Dutch subtitles or watched Kath and Kim. In other words, just 25 minutes exposure to English spoken with a Scottish accent, plus English subtitles, allowed participants to retune their perception of the language’s sounds in line with the Scottish speakers. By contrast, Dutch subtitles actually impaired performance, interfering with participants’ ability to tune into the Scottish accent.
It was a similar story for participants who watched Kath and Kim – English subtitles helped them to tune into the Australian accent, whereas Dutch subtitles were a hindrance.
The researchers said their finding has important practical implications for people wishing to improve their recognition of a second language spoken with a regional accent. “It is often possible to select foreign subtitles on commercial DVDs,” they said. “So if, for example, an American speaker of Mexican Spanish wants to improve her understanding of European Spanish, we suggest that she should watch some DVDs of European Spanish films with Spanish subtitles.”
Mitterer, H., & McQueen, J. (2009). Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception PLoS ONE, 4 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007785