Using Subtitles to Learn a Language: Captions for ESL Students

August 24, 2023 BY REBECCA KLEIN

Discover the Benefits of Captioning and Transcription [Free Ebook]

What are the benefits of captions for ESL learners (English as a second or foreign language) and English language learners (ELLs)?

More than one in 10 of the nation’s approximately 50 million public school students speak a native language other than English, according to federal data.

These numbers grow steadily every year, meaning there are vast opportunities to help English language learners and ESL students succeed.

Traditional ESL classes provide a great foundation for basic vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and other linguistic features of a language. However, watching videos with captions or subtitles over the audio of native speakers is a great way for ESL students to improve vocabulary, pronunciation, and inflection and pick up on more nuanced features of English, such as slang terms, phrases, and colloquialisms.

Terminology 101 of Captions for ESL Learners and ELLs

First, let’s quickly clarify some key terminology:

  • Subtitles: time-synchronized text on a video that translates the spoken audio to another language
  • Dubbing: a voice-over or time-synchronized spoken audio translated into another language from that of the video, replacing the original speaker’s voice
  • Captions: time-synchronized text on a video in the same language as the spoken audio. Captions provide a textual transcript of a video’s dialogue, sound effects, and music.
  • Closed captions: captions that can be turned on and off
  • Open captions: captions that are “burned” into the video and cannot be turned off
Captions vs. Subtitles
Captions provide a textual transcript of a video’s dialogue, sound effects, and music and assume a viewer cannot hear the audio. Subtitles provide a textual translation of a video’s dialogue and typically assume the viewer can hear the audio but cannot understand the language being spoken.

English Captions Improve Language Retention

New ELLs listening to a native English speaker talk often find it difficult to identify which words are being spoken, how they are spelled, and in what order they are arranged (syntax). That’s why, for anyone learning a new language, it is extremely helpful to read the words one is hearing at the same time.

Even if the viewer cannot fully understand what they are reading on screen, captions can provide some helpful context, encouraging the viewer to stay engaged with the video. Time-synchronized captions focus the ELL’s attention on the words being spoken in real-time, which helps with the retention of vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and other valuable linguistic qualities one must understand to speak a language properly.

In 2009, a study conducted with Dutch ELLs concluded that watching English-language video content with English captions led to high scores after testing for aural word recognition, while watching English videos with Dutch subtitles led to lower scores on those tests. This suggests that reinforcing English speech with English text helps ELLs memorize spoken and written words in the language, leading to stronger vocabulary skills.

In 2016, a study conducted with a group of intermediate Spanish students of English as a foreign language watched an episode of a television show in its original English version with English, Spanish, or no subtitles overlaid. Before and after the viewing, participants took a listening and vocabulary test to evaluate their speech perception and vocabulary acquisition in English, plus a final plot comprehension test. The results of the listening skills tests revealed that after watching the English subtitled version, participants improved these skills significantly more than after watching the Spanish subtitled or no-subtitle versions.

 Learn more about the benefits of captioning and transcription ➡️ 

English Captions Help Students Decipher Accents and Dialects

Accents and dialects are another reason why captions for ESL students and ELLs can be beneficial.

Many Americans have difficulty understanding certain accents and dialects from places like the UK, Ireland, Australia, and other places where English is spoken. So, imagine what ESL learners have to go through in the same scenario.

Accents tend to go hand in hand with dialects—regionally-exclusive ways of speaking. Captions can help ELLs learn words and phrases from different dialects by helping them process the audio in the videos they watch.

In the previously mentioned study with Dutch ESL students, it was found that adding closed captions to videos with Scottish and Australian actors speaking in native accents and dialects helped the students identify the words spoken. Interestingly, it was also found that watching those same videos with Dutch subtitles diminished students’ success in word recognition:

If an English word was spoken with a Scottish accent, English subtitles usually told the perceiver what that word was, and hence what its sounds were. This made it easier for the students to tune in to the accent.

In contrast, the Dutch subtitles did not provide this teaching function, and, because they told the viewer what the characters in the film meant to say, the Dutch subtitles may have drawn the students’ attention away from the unfamiliar speech.

In 2008, an academic study involving 20 Chinese ESL students found that video content with captions helped students learn new words and expressions better than students who watched the same content without captions. Specifically, the study revealed that “the use of video plus captions can help students learn colloquial language [including] how and when native speakers use it.”

This means that by adding captions to their videos, English-speaking online video providers on YouTube and elsewhere can attract viewers anywhere in the world who want to improve their language skills and understand as much regionally-varied English as a native speaker.

The Easiest Way to Create YouTube Captions
3Play Media’s round-trip integration with YouTube provides an automated workflow for adding captions and subtitles. Your YouTube videos can be processed in a matter of hours, and captions will be automatically sent to YouTube and added to your videos. Learn more about YouTube captioning.

‘Subbing’ vs. ‘Dubbing’

If you’ve ever seen a foreign film in which the actors talk in a different language, it is either ‘dubbed’ or ‘subbed’ (subtitled) so that viewers can understand what is being said. Everyone has their preference, but for students of a second language, subbing tends to be much more helpful.

Subbing is better for ELLs because the translated text reinforces the speech, helping the viewer learn by encouraging them to match the foreign speech with words from their own language.

Hearing English speakers talk normally on video helps the viewer tune their ear to the unique sounds of spoken English, which is critical for learning a new language.

Other Benefits of Captions for ESL Learners and ELLs

  • Control: You can pause and rewind whenever necessary, so you can go to “ESL class” whenever you want!
  • Subject-specific vocabulary: Captions broaden vocabulary about specific subjects (e.g., YouTube videos about science, cooking, politics, business, pop culture, etc.)
  • Mouth movement: In most cases, you can watch the mouths of the person speaking, which helps with lip-reading and pronunciation of difficult sounds unique to a language
  • Situational context: Watching foreign films and TV shows with subtitles is great for understanding when to use formal or casual language and knowing when and when not to use certain words

Discover the benefits of captioning and transcription. Download the ebook.

This blog was originally published by Patrick Loftus in 2016 and has since been updated for accuracy, clarity, and comprehensiveness.

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