Is it possible to learn a language watching films? Are movie subtitles necessary?
How many language-learning methods are there? Truly countless. Cada maestrillo con su librillo, is an old Spanish saying that proves that each teacher, from time immemorial, has her own, best and proven teaching and learning method.
I have often heard that Spain’s addiction to film dubbing is responsible for the lack of proficiency in foreign languages, which also proves that excuses abound as much as teaching methods.
In Spain doblaje, film dubbing, has been a long standing, flourishing industry. The historical lack of foreign language proficiency led to script translations and dubbing, performed by actors known as voice artists or, better, voice actors, now known as actores de doblaje.
Hollywood started early and got on the dubbing bandwagon in the nineteen thirties, in order to better sell its productions. Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), the Spanish film director worked for the dubbing department of Warner Brothers from 1942 to 1946. After that he moved to Mexico and produced and directed great films like El ángel exterminador. Mexico also dubbed many films for the South American market.
Proponents of original versions argue that people will become proficient in foreign languages willy-nilly, explaining that subtitles are more than enough to understand a foreign film. Not really. Portugal and many South American countries show only film versions in the original language, and the expertise in spoken English, for example, is not relevant. The question is even moot.
Subtitles create a problem, a drawback that cannot be overcome: reading is a slow process and most of the time the viewer-reader is unable to finish a line before another is printed on the screen, often at a breakneck speed. In order to bypass this, dialogs are clipped and shortened and the audience end up losers, having to make do with a digest, the bare bones of the script and dialog. The Japanese samurai enters the scene, wielding a katana, and shouts for a few minutes. The subtitle reads: “Don’t move!” Surely, he must have said more than that, or else he suffers from logorrhea.
Another snag is that the viewer-reader becomes more of a reader than a viewer. No matter how fast a reader he might be, the viewer may only be able to watch the characters, and see what they look like, in scenes where they are French kissing passionately, or making love and uttering sexy sounds. In such cases there is no need to read subtitles. The rest of the time the moviegoer is busy reading.
I do not believe in language multitasking and have always considered it an impossibility although many argue against my stand, usually monolinguists, of course. When reading subtitles in Spanish I cannot listen to the English dialog, and when listening to the English words, I am unable to read. And further, if I watch the ravishing Jennifer López on the screen, I miss her words in the written translation. It is either one or the other. We just can’t have the cake and eat it too.
If the film is dubbed in, we understand everything, however we lose a lot. Example: When we hear José Ferrer in the movie Cirano de Bergerac, in the dubbed Spanish version, we are watching José Ferrer, sword in hand, moving about, but the voice belongs to someone else. So, when people tell me that Humphrey Bogart was a great actor in Casablanca, my stomach turns. In Spain people see Bogart but they hear someone else, a Spaniard pretending to sound like Bogart would sound if Bogart spoke good Spanish. Crazy. Utterly crazy.
The other day I watched a German in the original version film on TV. I missed 85 percent of the dialog but with the remaining fifteen percent I was able to follow the plot and hear the actors speak their language. And a lot of forgotten words and expressions came back to me.
I am against dubbing or translating movies made in cultured European languages: Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese… The rest (Yiddish, Japanese, Cantonese, Quechua, Russian, Swedish…) could be subtitled… and with this controversial parting shot, I rest my case.