It’s Friday night, and my family and I are engaged in the rarest pastime – joint viewing. We’re firing up the latest episode of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” and we’re making sure we’ve turned on the subtitles. No one in our household is deaf. So why do we do it?
We are clearly not unique in our habits. In 2020, the British Communications Office published the results of a study which found that 18% of the population regularly use subtitles – but only 20% of viewers were deaf.
Home subtitling has been around for almost fifty years – the first show to introduce it was Julia Child’s “The French Chef”, back in 1972. In the early days, the service was considered only of interest to non-hearing viewers, who soon needed a special device for to access it. Over time, subtitle technology was built into television, and the last decade has led to more improvements in accessibility requirements for streaming services. It did not take long before the wider subtitling applications became clear.
Dr Richard Purcell, a British doctor and one of the founders of the caption company Caption.Ed, sees his company as a service to people “with and without hearing loss to improve their interaction with the media.”
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It is not surprising that turning on captions and integrating text with speech can help viewers learning a new language. It can also be helpful for children and adults to promote reading skills, making it an important tool for meeting today’s moments. As actor comedian Stephen Fry said in a recent video called “Turn on the Subtitles”, “the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that some children have actually taken a step back in literacy,” he tells us, “which is a concern and a tragedy. “Introducing reading to television is a painless way to try to move the needle. And by providing deeper contextual indications, captions can also help other types of viewers.
“People with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit and mild cognitive impairment may find higher levels of commitment and joy using closed captioning,” said Dr. Puja Uppal of the Think Healthy podcast. Subtitling, she says, “provides an immersive experience that correlates with higher levels of joy, satisfaction and retention.”
In 2018, Accalia Baronets wrote the same case from the perspective of such a viewer. “I do not understand body language at all,” she wrote. “It’s hard to focus on a show when there’s a lot of body language I do not understand. I have ADHD. Captions help me focus on what I’m watching.”
Dr. Stephen Christman, a cognitive psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, admits some more superficial pleasures in subtitling. “When I watch sporting events, I sometimes turn on subtitles so I can listen to music while still following the action,” he says. “Another trivial reason I’ve also taken part in is turning on subtitles to enjoy all the wonderful typos that appear.”
But he also notes the potential of subtitling for language learning, as well as other cognitive benefits. “We can read faster than we can talk,” he says. With closed captions, the viewer can quickly read the relevant dialogue and then turn their attention to the visual action and use their knowledge of what is being said – and what is about to be said – to increase their understanding of the non-verbal. / visual aspects of what is happening on the screen. “
In my own home, there are a number of reasons why we use the subtitles. My high school prefers a lower volume (and unfortunately for my middle-aged eyes, dimmer screen), so subtitling provides an effective compromise. My family likes to comment on the action, and talk straight across – and sometimes missing – key dialogue. We live in a city street that periodically erupts with sirens, music and quarrels, and captions allow us to stop all the screaming that happens outside. We appreciate the additional information that captions can provide, such as the name of a song playing in the background, or the distinction between[[[[applause]and[[[[polite applause].
But in my household, the appeal to subtitling goes beyond keeping peace. Like wired author Jason Kehe, who gave his own analysis of the boom in the caption back to 2018, I honestly sometimes do not get up what the people I look at say. Whether you’re a fan of the Christopher Nolan-era “Batman” movies or English reality shows, you sometimes need a little help. The first time a friend recommended “Derry Girls” to me, she warned, “Turn on the caption. You need them.” She was right.
There is also value outside my four walls. As legions of travelers and public space users know – or at least they did when we traveled and used public spaces – captions also make it easier to enjoy personal entertainment without potentially disturbing other people’s airspace. It may not be the IMAX experience to see “Gladiator” on the phone on a crowded train with captions, but it’s an undeniably convenient way to be entertained without bothering the person next to you.
Subtitling has its limitations. It can really ruin a great punchline or exciting twist, making it ill-suited to anything that depends on surprise. It can be annoying when it is poorly executed and full of errors. Yet for many of us, it is a welcome improvement regardless of hearing ability.
Still, the caption I like the most is the type I still can not have. I look forward to being in a packed bar again one weekend afternoon, various sporting events broadcasting from each end of the room, and over the sound of the audience, the reassuring flicker of descriptive words during the action.