Friday, September 21, 2012

Language, Cinema and Subtitles

Music doesn’t do it, unless you count opera and world music, and even they usually only give you access to fanciful phrases in Italian and German, or the stylized clichés common to love songs. Literature doesn’t do it, unless you’re one of those rare creatures who read parallel texts: the original next to the translation. Theatre doesn’t do it. The graphic arts don’t do it. Only cinema does it. Only cinema connects you to the world’s peoples and their multiplicity of voices, their strange sounds and cadences, their alien realities. Subtitles are such a miraculous boon to the world that people who don’t make regular use of them to find out about their fellow man should really be regarded as peculiar Luddites, akin to those who refuse to travel in vehicles with internal combustion engines.

Of course because of the global dominance of Hollywood films, outside the English-speaking world nearly all people, educated or not, do encounter subtitles on a regular basis. I live in Thailand and here the most popular movies are American not Thai. In cinemas most people watch the ‘soundtrack’ version, whilst cable TV has hundreds of subtitled English-language films and TV programs every week. It’s a similar situation in most Asian and continental European countries that I know of, and probably in the rest of the world too. Dubbed versions often exist as well, but the quality of the dubbing is often so poor – the voices so false and inexpressive- that it puts most people off.

Meanwhile in Britain, the US and other English-speaking countries, 80 or 90% of people never go near a subtitle. This imbalance mirrors that of general foreign-language learning. Whilst most young people in countries like Holland, Sweden and Malaysia learn English to a high level, and most young people in countries like South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand learn enough to have a basic conversation by the age of 20, 90% of our adolescents can’t put one sentence together in French, German or any other language. Whilst anyone who’s anyone in any Asian country probably studied abroad and speaks fluent English as well as their own language, our business leaders and politicians are often sadly monolingual and thus crucially blind to the existence of other realities outside their own subjective ones.

Maybe all schools in English-speaking countries should make teenaged students watch two or three foreign movies every week. I’d be happy to make up a list of age-appropriate films that would expose their impressionable young ears to a bit of Japanese, a bit of French, a bit of Romanian, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, German, Korean and Swedish. So much of natural language-learning- i.e. the way we all pick words up as children- is passive, and merely to have these teenagers in the same room as these sounds would probably do some good. They wouldn’t actually start speaking the language of course, but they’d be made more aware of other realities. You never know, it might even have a humanizing effect: being properly aware of another language tends to reduce your ability to act like you know it all, and make you face up to the fact that you know very little.

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