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Can Interlingual Subtitles be More Effective than Intralingual Ones? 

By Khloud Mohammed 


Audiovisual media has become an increasingly prominent factor in people’s lives, making it a convenient tool to use when trying to acquire a second language (L2). The way in which that can be done is through the use of subtitles, which “provide just-in-time written lexical information that can help disambiguate and parse phonemic information” (Birulés-Muntané & Soto-Faraco, 2016)of an L2when intralingual, or simply provide translations in a viewer’s first language (L1) in order to assist with meaning and comprehension when interlingual. This paper discusses the effects of subtitles on the process of acquiring a second language, while attempting to find an answer to the question of the effectiveness of interlingual subtitles over intralingual subtitles when L2 uses a different script from that of a learner’s L1.


When increasing amounts of claims that second language acquisition (SLA) was possible using subtitled audiovisual media first appeared, studies upon studies were conducted, and papers upon papers were written in order to find out whether or not those claims were valid. Such was the case in a paper by Ina (2014), in which the author hypothesised that SLA could incidentally happen as a result of exposure to subtitled audiovisual media. The study was conducted on a group of Greek students who were asked to watch an Italian cartoon with Greek subtitles before being tested on their degree of L2 acquisition. Eventually, the results presented by this study, among several others, concluded that subtitles were, indeed, effective in the process of SLA. This is because subtitled media involves at least three different channels of input (Ina, 2014); in addition, the lexical component paired with the audiovisual one enables the mind to create links that aid in the processing of information. Furthermore, findings indicate that subtitles do not create distractions (Ina, 2014), and given that studies such as those of Webb and Rodgers (2009) indicate that viewers can acquire an L2 by simply engaging with an audiovisual channel that uses it, subtitles are more likely to further enhance this process of acquisition (2009).


Upon discovering the potential effects subtitles can have on the process of SLA, subtitling became a subject that required further exploration, which in turn caused more questions to arise. Having been a tool used to aid the deaf and hard-of-hearing before becoming a subject of interest in SLA studies, subtitles were mainly used as intraligual captions, while most audiovisual channels opted for dubbing, in which the original soundtrack in a specific language is entirely removed. For this reason, the peak of the psycholinguistic field’s interest in subtitling resulted in investigations that questioned the effectiveness of its different forms, namely intralingual and interlingual, which involve the display of text in the L2 and the L1, respectively.


In a paper by Birulés-Muntanéand Soto-Faraco(2016), the question of whether or not someone can truly acquire a second language using subtitles is raised and discussed. With the incentive that there was no solid proof for people’s assumption that perception skills in non-English speakers would improve through the perceptual learning of the sounds of an L2, the authors set out to “test the potential learning effects” (p.1) that would occur from watching subtitled audiovisual media. This was done by conducting a study that involved a group of Spanish students at an intermediate level of knowledge of English, testing them on their English listening skills and vocabulary both before and after exposure to subtitled media, adding a plot comprehension test after and comparing the results. Interestingly, the results concluded that subtitles were, indeed, effective in the process of Second Language acquisition, noting that the most significant improvements occurred in the listening aspect of the study after exposure to intralingual subtitles (2016).


In another study by Loing (2010), more emphasis was placed on the question of the effectiveness of one type of subtitling over the other (i.e. interlingual over intralingual or vice versa). The study was conducted on native Dutch speakers with knowledge of the English language in order to test their ability to acquire a new L2 that they had no prior knowledge of (Indonesian) solely using the subtitles offered for the study, with the hypothesis that the intralingual subtitles offered in the L2 would be more effective than their interlingual counterparts offered in the participants’ L1. Supporting this hypothesis, the results of this study concluded that the development of new language-learning methods using intralingual subtitles would be more beneficial and effective than the development of such methods using interlingual subtitles (2010).


The former two studies mentioned are not the only ones to present the argument that intralingual subtitles are more effective than interlingual subtitles in the process of SLA, however. Other studies conducted by Mitterer and McQueen (2009), Bird and Williams (2002) and Borras and Lafayette (1994), have all shown findings that led to the same conclusions as their aforementioned counterparts. Despite this, other studies have presented opposing results, one of which is a study conducted by Markham and Peter (2003). In a paper attempting to further investigate the effects of the different types of subtitles on L2 learners, a study was conducted on English speaking students studying Spanish as a foreign language at an intermediate university-level. In the study, the participating groups were asked to watch a 7-minute DVD episode in Spanish with different subtitle options before taking a listening comprehension test. The results of this study concluded that the group exposed to interlingual (English) subtitles performed better than the one exposed to intralingual (Spanish) subtitles, who in turn performed better than the one exposed to no subtitles at all.


Therefore, looking at the results of the previously mentioned studies, it comes as no surprise that the effectiveness of either type of subtitling over the other continues to be investigated. The general consensus among the psycholinguists who have studied this issue, however, is that intralingual subtitles are more effective than interlingual subtitles in the process of SLA. According to Birules-Muntane and Soto-Faraco (2016), intralingual subtitles provide lexical information which allows listeners to link sounds with known word spellings, resulting in “better decoding of speech input” (p. 2), while also helping in the segmentation of words (through the revelation of word boundaries) and the unification of accent variations. However, most studies claiming intralingual subtitles are more effective than their interlingual counterparts tend to focus on aspects of listening skills and vocabulary while acknowledging the fact that interlingual subtitles have been proven to be more effective when it comes to plot comprehension.


For this reason, it is understandable that the study conducted by Markham and Peter presents what seem to be exceptional results, for the focus of their study was directed on plot comprehension. Of course, the notion of a learner understanding a plot better when presented with lexical information in their own language (L1) is understandable, considering their ability to understand and process the information they are presented with at a much quicker speed, and with considerably less effort. In fact, results such as the ones presented in that study become supporting evidence to papers similar to that of Kruger and Steyn (2013), in which the effects of subtitle reading on academic performance are studied.


In their paper, Kruger and Steyn (2013), investigated their hypothesis that subtitle reading can have a positive effect on academic performance using an eye tracking experiment with a sample of students who were second-language English speakers studying in English. The material provided for the participants involved recorded lectures delivered in English that were provided to the groups either with or without intralingual subtitles. Those who were exposed to the subtitles were the ones whose eyes movements were tracked and recorded, and the students were all tested on their comprehension. Supporting their hypothesis, the results showed that students who read the subtitles performed better than those who did not, thus proving that subtitles were not only effective in Second Language Acquisition, but also fundamentally in language processing and understanding.


However, looking back at the studies mentioned in this paper, a common theme can be seen amongst them, and it is that they all have conducted studies involving languages that used the same script. In fact, most papers investigating the effects of subtitles on the process of SLA, as well as those questioning effectiveness of the different types of subtitling on the process describe studies that are conducted in the same manner. Therefore, studies conducted in this particular style is acceptable for the investigation of the former subject but not suitable for the latter. When it comes to the investigation of the two different types of subtitles discussed in this paper, putting them against each other requires taking several matters into account, perhaps the most important of which is script. However, while the studies previously mentioned did mention the different factors that may have interfered with their observations, script is the factor they, along with many others, have failed to mention and account for. 


The reason why script may be the most important factor to take into consideration when studying the effects of different types of subtitling is that it puts forward the implication of time, along with that of literacy. To elaborate, when a learner is trying to acquire a new language using subtitles, the speed at which lexical information they are exposed to is processed depends on their familiarity with the symbols they are seeing. Given the nature of audiovisual productions, subtitles come in the form of lexical information that rapidly appears and disappears on the screen. Therefore, when this information is relatively unfamiliar to the learner compared to that of their L1, they tend to face difficulties, for the processing of the information they are presented with requires more time, which they can only gain by pausing the media they are watching. Not only can this be tedious and time consuming for a learner, but it can also result in the failure to acquire their target L2 due to different script systems’ weakness in the aspect of literacy. For these reasons, this paper presents the following proposal for a study that takes script differences into account.


I am interested in the effectiveness of subtitles in audiovisual channels as a tool for Second Language Acquisition. This far, it is clear that with limited knowledge of the target language, viewers can understand and learn a second language (L2) by simply engaging with an audiovisual channel from that language. Furthermore, intralingual subtitles provided in said channels have been proven to aid in the process of acquiring a second language. In this paper, I would like to present a proposal for a study attempting to answer the following question:

Are interlingual subtitles more effective than intralingual subtitles when L2 uses a different script?

The experiment for this paper will be conducted in the following manner:

  1. Hypothesis: Interlingual subtitles can be more effective than intralingual subtitles, specifically when the L2 uses a different script from that of the learner’s L1.

  2. Methods

    1. Three groups of subjects of a similar beginner to intermediate level with regards to L2 (English) will be tested

    2. The test will involve audiovisual media with either

      1. No subtitles

      2. Interlingual subtitles (Arabic)

      3. Intralingual subtitles (English)

    3. The procedure will be as follows

      1. Each group of participants will be asked to watch a 1-hour episode of a drama in L2 (English) with one of the subtitling options mentioned earlier.

        1. Group A: No subtitles

        2. Group B: Interlingual subtitles

        3. Group C: Intralingual subtitles

      2. The eye movements of the participants in each group will be tracked and recorded while they watch the episode.

      3. All participants will be tested on vocabulary, listening and comprehension after watching the episode.

      4. The results will be compared.

  3. Expected Results

    1. Group A: Inconclusive

    2. Group B: Less time recorded for subtitle reading and improvement in all areas.

    3. Group C: More time recorded for subtitle reading and some improvement in vocabulary only.

  4. Discussion (based on expected results)

    1. Group A is a control group that allows for comparison

    2. Groups B & C support the hypothesis presented in this proposal that interlingual subtitles are more effective in the process of SLA for the following reasons:

      1. Group B recording less time for subtitle reading would indicate ease in the processing of the lexical information provided by the subtitles due to higher literacy, which would in turn enable the learner to improve their skills in L2 by creating links between information from prior knowledge of the L2 with new information gained from the exposure to audiovisual media made easier to understand using interlingual subtitles in L1.

      2. Group C recording more time for subtitles reading would indicate difficulties in the processing of the lexical information provided by the subtitles due to lower literacy, resulting in an inability to process and understand new information, thus hindering their progress in their attempts to acquire L2.

    3. Group C indicates that intralingual subtitles may still be effective when a script is different, taking into account that the participants would not be entirely new to L2. Due to their relative familiarity with the L2, participants may be able to identify certain words that they already know, making it easier to read, process and understand some of their neighbouring lexical counterparts, thus gaining a limited amount of new information in the form of vocabulary.


The topic of Second Language Acquisition has grown to be one of the most researched in the field of psycholinguistics. Such may partly be due to the fact that the results of research conducted on this topic are more sought after by people – in the field or not – now more than ever, perhaps due to the ongoing globalisation taking place. With this in mind, when one investigates how this globalisation happened to come about, they find that one of the biggest factors is undoubtedly the widespread use and distribution of audiovisual media produced by people from all around the world, each group presenting a different culture to different people in different languages. With more and more of such media being made available for the world to see, people have grown curious and interested in knowing about different cultures and, consequently, in learning new languages, given our need to be able to communicate with each other in one way or another.

Moreover, with this growth in interest came a growth in demand, not only for the different media, but for ways to understand it. Hence, came the act of subtitling, and a chain reaction of events then took place in the form of realisation, followed by claim, research, results and manifestation, all of which were presented and discussed in this paper. The chain of events has not yet stopped, however, for there is always more to discover, uncover and understand, and this paper was yet another one of many attempts made in order to understand a complex, multi-layered linguistic topic that presents itself in the relationship between what can be passively viewed and what can be acquired.



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Birulés-Muntané, J., & Soto-Faraco, S. (2016). Watching Subtitled Films Can Help Learning Foreign Languages. PLoS ONE, 11(6), e0158409.

Borras, I., & Lafayette, R. C. (1994). Effects of multimedia courseware subtitling on the speaking performance of college students of french. The Modern Language Journal, 78(1), 61-61. Retrieved from

Ina, L. (2014). Incidental foreign-language acquisition by children watching subtitled television programs. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 13(4), 81-87. Retrieved from

Kruger, J. and Steyn, F. (2013). Subtitles and Eye Tracking: Reading and Performance. Reading Research Quarterly, 49(1), pp.105-120. Retrieved from

Loing, A. (2010). Learning a new language through subtitles. Retrieved from


Markham, P. and Peter, L. (2003). The Influence of English Language and Spanish Language Captions on Foreign Language Listening/Reading Comprehension. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 31(3), pp.331-341. Retrieved from


Mitterer, H., & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Foreign subtitles help but native-language subtitles harm foreign speech perception. Plos One, 4(11), 7785. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007785


Webb, S., & Rodgers, M. (2009). The lexical coverage of movies. Applied Linguistics, 30(3), 407-427.

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