Subtitles as a Tool for New Language Learning

Subject: Linguistics
Pages: 26
Words: 6968
Reading time:
29 min
Study level: Master


Research Background and Aim

The use of subtitles as a tool for new language learning has gained massive popularity in Europe and North America. According to Szarkowska and Gerber-Moro´n (2018), the audiovisual translation, often referred to as AVT has become one of the most inclusive translation approaches. One of the initial goals of subtitles was to make a material available to an audience that does not understand the language of the source text. For instance, it is common to find a Spanish film with English subtitles or an English film with French subtitles. It meant that although the original film is in one language, it could still be enjoyed by a wide audience that may not understand the original language of the material.

In the current globalized society, it has become imperative to ensure that those with various kinds of impairments can also enjoy these materials. The use of subtitles have proven to be effective for the deaf and hard of hearing (HOH) people (Aksu-Ataç and Köprülü-Günay, 2018). These individuals lack the capacity to hear the sounds in a film. As such, the only alternative is to use the subtitles to ensure that they can follow the events in the film. Alabsi (2020) note that when subtitles are meant to target the HOH individuals, it is often advisable to ensure that sounds such as thunderstorms or gunshots are emphasized using italics or bold letters to bring out the actual sound effect. The goal is to give the audience the same effect as those with the capacity to hear.

The use of subtitles have also gained a new role in the modern society. According to Talaván (2019), subtitles in films have become a tool for new language acquisition. In the modern globalized society, people are trying to learn new languages as a way of enabling them to interact with ease with people from the other parts of the world. However, learning a new language in a classroom setting is not only complex but also a boring approach, especially among adults who are doing it for recreational purposes. The use of subtitles in films creates a fun way of learning new languages. As one entertains themselves, they get the opportunity to learn the new language.

Subtitles as a tool for learning a new language can be used in different ways. First, it can help an individual to learn both the pronunciation and spelling of a new language. For instance, when an English film has English subtitles, an English as second language person can learn both the pronunciation and spelling of a wide range of words in this language. As they entertain themselves, they get to follow the film in both written and spoken words (Lazareva and Loerts, 2017). In case they already knew the spelling, the film enables them to understand the pronunciation. If they already knew the pronunciation, the film enables them to understand the spelling. In most of the cases they learn both the spelling and pronunciation in the film. Subtitles have also instrumental in enabling the audience to understand how to structure a sentence in the new language and how to use punctuation marks and other parts of the speech.

Subtitles can also be used to enable the audience to learn pronunciation and sentence structure of a new language. This happens when a film in one language, such as English, has subtitles in another language such as Spanish. Providing subtitles in different languages is often meant to increase the audience of the film beyond the primary target. Instead of translating the language, the producer will only need to provide subtitles to the other languages. Sen to Chihiro’s Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し in Japanese or Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi in Hepburn) is one of the most popular BBC’s films in the 21st century. Such popular films are often translated to various languages or subtitles provided to increase the audience (Kanellopoulou, 2019). These subtitles enable new language learners to understand how to pronounce a new language. As they listen to the words, they can read the subtitles and have a better understanding of the language in a better way than what is taught in a classroom setting.

The aim of this practical translation project is to investigate the relevance and effectiveness of subtitles as a tool for new language learning. As discussed above, subtitles not only increase the audience size for the film but also makes it possible for individuals to learn a new language. Adults often face a major challenge when learning a new language. Grammar (spelling, the use of punctuation marks, and sentence structure among others) and pronunciation are often some of the major challenges that these people face when learning a new language. Preliminary studies have revealed that the use of subtitles creates a perfect platform for learning the new language (Faqe, 2020). It is a learning tool that comes in the form of entertainment. The study seeks to investigate the effectiveness of this tool in promoting one’s ability to learn a new language. The analysis will be based on one of the most popular Spanish films in the 21st century, La Casa de Papel (The Money Heist), which has since been translated into English.

Significance of Research

Learning has been metamorphosing over the years with the advent of new technologies. García (2017) explains that the traditional classroom setting where learners and teachers have to converge in a physical classroom setting is still common but increasingly becoming less popular. The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic that limited physical interaction of persons further affected the traditional learning approach as it has been for centuries. Language learning has also been changing in the face of the emerging technologies. Stakeholders have been keen on monitoring these changes and responding to them effectively.

The reading culture is becoming less popular not only in the developed but also developing economies around the world. Corpuz (2020) explains that in the past, it was common to find people reading storybooks as a way of entertaining themselves. It was the best way through which people could acquire new knowledge beyond what is taught in a classroom setting. However, this culture of reading for fun is becoming increasingly uncommon in many parts of the world. Many children, youths, and even adults prefer to watch films or listen to music as the best form of entertainment.

These changes means that it has become necessary to redefine learning tools in the modern society. It is the responsibility of the educators and policy-makers in this sector to understand and respond to the new culture that emphasizes films over books as a means of entertainment (Napikul, Cedar, and Roongrattanakool, 2018). Learning a new language for adults is a major challenge and many would avoid such a struggle unless they have no alternative way out. Learning a new language in a traditional classroom setting may not only take a longer period but is also a boring approach. The use of subtitles in films is seen as a fun way of learning a new language. As they entertain themselves, these learners are able to understand pronunciation and general grammar of a given language (Abbas and Sarfraz, 2018). It also makes it possible to master common words used in that specific language. Educators are currently using this approach to ensure that their students can have a mastery of the new language.

This study is important because it seeks to assess the relevance and effectiveness of subtitles as a way of learning a new language. As Metruk (2018) observes, the initial goal of subtitles was to ensure that a given material is available to a wider audience despite the language barrier. It means that initially, it was not meant as a learning material. However, it has become a major tool that learners use to gain new knowledge. The main concern that educators have is determining the effectiveness of subtitles as a learning tool because that was not the initial intention. The study will assess the prevalence of this approach to learning in various parts of the world based on the film La Casa de Papel.

One of the main concerns of educators is that the current subtitles do not distinguish among beginners and advanced learners of the language. The subtitles are provided to effectively translate the spoken language into a written form in a specific language. It is rare to find cases where the choice of words in such films is based on the perceived level of knowledge of the audience in the language (Angerbauer, Adel1 and Thang, 2019). The most advantaged are the beginners who may struggle to understand these words. This study will suggest ways in which this tool can be made effective for both the beginners and advanced learners of a given language. It will address issues and concerns that stakeholders have raised over subtitles as a tool for new language learning.

Research Methodology and Strategies

Subtitling as a tool for new language learning is gaining popularity in Europe and North America. In this practical translation project, the goal was to assess the usage of this tool and its effectiveness in enabling learners to acquire new knowledge. As such, it was necessary to collect and process data in a way that would enable the researcher to achieve the intended goal and objectives of the study. In this chapter, the focus is to discuss the methods and strategies used to collect and process data in this project.

COVID-19 Influence

The United Kingdom, the United States, and a section of European countries have taken the lead in promoting the use of subtitles in films. Many film directors consider it the most effective way of expanding their audience without having to translate it in spoken words. As such, it would have been desirable to interview some of the local film directors who are currently involved in such projects. As Becnel (2019) observes, collecting primary data helps to address the existing knowledge gaps in a given field of study. It would help in investigating why these directors prefer using subtitles in their films and whether they consider it an effective tool for learning new languages.

The challenge that the researcher faced was the COVID-19 restrictions that has been put in place by the government. The United Kingdom is one of the countries which are worst-hit by the pandemic. The country is currently dealing with a new Delta variant of the virus believed to be more aggressive and easily transmissible than the original variant. As such, the government advisory that limits the unnecessary physical interaction of people is still in place. It meant that the intended plan to gather primary data from a sample of film directors and other stakeholders in the film industry had to be redefined (Nurmukhamedov, 2017). The investigation had to rely on data from secondary data. It meant that ethical approval and permission letter was not needed in this study. However, it is worth noting that the inability to collect primary data did not compromise the quality of the study. The researcher was able to gather the needed data in a way that met the objective of the study.

Theoretical Foundation and Literature Review

In this study, one of the primary approaches that was used to collect data was from secondary sources. When conducting research, Mahzari et al. (2021) advises that is it important to review the relevant literature. The concept of using subtitles in films as a tool for new language acquisition is an area of knowledge that has attracted the attention of many scholars over the recent past. As such, it was necessary to review the findings that have been made by these scholars as a way of identifying the knowledge gaps. The review of the literature provided an important background for this study.

The researcher also used theoretical underpinnings to help explain the concepts developed in the study. Language acquisition is an area of study that has been researched for several decades (Abou and Naami, 2020). Various theories have been developed to help explain the process by which people acquire a new language. Subtitling is emerging as a new tool in learning a second language. To determine the relevance and effectiveness of this new tool, it is important to integrate specific theories in the analysis. Language acquisition theory (the Nativist Theory, the Sociocultural Theory, and the Learning Theory) was considered necessary in understanding the relevance of subtitling as a tool in learning a new language (Teng, 2019). The information obtained in these secondary sources were then used to facilitate a critical analysis in the study.

Practical Projects

The film Money Heist will form the basis of this practical project. After reviewing the literature and conducting a theoretical analysis, the practical project will then focus on this film. La Casa de Papel (The Money Heist) is a Spanish film that has since been translated into English and other languages. When one is interested in subtitles, it can be found in several languages including English, Spanish, Arabic, French, Portuguese, and Polish. The practical project will include subtitling/localization. It will provide a detailed analysis of this film as a possible tool that learners can use to acquire a new language.

The Subtitling Strategy

It was necessary to develop an appropriate subtitling strategy for the film La Casa de Papel. Aksu-Ataç, and Köprülü-Günay (2018) explain that it is possible to produce subtitles for video clips with or without the help of the script that corresponds to the clip. In this case, the exercise had to be done without the corresponding script because there was no time to request for the same. In doing so, the goal was to retain the original meaning as much as possible without compromising spelling and other linguistic items of the text in the clip, as Wang and Treffers-Daller (2017) suggest. In this pedagogical strategy of subtitling is flexible and can be done in different ways, as (2018) observes:

  1. From Spanish dialogues to Spanish subtitles, which is referred to as bimodal subtitling;
  2. From Spanish dialogues to subtitles in the learner’s mother tongue (English), which is the standard subtitling;
  3. From English (dialogues in the learner’s mother tongue) to Spanish subtitles, which is referred to as reversed subtitling.

The first technique of subtitling is common when creating subtitles for the deaf or HOH viewers, which is not the focus of this study. As such, it was not considered an appropriate strategy for this task. The second approach involves providing the translation from the original language of the material, which in this case is Spanish, to the mother tongue, which is English. This will form the basis of this task because the film La Casa de Papel, was originally produced in Spanish. The last strategy involves reversed subtitling, from the mother tongue back to the original language. This was also considered necessary to determine if the original meaning of the text was retained. It was introduced because of the challenge where the original meaning of a text is often lost during translation. The effectiveness of these subtitles can be determined when the original meaning can be obtained when a reverse subtitling is conducted.

Literature Review

Understanding the Concept of Subtitle

It is important to understand how scholars have defined subtitles in respect to what is under investigation. According to Frumuselu (2018, p. 65), subtitles refers to “texts derived from either a transcript or screenplay of the dialogue or commentary in films, television programs or video games, often displayed at the bottom of the screen, but can also be at the top of the screen if there is already text at the bottom of the screen.” It is important to understand the fundamental different between subtitles and captions. While subtitles are translations, captions are transcriptions of a dialogue (Mustofa and Sari, 2020). It means that captions are often in the same language as the original material, and is often meant for the HOH and the deaf. A film can have closed or open captions. Closed captions can turned off or on by a simple click of the button depending on the interest of the viewer while open captions are part of the video, hence it cannot be turned off or on (Azizi and Aziz, 2020). Subtitles are primarily meant for the audience that does not understand the language of the original material.

Subtitling has gained popularity in Europe and North America over the recent past. Major film producing companies realized that it was cheaper and easier to use subtitles than to translate the spoken words in films (Thomas and Schneider, 2020). The strategy was also seen as an effective method of retaining the originality of the original material. Some of the audience would prefer to listen to the original sounds, including the background music, instead of the one that is translated. The practice then spread to different parts of the world. It is now common to find Japanese and Chinese films having English subtitles. The goal is to make popular films in one language available to a large global audience.

The Origin

The use of subtitles on the screen has been in existence for over a century although its usage as a tool for new language acquisition is seen as a recent phenomenon. The history of subtitles can be traced back to 1903 when Edwin Porter’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin tale introduced the use of language on the screen, in what was referred to as intertitles (Napikul, Cedar and Roongrattanakool, D. (2018). During this period, it enabled film makers to provide details to their story beyond what was presented by the characters. It was majorly used to present flashbacks and dramatic irony, which were popular in written literature but rarely used in films at that time (Ayand and Shafiee, 2016). The new tool made it easier for the audience to understand the storyline of a film.

Challenges faced by film makers during the silent era made it necessary to use intertitles to help provide further details to viewers, especially when actions of the actors could not effectively depict a given scenario. It was during this era, in 1909, when M. N. Tropp developed the idea of having additional texts at the bottom of the screen, in what was referred to as subtitles (Darwish, and Ain, 2020). It was a simpler way of developing films because directors would focus on shooting a film without focusing much on the words. The film would then have subtitles in different languages. However, a new challenge emerged when the silent era came to an end and films had to include sounds and words in 1927 (Hao, 2017). It meant that actors could only speak in one language, excluding the other audiences.

Film makers realized that there would be a major negative impact on their profitability if these shows were limited to one language. A significant portion of their audience would be left out under the new era (Crowe, Inder and Porter, 2015). As such, they reinvented the intertitles to subtitles (Qasim, and Yahiaoui, 2019). It meant that texts would be displayed at the bottom of the screen, without an interruption to the pictures, to enable audiences who do not understand the original language of the material, to understand the movie. This trend started in the United States where the film industry was growing rapidly. Most of these films were in English, but the film makers made sure that the subtitles were available in Spanish, French, Germany, Italian, and other major foreign languages. The trend gained massive popularity during and soon after the Second World War (Yiping, 2016). Arthur Robinson’s Der Student von Prag were some of the films aired on BBC that introduced subtitling in television shows (Sergey, Koltcov and Koltsova, 2015). The practice spread quickly in Europe because of its cost effectiveness.

Use of Subtitles as a Tool for Language Learning

The use of subtitles has been in existence for several decades. However, its use as a tool for new knowledge acquisition has received a significant amount of scrutiny over the recent past. Lunin and Minaeva (2015) explain that a section of scholars believe that subtitles are distracting, tend to slow learning skills development, and promote laziness. However, the argument has been countered by studies which have proven that subtitles are critical in new language acquisition (Shabani, and Zanussi, 2015). They offer learners comprehensive and authentic language input that may not otherwise be gained in a classroom setting within a short time. Despite the prejudice against it, it has become evident that using subtitles enable learners to understand pronunciation and sentence structuring of the new language. As they read the words and hear their pronunciation, they get to perfect their mastery of the new language.

Subtitles are also used actively among young learners. Damayanthi (2019) explains that as opposed to the traditional learning approach, the use of subtitles bring entertainment in the learning environment. Children can watch their favorite shows and learn in the process. The subtitles enable them to relate each word to its correct pronunciation (Zhang, Ardasheva, and Austin, 2020). They also get to understand how it should be used in practical context. Some of the syntax and grammatical elements that they may find complex in classroom is simplified when they form part of their entertainment. Türkmen (2020) argues that when using subtitles for young learners, emphasis should be placed on their reading speed. When the speed of the subtitles are too high, then they may not read them effectively as they get entertained. In such a case, the subtitles would become a bother instead of being a learning experience.

Different companies use different reading speeds for various programs targeting a specific group of children. As shown in table 1 below, pre-school children have a slower speed of reading. Nickelodeon offers films with slowest reading speed in the program, Mona the Vampire, at 60 words per minute. Others such as IMS’s Ebb and Flow has a reading speed of 100 words per minute for the preschool children. Among the older school children, the speed can be as high as 180 words per minute, such as ITCF’s Spongebob Square Pants aired on BBC. Mona the Vampire’s program that targets older children also has a reading speed of 180 words per word.

Table 1: Maximum reading speeds for children’s programs

Company Reading Speed Program(s) Broadcaster
IMS 100 wpm
(pre-school shows)
140 wpm
Ebb and Flow

Funky Valley

Channel 5
Interfax 180 wpm The Hoobs Channel 4
ITCF 180 wpm Arthur
Spongebob Square Pants
Nickelodeon 60 wpm
(pre-school shows)
120 wpm
Mona the Vampire BBC
Red Bee Media 180 wpm Inuk
Maya and Miguel
Mona the Vampire
Channel 4
Subtext 160 wpm Arthur BBC

The reading speed for adults vary depending on their mastery of the language. Yahaya et al. (2019) explain that the standard reading speed is around 400-700 words per minute. Anything below this speed is considered relatively low while a speed of more than 600 words per minutes sacrifices comprehension (Van der Zee et al. 2017). In subtitles, the reading speed is significantly lower than in standard reading of a text. The assumption is that the viewer should be able to read the text while at the same time follow the events in the film. As such, Podara et al. (2020) observe that “The most widely known rule on the speed of inter-lingual subtitles–“the six-seconds rule”–stipulates that a full two-line subtitle should be displayed for six seconds in order for an average viewer to be able to read it [3, 13]. The six-second rule is equivalent to approximately 140–150 wpm,” (Szarkowska and Gerber-Moro´n, 2018, p. 2).

Choice and Justification of Project

This practical translation project focuses on the film La Casa de Papel, a Spanish series that has gained an international fame. Produced in Spanish, the film’s popularity has forced Netflix to have its translation into several languages, including English. It also has subtitles in several languages, as discussed above. This practical project was chosen because of a number of factors. One of the factors is that a significant number of globally popular films are in English, especially produced in the United States or the United Kingdom, and then translated into other languages. This film was produced in Spain and has become a success globally. As such, it offers language learners with English as their first language, the opportunity to learn Spanish with the help of the subtitles.

The second factor why this film was chosen was its global popularity. La Casa de Papel is currently one of the most popular films around the world. It is a material that many people have gone through. As such, it becomes an entertaining piece of learning material. Spanish is one of the most popular languages among learners who are already using other languages as their mother tongue (Talavan, 2006). As such, the report will provide an important material for students who are keen on learning Spanish as a second language. The film was also considered appropriate because it has been fully translated into English. Although one can watch the Spanish version with English subtitles, it is also possible to watch the English version with no subtitles or with Spanish subtitles. As such, it provides a rich source of translation from Spanish to English and back to Spanish.

The ease with which this material is available was another factor that was considered when choosing it as an appropriate material for this project. La Casa de Papel is readily available through Nteflix. Some of the video clips of the show are also readily available on YouTube. The ease of access of the material means that when one is interested in conducting a critical analysis of this document, they can readily find the film to aid their analysis (Karimi, Chalak, and Biria, 2019). The audience that this film targets also made it an appropriate material for the analysis. A significant number of second language learners are youths and young adults (Dumlao et al., 2020). They include those who study in foreign countries and find it necessary to learn the local language. This is the audience that this film targets. Although it is popular among people of different age groups, the film primary audience is the youth and young adults. Among native English speakers, this film offers them a unique opportunity to learn Spanish in an authentic and non-classroom setting. They can learn the spelling, pronunciation, and sentence structure of the new language with the help of subtitles.

Theoretical Foundation

Scholars have developed theories to help explain how people acquire new knowledge. Language acquisition theories have been developed to help explain the process through which people gain new knowledge. Alamri and Rogers (2018, p. 628) explains that “language acquisition is the process by which we are able to develop and learn a language, which includes speaking, listening, writing, and overall communication.” Using these theories, it is possible to explain how subtitles can be used as a tool for new language acquisition. Some of the common language acquisition theories include the nativist theory, the sociocultural theory, and the learning theory.

The nativist theory has gained popularity as one of the widely accepted theories of language acquisition. It holds the view that “people are born with genes that allow them to learn language,” (Talaván, Ibáñez and Bárcena, 2017, p. 44). As such, one only needs to be in an environment where people speak a specific language and with time, they will get to understand it. The theory holds that the brain has a device, language acquisition device or simply LAD, that facilitates the natural process of acquiring a new language through exposure. Using this device, it is possible for people to acquire new knowledge with the help of subtitles. The more they are exposed to subtitles in a given language, the more they will understand it.

The sociocultural theory is another common language acquisition theory. This interactionist approach to knowledge acquisition holds the argument that people tend to acquire knowledge out of the desire to interact with others in social settings. As such, they will use every tool available, including subtitles, to enable them acquire a new language if the language will enable them to interact easily with others in social settings. It also emphasizes the impact of the environment in which a person is on the ability of one to acquire a new knowledge. The learning theory is another concept that can be used to explain the process of acquisition of a new language. According to Hilčenko (2017, p. 56), this theory “looks at language learning as learning a new skill and that we learn language much in the same way that we learn how to count or how to tie shoes via repetition and reinforcement.” It believes that the more one does something the more they become adept at it. The more one is determined to and uses subtitles to learn a new language, the more they will gain the needed knowledge.

Practical Foundation

In this practical translation project, the goal was to assess how subtitles can be used as a tool for new language acquisition. The researcher had to choose a popular film that has subtitles in different languages as explained above. As such, La Casa de Papel was chosen as the appropriate film for this analysis. The practical project had to include annotated translation, work-based project, materials development or subtitling/localisation project. The practical activity involved analyzing the subtitles as translated from Spanish to English. The goal was to assess the effectiveness if this tool by conducting a back translation to determining if the original meaning will be retained.

Subtitling/Localization Project

When using subtitles as a means of learning a new language, it is necessary to ensure that the meaning of words and phrases come out as clearly as possible. In this practical translation project, it was necessary to translate these words from the original language (Spanish) to the target language (English) and back to the original language (English), which Furaidah, Ngadiso and Asrori (2016) refer to as back translation. The effectiveness of these subtitles as tools for new language learning can be determined if back translation gives the same meaning as the original text. Table 2 below is a summary of the phrases used as subtitles in the film La Casa de Papel. It is necessary to look at both the advantages and disadvantages of subtitles as tools for new language learning.

Disadvantages of Using Subtitles to Learn a New Language

The critics who believe that subtitles should not be used as a tool of new language learning argue that it may be misleading as the actual meaning may not be brought out clearly in the translated version. It was necessary to assess this argument to determine if it true that sometimes the original meaning of a text may be lost through translation. The analysis started with the title of the film. La Casa de Papel is the title of the film in Spanish. When translated into English, it means the house of paper. However, the intended meaning in English, which is the actual title given to the film in English is Money Heist. This may bring a major confusion to someone who is trying to learn a new language through this approach because when making a back translation of money heist, the Spanish phrase will be robo de dinero. The problem is that when the phrase ‘house of paper’ is used, it may not bring the intended meaning as ‘La casa de papel’ even if it is the correct translation of the title of the movie.

When making the translation, there is always the challenge of balancing the meaning and actual words. The goal of the film maker is to ensure that the meaning is retained in the translation process. On the other hand, the goal of an educator is to ensure that one learns words and phrases of the new language correctly (Balci, and Rich, and Roberts, 2020). When conducting a comparative analysis ‘house of paper’ may have little to do with ‘money heist’. In fact, the two do not share a single word. However, the film makers prioritized the intended meaning for the audience over the actual translation of the words. When one intended to use such subtitles to learn the new language, it can make the learning process confusing, especially for those who are speech emergence and intermediate fluency stages of new language acquisition.

The table also shows that sometimes there might be slight variations in the meaning when a back translation is done. The Spanish word profesor is translated into English as teacher. A back translation gives maestro, which is not the same thing as profesor. As such, when Berlin tells the professor to punish him (Castigame profesor), the English version would be (punish me teacher). In this case, the film maker prioritized the primary meaning of the words as opposed to providing the translation that may confuse the audience.

In the news report about the heist, the presenter talks about distraught parents of Rio. In Spanish, it is stated as Padres angustiados, which translates into distressed parents in English. Such slight variations may have a major impact on the ability of the learner to understand the new language. They can find it not only confusing but also counterproductive to their ability to acquire the new knowledge. In this film, care was taken to ensure that the primary meaning of the original dialogues are retained. It meant that in some cases, they had to completely ignore the need to provide accurate translation of words and instead focus on translating the meaning.

Advantages of Using Subtitles to Learn a New Language

The use of subtitles has been found to be one of the best ways of enabling learners to acquire new knowledge. According to Koskinen (2010), it takes the learning process from classroom to entertainment halls. Despite criticisms that have been levelled against this tool, it can enhance the ability of an individual to learn a new language (University of Sheffield, 2020). In this practical translation project, the researcher identified several words and phrases whose meaning and words were retained even after conducting the back translation. Table 2 below identifies some of these words, which clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of tool in facilitating the learning of a new language.

In this film, timeline of the robbery is provided. The Spanish phrase Sabado 06:25h is translated as Saturday 06: 25h in English. It is important to note that the syntax of the two phrases are closely related although the syllables may be significantly different. For a learner keen on mastering the grammar, this may offer a perfect learning tool. The phrase 20 horas de atraco, which translates to 20 hours of robbery, is another case where the arrangement of words and phrases (syntax) in Spanish is closely related to that in English. Even the number of words in each of these cases.

Elementary learners can also benefit from subtitles by mastering single words instead of a phrase or a sentence in the subtitles of a movie. In this practical project, a phonological analysis of the work shows that some of the words have near-similar sounds. The Spanish words papel has a near-similar sound as the English word paper although the emphasis placed on the words is different. Similarly, the Spanish word robo has a near-similar phonology as robbery, although it is shorter in sound and letters. It is also evident that the time pattern in Spain is similar to that in English.

One of the main arguments that has been mounted against subtitles as a tool for learning a new language is that the back translation would provide a completely different meaning from the original text. However, the practical translation project, shown in table 2 below, shows that it is always not the case. More often, the original meaning would be obtained. The phrase de amor, which translates to of love, gives the same meaning and word (de amor) when a back translation is done. The same is the case with Quiero que la mates (I want you to kill her), in the case where Berlin orders Denver to kill Monica because she had a cellphone and had intended to communicate to the authorities. In the conversation between the professor and the inspector, the professor asks, “Que llevas puesto inspector?” (What are you wearing, inspector?) A back translation of the phrase, which is relatively longer than the others in the table below, does not change in syntax or morphology when a back translation is conducted. In such a case, the tool can facilitate effective learning of the new language as long as one can master the phrases and words.

Table 2: Back Translation Table

No. Source Text (Spanish) Target Text (English) Back Translation (Spanish)
1 La casa de papel The house of paper (Money heist) La casa de papel
2 20 Horas de atraco 20 Hours of robbery 20 horas de robo
3 Sabado 06:25h Saturday 06: 25h Sabado 06:25h
4 Profesor Teacher (professor) Maestro
5 Mi amante My lover Mi amante
6 De amor Of love De amor
7 Amor prohibido Forbidden love Amor prohibido
8 Castigame profesor Punish me teacher (professor) Castigame profesor
9 Eliminar huellas dactilares en el coche Remove (Eliminate) fingerprints on the car Eliminar huellas dactilares en el coche
10 Padres angustiados Distressed (distraught) parents Padres angustiados
11 No derrames sangre Don’t spill blood No derrames sangre
12 Quiero que la mates I want you to kill her Quiero que la mates
13 No hacer temor Do not fear No temas
14 Que llevas puesto inspector What are you wearing inspector Que llevas puesto inspector
15 Yo soy el negociador I am the negotiator Yo soy el negociador

Commentary, Critical Analysis and Discussion

The practical translation project conducted above shows that subtitles can be powerful tools for new language acquisition. Hosogoshi (2016) observes that the culture of reading in its traditional form is becoming increasingly rare around the world. Unlike in the past, it is less likely to find youths and young adults reading as a recreational activity. Instead, they prefer watching movies as one of the best recreational activities when they are indoors. As such, educationists are finding new ways of disseminating knowledge among a group that rarely spend their time reading. The COVID-19 pandemic has also reminded the society that learning in a traditional classroom setting may soon lose its meaning. The number of those who are turning into online classes and using technology-based materials for learning significantly increased over the last one year when it was impossible for learners and teachers to meet in physical classroom settings.

The use of subtitles as a tool for new language acquisition may have its challenges, as discussed in the section above. La casa de papel may directly translate into ‘the house of paper’ but mean ‘money heist’ as shown in the discussion. However, these slight variations does not mean subtitles are not effective in facilitating effective learning of a new language. Just like other tools of language learning, this one also has its weaknesses. However, the analysis shown in table 2 above shows that in most of the cases, the translation is accurate, as shown in the back translation. One can get the meaning of these words in a different language.

The main advantage that subtitles have over other tools of new language learning is that it is a form of entertainment. According to Masrai (2019), for a long time, the use of entertainment as a form of learning has been common among pre-school learners. They would use songs and other forms of entertainment to facilitate learning process. Cartoon programs such as ABC KidTv’s CoComelon uses songs and animation to entertain and educate preschoolers. However, stakeholders have never considered using entertainment as a form of education for senior learners, especially for youths and young adults (Kanellopoulou, Kermanidis, and Giannakoulopoulos, 2019). Studies have suggested that when using entertainment as a tool of entertainment, a significant number of people, including slow learners, get to understand the concepts with ease (Lertola, 2019). It would be easy for one to watch a movie such as La casa de papel several times and in the process learn new concepts, than to use traditional materials for revision.

The argument that subtitles as a tool for new language acquisition is not systematic and carefully planned. It fails to differentiate advanced learners from those in the elementary stages. However, it is an excellent tool when it comes to practicing the language. It should supplement the traditional learning method, either in a classroom setting or online classes. It should be viewed as an additional tool that teachers can use to assess the capabilities of their students and to enable them to put to practice the new words and phrases that they learn.


The use of subtitles as a tool for new language acquisition has gained massive popularity over the recent past. The analysis and discussion above explains the significance of this tool in modern-day learning environment. The practical translation project was based on the film La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) a popular Spanish film that has subtitles in several languages, including English. The film has also been fully translated into English. The practical project shows that subtitles are powerful tools for learning a new language. It enables an individual to master words and phrases of the new language. The fact that this tool takes the learning process from the boring classroom setting to the field of entertainment demonstrates its effectiveness. Learners do not even realize that they are in a learning process because it is packaged as an entertainment. The paper shows that this tool can be more effective when it is used alongside other traditional learning methods. It can be used to test and enhance skills of learners.

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