Ban the voice-over

Aug 18, 2016

By Richard Dawkins

Author’s note: An abbreviated version of this article was published in Prospect, Aug. 2016.

A legend of uncertain provenance has it that Winston Churchill, addressing a French audience about lessons learned from looking back on his own past, inadvertently raised a laugh: ‘Quand je regarde mon derrière, je vois qu’il est divisé en deux parties égales.’ Most Anglos know enough French to get the joke. But alas, our knowledge doesn’t go much further than Churchill’s own. Whatever languages we may have learned at school – French and German in my case (as well as classical Greek and Latin which probably influenced the way I was taught modern languages) – we may be able to read a bit, but our spoken language performance should mantle us in shame.

When I visit universities in Scandinavia or the Netherlands it goes without saying that everybody there speaks English fluently, and actually rather better than most native speakers. The same applies to almost everyone I meet outside the university: shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, bartenders, random people I stop in the street to ask the way. Can you imagine a visitor to England addressing a London cabbie in French or German? And you’d have little more luck with a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The conventional explanation goes like this, and there’s probably something in it. Precisely because English is so widely spoken, we don’t need to learn any other language. Biologists like me tend to be suspicious of ‘need’ as an explanation for anything. A long-discredited alternative to Darwinism invoked ‘need’ as the driver of evolution: ancestral giraffes needed to reach high foliage and their energetic striving to do so somehow called longer necks into existence. But for ‘need’ to translate itself into action, there has to be another step in the argument. The ancestral giraffe mightily stretched its neck upwards and so the bones and muscles lengthened and . . . well, you know the rest, O my Best Beloved. The true Darwinian mechanism, of course, is that those individual giraffes that succeeded in satisfying the need survived to pass on their genetic tendency to do so.

It is conceivable that a student’s perceived career-need to learn English provided the causal mechanism of a redoubled effort in the classroom. And it is possible that we whose native language is English take a deliberate decision not to bother with other languages. As a young scientist I took remedial German lessons to help me participate in international conferences, and a colleague explicitly said, ‘Oh you don’t want to do that. It’ll only encourage them.’ But I doubt that most of us are that cynical.

I think the following alternative explanation should be taken seriously if only because, unlike the ‘need’ hypothesis, it offers the possibility of doing something about it. Again we start with the premiss that English actually is much more widely spoken than any other European language. But the next stage in the argument is different. The world is continually bombarded by English (especially American) films, songs, TV shows and soap operas. All Europeans are daily exposed to English, and they pick up English in something like the way any child learns her native language. The infant doesn’t strive to satisfy a perceived ‘need’ to communicate. She effortlessly picks up her native language because it is there. Even adults can learn in something like the same way, although we lose part of our childhood ability to absorb language. My point is that we Anglos are largely deprived of daily exposure to any language other than our own. Even when we travel abroad, we have a hard time improving our language skills because so many whom we meet are eager to speak English.

And the ‘immersion’ theory, unlike the ‘need’ theory, prompts a remedy for our monoglottish disgrace. We can change the policy of our television stations. Night after night on British TV we’ll see news footage of a foreign politician, football manager, police spokesman, tennis player, or random vox pop in the street. We are allowed a few seconds of French or German, say. But then the authentic voice fades and is drowned by that of an interpreter (technically not true dubbing but ‘lectoring’). I’ve even heard this happen when the original speaker is a great orator or statesman: General de Gaulle, say. That is lamentable for a reason over and above the main point of this article. In the case of a historic statesman, we want to hear the orator’s own voice – the cadences, the emphases, the dramatic pauses, the calculated switches from strong passion to confidential quiet. And we can get these though we may not understand the words. We do not want the expressionless voice of a technical interpreter, or even an interpreter who makes an effort towards a more dramatic rendering. A Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton might make a better orator than a General de Gaulle, but it is the statesman we want to hear. How sincere is he? Does he mean it, or is he just playing to the gallery? How is the audience reacting to his speech? And how well is he taking their reactions? Quite apart from all that, and returning to my main point, even when the speaker is no de Gaulle but an ordinary citizen interviewed in the street, we want the opportunity to learn French, or German, or Spanish or whatever it is, in something like the way so many Europeans pick up English every day from their television news.

The power of the ‘immersion effect’ is incidentally demonstrated by the memetic spread of American expressions to Britain. And the ‘upspeak’ of British and American youth, whereby statements sound like questions, can probably be traced to the popularity of Australian soap operas. I believe it is the same process, inflated to the level of language itself, which accounts for the proficiency in English of many European nations.

When it comes to the cinema, countries are divided into those that dub and those that subtitle. Germany, Spain and Italy have dubbing cultures. It’s been suggested that this is because the transition from silent films to talkies took place under dictatorships bombastically eager to promote the national language. The Scandinavians and Dutch, by contrast, use subtitles. I’m told that German audiences recognize the voice of ‘the German Sean Connery’, say, as readily as we recognize Connery’s own distinctive voice. True dubbing of this kind is a highly skilled and very expensive process, involving meticulous attention to lip-synched detail. For feature films there may be respectable defences of dubbing, although I always prefer subtitles. But I’m in any case not talking about dubbing in the expensive, lip-synching world of feature films and television drama. I’m talking about the daily ephemera of news broadcasting where the choice is between two cheap alternatives: subtitling on the one hand, or fade-out plus voiceover lectoring on the other. It is my contention that there is no decent defence of the voiceover policy. Subtitles are quite simply always better.

It’s ridiculous to doubt that there’s enough time to prepare subtitles for news stories. Almost all the news coverage we see is not live but rolling repeats, so there’s plenty of time to write subtitles. Even for live transmissions, and even setting aside (still imperfect) computer translation, speed of preparing subtitles is not a problem. The only remotely serious argument I have ever heard in favour of the voice-over is that blind people can’t read subtitles. But deaf people can’t hear voice-overs, and in any case modern technology offers serviceable solutions to both handicaps. I strongly suspect that if you ask TV executives to justify their policy you’ll get nothing better than, ‘We’ve always done it and it’s simply never occurred to us to use subtitles.’

There are those who say they ‘prefer’ voiceover to subtitles. My ‘General de Gaulle paragraph’ was, I suppose, an expression of personal preference the other way. But personal preferences vary and are often evenly balanced anyway. I want to make the case that frivolous personal preferences should be outweighed by serious educational advantages which go in only one direction. I strongly suspect that a change to a sustained subtitling policy would improve our language skills and go some way towards relieving our national shame.


42 comments on “Ban the voice-over

  • I vehemently agree with the argument made.

    In The Netherlands we have (or at least had) perfect subtitling, which leaves the original soundscape intact. I can’t imagine suffering through a Dutch dubbed version of “Le Corniaud” with all its French subtleties erased. Dutch dubbing is notoriously bad. The Germans have elevated dubbing to a true art form though, so that might be somewhat palatable.

    Funny anecdote: I once saw an American movie on German TV with the title “Fleisch”. It was a murder mystery. Of course it was dubbed and I sat through it with my toes curled, but the film itself was very good. When the title roll came it turned out to be a German film, shot on location in the US with German actors speaking German. Duh…..

    BTW, I have a French DVD of “Le Corniaud”. But it has no subtitles. The French apparently don’t bother with subtitles for wider audiences.

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  • 2
    David Schuy says:

    First of all. I am from Germany. So maybe my opinion differs from many opinions here.

    This is a very nice article, Prof. Dawkins. The topic of language is a wide area. Indeed, we are confronted with movies from America, as well as music and all modern things. But the one thing that matters is culture itself. In my opinion it is true that the English culture is the favourable culture. It is modern and fresh. It is my own feeling and thinking, that a person, who looks “Tatort” on Sunday, is a German bore.
    My family and I are happy enough to watch almost only movies from the USA or Great Britain. There are a lot better! Much better, indeed. And it is a pleasure for me to look a lot of movies in English and with English subtitle, to improve my English.
    Furthermore, English is a melodic and beautiful language and especially when Prof. Dawkins speaks, everything sounds highly intellectually. It sounds fantastic, when Prof. Dawkins speaks about evolution in the English language. German sounds so hard and unmusical.
    I often envy the people of the netherlands because of their subtitles culture. So they speak English very better than a lot of Germans.
    I don’t regret the English predominance in language. But I envy the native speakers a little bit.

    But if more English native speakers are prepared to learn more German or French, for instance, it is not a disadvantage.

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  • @OP – I strongly suspect that a change to a sustained subtitling policy would improve our language skills and go some way towards relieving our national shame.

    In the modern age some DVDs allow the users to choose a language for sub-titles or a dubbed language. Children in bi-lingual countries learn two languages at an early age, so it is clearly possible.

    Having said that, there is still the problem of the sheer number of other languages facing the English speakers.

    I passed French at school. Dabble in Spanish and German with a phrase book, and definitely struggled with a Russian phrase book in Moscow!

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  • Some languages are more challenging than others.

    I am informed that Japanese university students are required to be able to read and write, but not pronounce and speak – English.

    On her exchange visit to Japan, my daughter said she would send me emails – but that was before she saw her host family’s Japanese computer keyboard!

    Some years later when working in New York, she did surprise a departing Japanese client and some other office staff, when he said goodbye in English, and she replied “goodbye” in Japanese!

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  • Completely agree.

    There is a lot to say about this, but as a Dutch person, my English has improved significantly thanks to subtitles.

    Ever since I was young, I benefitted from seeing and hearing English dialogue on TV and reading the Dutch translation written on screen at the same time. This way, if there were words in the English dialogue which I was unfamiliar with, I could read the Dutch word and therefore not only understand its meaning, but also know in what context the word should be used and how it should be pronounced.

    If everything was dubbed with Dutch voiceovers, I wouldn’t have this advantage, this educational benefit.

    More importantly, you could make the case that you’re not doing justice to the artistic intention of the creator of the film or TV program because the viewer doesn’t experience the content exactly the same way as a native speaker would (e.g the vocal timbre, tonal changes and nuances, subtle catches in the voice). It’s just not the same with a dubbed voice, no matter how great you are at casting or voice-acting. So I think the willingness to subtitle instead of dub partly comes from an unwillingness to distort the original artistic intention of the creator and diminish the impact it has on the audience.
    But would that, on the other hand, mean that every millisecond reading subtitles is opportunity cost to watching on-screen performance? I doubt it, since the human eye switches extremely quickly between on-screen performance and subtitles and back. But it would be interesting to see a study on this.

    Besides subtitles, other factors have also helped most Dutch people to learn English. Linguistically the languages are closely related, which helps a lot. As far is I can remember English classes have always been mandatory at school (from an early age) and all Dutch households have always received BBC1 and 2 as standard cable channels (which was significant especially in the days before satellite and digital television).

    So besides offering subtitles instead of dubbing, there are also other easy ways to make foreign languages available for people to learn. Well, culturally immersing them does help! : ) But I agree with Professor Dawkins that the use of subtitles is often overlooked and its educational significance underestimated. So thank you for emphasising that with this article!

    JP from Amsterdam (NL)

    PS: A great tip to further improve English as a non-native speaker, is to watch English video/films/TV content with English subtitles. This improves spelling and pronunciation (among other things).

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  • JP1 #6
    Aug 18, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    PS: A great tip to further improve English as a non-native speaker, is to watch English video/films/TV content with English subtitles. This improves spelling and pronunciation (among other things).

    Foreign viewers may be interested to know, that some English TV channels give the option of English sub-titles for the deaf or hard of hearing – as text – activated via the remote control.

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  • Subtitles absolutely.

    I would never, ever watch a dubbed film – unless the original director did that for one (or more) actors deliberately. For example there is a great movie called The leopard, directed by Luchino Visconti (1963). In that film Burt Lancaster plays a Sicilian prince. His voice is dubbed – but it works. Richard (if you’re reading) check that movie out; it’s a masterpiece.

    I also agree with R. Dawkins about one-on-one debates with a third person. He doesn’t like to debate with a referee. All they do is interrupt just when it is staring to get interesting, as he says. I hate that.

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  • Subtitles? Yes!! Every time. Unless in a piece of cinema the dubbing is as high art as the original acting, as Dan suggests.

    For me at school it was French, German and Latin. Sadly all underused and fading. Though I can read ein bisschen, writing is less good and speaking now demands quite a lot of alcohol.

    Apart from translating subtitles (into English or from English into Foreign) song and opera lyrics have been very helpful for me in retrieving vocabulary.

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  • phil rimmer #9
    Aug 18, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    For me at school it was French, German and Latin. Sadly all underused and fading.

    There has been some good interactive stuff around for children for a long time.
    Back around 1990 I used to have a simple computer game for infants called “Euro Time”. It had a clock face and digital figure display, asking the time, and giving it as a phrase in a spoken answer in a choice from 4 European languages.

    Another interesting idea, is to track down popular children’s stories which are produced in more than one language.
    (eg. the Tin Tin comic book is printed in English and French versions with the same pictures, but different text.) Parallel film versions would also be good.

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  • Examples like this can give children favourite stories in other languages.
    King Ottokar’s Sceptre
    News ~ Friday 1st July 2016

    The seventh digital Tintin book in English and in Japanese – HD version in all languages.

    We are happy to announce the publication of the seventh digital Tintin book in English and in Japanese, “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”,

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  • …Biologists like me tend to be suspicious of ‘need’ as an explanation for anything…

    I guess it depends in part on how one defines ‘need’…

    Anyhow, If Richard is right, good luck to psychologists…

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  • When I first lived in Holland, I enjoyed the fact that English language movies were subtitled, not dubbed. And I learned some Dutch from the subtitles.

    Then I accidentally went to a French movie. Despite knowing a bit of both languages, seeing Dutch and hearing French rendered me completely unable to follow either.

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  • I’m not going to disagree; I’m ashamed of my lack of languages. However, the snag I find (or perhaps the excuse I fall back on) is not knowing WHICH other language I should learn. Given that English is already so widely spoken it becomes the obvious choice for speakers of other languages. But in the other direction the choice can be self-cancelling. When in France I feel like I should learn French, but when in Spain it seems more sensible to learn Spanish. (Now that I live in America I feel relieved that I’ve already adopted a second tongue, which occasionally bears a passing resemblance to English.) But from an evolutionary perspective this asymmetry is perhaps mildly interesting. Just like entropy, there are more ways to dissipate than there are to concentrate, and so I can rest peacefully in my belief that there’s a good dynamical reason I’m not bilingual…

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  • Richard is right that we have a hard time improving our language skills because so many whom we meet are eager to speak English. I spent a year in Indonesia in the 1980s and I tried to learn the language but everyone wanted to practice their English with me. Engineers where I was working needed good English because that was the language the manuals were written in and they needed fluency if they were to be chosen to go abroad on training courses. German and Japanese engineers on the project spoke to their Indonesian counterparts in English. Taxi drivers, need decent English if they want to drive the air conditioned taxis that service the Airport and hotels. Even the fruit sellers at the end of my street wanted to speak English because it could lead to a better job in the tourist industry.

    A problem that we monolingual English speakers face is which language do we learn? To master a language well enough to conduct business or take part in a conference requires a huge commitment of time and effort. What a waste if I spend years struggling to master Mandarin but my career never takes me to China?

    Regarding the dubbing / subtitle debate, I’m for subtitles.

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  • I have always found it interesting and , at times, hilarious when I have met Eastern Europeans or worked with them. They seem to be so confident in their English speaking and show no embarrassment in getting it wrong sometimes. To hear a person put together a sentence that would be very much at home in Dellboy speak with a mixture of emphasis on tones and pronunciation is brilliant given the confidence. A particular woman in a cafe I used was the best. I hardly understood what she said but she said it with the confidence that it was me that was in the wrong. She varied from TV speak to local Walthamstow speak and London short cuts. I found this in Turkey as well.

    My Turkish, despite being Turkish Cypriot and a different dialect, is that of an eight year old and sometimes a two year old when feeling embarrassed about it. I have watched many subtitled films. The Seven Samuria comes to mind and I would not have enjoyed it as much had it been dubbed. But, the Studio Ghibli films are fantastic to watch dubbed although I concede we might lose a little of the expierience.

    At the end of the day, comunication is the most important thing here and if it there is a universal language, or close to it as the adaptation of English is the norm, then learning other languages whilst trying to ‘A’s’ in the areas you need to secure your job, seems like extra pressure on both students and their parents at a crucial time. In an accedemic home this is much easier but for us mere mortals it can become too much. My eldest son is now learning French but only because his new job requires it and just as he is now with a young woman who is half French/American.

    My early years of cinema was a night out with my parents on nights the local cinema showed Turkish films. The films were dubbed even though the original was in Turkish. The same five or six people did the dubbing so you could not really distinguish from one actor to the other in different films but you ‘knew’ what a hero sounded like and a judge or a pretty woman. The films were crap by the way. I was usually asleep in twenty minutes as they were late screenings.

    So for my level of education and upbringing, another language is a chore and not really a priority. I like to fully immerse myself in films anyway. I like the art, although I am always interested in moments of camera work or clever inclusions that would usually be missed. I like to know how things work. A little glimpse of a pair of knickers that take you back to the seventies in a direct but subtle way, as in The Boat That Rocked which featured many moments like this.

    So subtitles for me would spoil what I sat down to watch if it is not needed. With smart TVs, it must be an opening for an app to sub title anything. It will take a lot of hard work and will not be as commercial as making it so by law so it is uninvestable so…..I’m out.

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  • Olgun #15
    Aug 19, 2016 at 7:57 am

    With smart TVs, it must be an opening for an app to sub title anything.
    It will take a lot of hard work and will not be as commercial as making it so by law so it is uninvestable so…..I’m out.

    It looks like the work has been started!

    BBC launches subtitles for live channels on BBC iPlayer in world-first
    Date: 27.07.2016 Last updated: 27.07.2016 at 11.26
    Category: BBC One; BBC Two; BBC Three; BBC Four; CBBC; CBeebies; BBC iPlayer; Online and interactive; Wales; Northern Ireland; English Regions; Scotland
    In a first for any major video on-demand service in the world, the BBC has begun trialling subtitles for live channels on BBC iPlayer. To date, subtitles have only been available for on-demand programmes.

    The trial, currently available on PC and Mac computers will allow deaf and hearing-impaired viewers to watch more BBC TV programmes wherever and whenever they want. The BBC will test and improve the feature over the coming months before it is rolled out to BBC iPlayer’s app for mobiles and tablets – and over time to Connected TVs.

    With almost 2m programmes a day or 20% of all on-demand programmes watched using subtitles on BBC iPlayer – there is already huge demand for this feature to be extended to live content too.

    Gareth Ford Williams, head of accessibility for the BBC said: “The BBC is already a world-leading provider of accessible services– but we know there is always more to do. We want to ensure our content and services are accessible to everyone – and this trial will give viewers who are deaf or hearing-impaired access to even more programming than ever before.”

    Dr. Roger Wicks from Action on Hearing Loss said: “We welcome this breakthrough from the BBC, which is a huge step in the right direction for full accessibility for people who are deaf or have a hearing loss. Our Subtitle It! campaign has been working towards increasing online broadcasters’ use of subtitles on online content and we’re delighted that the BBC is leading the way by trialling this new feature.”

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  • Thanks Alan. That will only serve to spread the english language even more I think so not serving the OP point. It would need a Babelfish type to cover all languages.

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  • Olgun #17
    Aug 19, 2016 at 8:44 am

    It would need a Babelfish type to cover all languages.

    Yep! The ones where new alphabets are required, need a lot more work than Latin based ones and those where QERTY will do!

    Fortunately modern computer keyboards have options for different languages.

    Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Greek, and Russian etc, are definitely more demanding for English speakers than French, German or Spanish!

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  • It’s wonderful to see your interest in our cause Richard! I’m an audiovisual translation researcher, and in my doctoral work I argue that children in the UK would benefit from greater exposure to subtitled audiovisual content in other languages not only for language acquisition, but also in terms of intercultural awareness. Having access to children’s programmes made in other countries, on channels such as CBeebies and at school, such as the kinds of programmes made by public broadcasters which are educational and show children’s everyday lives, would provide exposure not only to other languages, but also an opportunity to see and relate to how children in other countries live and go about their everyday lives. This could well inspire them to want to learn other languages and go out and encounter other cultures. Moreover, subtitles have been shown to improve children’s (and adults’) reading skills in their own language.

    As for the dominance of English, this is seen not only in the media, but also in world politics, business, academia. Some in my field call it linguistic (and cultural, political and economic) imperialism.

    I think it may be that children and young people in other countries are both encouraged to learn English due to the films and programmes and internet content which they see and enjoy, and also compelled to learn English for future success in their careers.

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  • Finally, I neglected to mention the role of English as a lingua franca. It has gone from being the language of the dominant to being a useful tool for people to communicate with an international audience, or form business relationships with people in different countries, none of whom are necessarily native English speakers. Another reason to learn English, which has nothing to do with an interest in English-speaking countries or cultures. But we are not required to learn another language to participate in this global communication and reap the benefits.

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  • …The power of the ‘immersion effect’ is incidentally demonstrated by the memetic spread of American expressions to Britain…

    To me it seems that the incorporation of English terms into other languages has been so pervasive in recent decades that one can almost “see” a language change under one’s own very eyes.

    My mother tongue is Italian. Over the course of 20 years, any time I’ve gone back to Italy (about once every couple of years) I got the impression that folks over there (particularly younger ones) tended to include more and more English words in their everyday conversations. Even other aspects of the language seem to have been possibly affected; for example, I’ve noticed a marked reduction in use of “formal” Italian when someone is talking to a stranger or somebody of different social status or rank (e.g., an older person). Rather, the default now is the informal ‘Tu’ (You).

    Has anybody from other non-English speaking countries noticed a similar phenomenon?

    I guess the internet and smart phones are contributing greatly to this accelerated “English-immersion effect”.

    I hope it won’t have too much of a ‘homogenizing’ effect.

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  • It is, of course, true that smart TVs allow you to switch on subtitles as an option. But that misses the point I’m trying to make. I’m not advocating subtitles per se. I’m advocating banning the voice-over. This of course makes subtitles necessary for many of us. But simply ADDING subtitles, when the sound channel is already polluted by voice-overs, misses the point.

    As for the argument that voice-overs are necessary for the blind, that is no more powerful than the counter argument that subtitles are necessary for the deaf. Both special needs can be catered for by optional buttons on the remote control. My point is that we need to ban the compulsory voice-over.

    Various commenters have pointed out that it isn’t obvious which language we should learn. True. But banning the voice-over will improve our command of each language in proportion to our consequent exposure to it. And the ones we are most exposed to will presumably be the ones we most need to learn. By the way, many Dutch people of my acquaintance speak not only English but German and often French as well.

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  • Richard Dawkins #23
    Aug 20, 2016 at 2:36 am

    It is, of course, true that smart TVs allow you to switch on subtitles as an option. But that misses the point I’m trying to make. I’m not advocating subtitles per se. I’m advocating banning the voice-over. This of course makes subtitles necessary for many of us. But simply ADDING subtitles, when the sound channel is already polluted by voice-overs, misses the point.

    Indeed so.
    The voice-over allows the lazy to not even bother thinking about switching on the subtitles. – A feature of the modern media which spoon-feeds dubious data and dubious habits to those non-thinkers who are kept amused and easily led.

    I think a really good option for parents who care about education, is to use DVDs (such as young children’s popular cartoon stories) which have a choice of languages on the set-up page for easy sales to a global / European market, and an option of adding subtitles in addition to this.

    This would allow children who become familiar with favourite stories in their native language, to then listen to the story in a second language, while having it subtitled in their own.

    For epic films and such, I think your ban or at least discouragement, is a good idea.

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  • “The conventional explanation goes like this, and there’s probably something in it. Precisely because English is so widely spoken, we don’t need to learn any other language.”

    I always thought – particularly after my ERASMUS exchange in Germany (where what I call “ERASMUS English” was well used, e.g. “wanna make party in our dorm?” ) and seeing, for instance, other European tourists use English in Prague to be understood – that it’s not quite that simple, and to do with social, economic and cultural incentives.

    Because English is for this historical moment the dominant global lingua franca, native English speakers have far less incentive to learn any foreign language and if they do learn a language, often no overwhelming reason to choose one particular language over another.

    Also, unlike, say, the secondary and primary school kids taught by Polish friends of mine from uni who went back home, British school kids aren’t bombarded so much with pop culture in a particular dominant language which essentially makes learning that language “cool”.


    Oh I see you more or less made my point, that’ll teach me to read the whole thing first.

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  • One of the benefits of EU membership is the face-to-face contact it encourages. From the point of view of language proficiency, through the right of European citizens to live, work and study throughout the Union, we have the need and the opportunity to talk to one another. English is a principal beneficiary of this, but far from the only language which is spread through daily contacts among students, colleagues, and people meeting in all the circumstances of daily life. The Treaty of the EU speaks about the ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’.

    An example of this meeting of peoples is the marriage of Mr and Mrs Farage. I’m not so sure if Nigel speaks his wife’s language, but I expect his wife and their children are perfectly fluent in both English and German.

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  • I agree with the general premise of the article. But I have some sympathy for a couple of the comments re: which language. Traditionally in Australia French and German was offered however we live on the opposite side of the planet from France and Germany. England however being a channel crossing away from Europe it makes tremendous sense to learn at least one other European language. So our education system began to be more inclusive offering Asian languages in our schools. However this has not been so effective as the language you get will largely depend on having teachers who can speak these. So in Primary school you may learn Japanese (because there happens to be a local teacher who can speak it), but you shift to high school and find the only language on offer is Indonesian. This is a significant issue which I can not see a simple solution to, Chinese is becoming more important in terms of business relationships but 10 years ago Indonesian and Japanese far more important.

    On the Voice over in this country there is an even more cringe worthy factor. The voice over of Australian Aboriginals speaking English. Many Australian Aboriginals have a mild to strong accent – their own version of in the same way that someone from the North of England may have a different accent to those in the South. On TV however I often find even the slightest aboriginal accent is voiced over or subtitled even though you can understand them perfectly well. Someone has obviously put in a policy which results in many aboriginals with any accent is voiced over instead of the rest of us taking the slightest effort to understand the original Australians. Sure if you can only understand every 5th word, but watching many shows you’d assume they were speaking a completely different language. If I can listen and understand them at half the volume of the damn voice over interfering with it then there is no reason most people short of those with actual hearing impediments cannot. It may not be a deliberate form of racism but it certainly runs awfully close to looking that way. May be just a case that too few of us take the time to get to know any Aboriginals. And perhaps I may be being a little harsh I have taught for 20 years so I perhaps have a little more exposure than some, but if I find it offensive I can only imagine how it must feel as an aboriginal born in this country speaking English (often a second or third language for them – there are over 200 Aboriginal languages surviving) but effectively being told not well enough for white Australia to take even a slight effort to understand.

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  • Although this might be an alternative to the needs hypothesis, I’d still say ‘need’ plays a prominent role, as even a child actually learns her mother’s tongue because of a need to learn it, albeit unconsciously. That’s why the first words that the child learns to utter are those that satisfy her needs, either getting more attention, or getting her needs fulfilled. So to say “The infant doesn’t strive to satisfy a perceived ‘need’ to communicate” is only true in the sense that she doesn’t strive consciously, but she certainly strives unconsciously to communicate and that’s why she learns the language. That’s why a 1-year old or 2-year old, that’s still learning to communicate cries when she’s not understood, etc.

    Furthermore, even the need to communicate and learn a language is not enough unless the ability to do so is already present. That’s why a cat or other animal living with humans doesn’t learn to speak.

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  • Ignoring for a moment the blind and the deaf (I agree with Richard that their needs are a separate issue), a proportion of the population would struggle to follow subtitled news.
    How many, and what the effect of that would be, ought in my humble opinion be considered before such change. Literacy is a sliding scale.

    For the record I’m Danish, and while I too believe the subtitling of news casts matters in general language proficiency, I’m almost certain the effect is minimal compared to the absolute dominance of English language culture. Music, movies, TV shows – on any given day it is easier to find English than Danish on Danish television.
    But since a 6-million language like Danish will never come close to the cultural output that a billion strong lingua franca has, one must turn the dials that are turnable – and subtitling is one. Just remember that the basic conditions are different in more significant ways.

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  • OK, I see my cheeky comment satirizing people’s eager willingness to be offended has been deleted.

    Anyway, this is a really good article, Richard. Lots of valid points. It is a bit of a disgrace that we Anglophones expect everybody to speak English for us. I wish I had grown up learning another language. I would have loved to have gone to one of those immersion schools, but having grown up in the suburbs, such options weren’t available.

    There have also been studies about how being bilingual is good for your brain. I seem to recall that bilingual people are better at multitasking. Pretty interesting stuff. I have to wonder if this is a byproduct of something else in our evolutionary history, because how many of our ancient ancestors, in a world without long-distance travel, would have spoken more than one language?

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  • English, in any of its variants IS and will increasingly be the Universal Language. Who really mourns the loss of 300+ Australian Aboriginal languages, or the passing of Cornish? Welsh language use and signage is a giant leap backward for all but a minority of nostalgics.

    Thailand is such an infuriating place. Once the written text was described as ‘someone who’d thrown a handful of paperclips on a flat surface’.
    NOT so funny is when signage is only in Thai & you have NO IDEA what it might mean- even traffic signs. I’m told spoken Thai has up to 38 vowel sounds- surely only a fanatic would want to learn it!!

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  • 33
    Pinball1970 says:


    Dead languages are an important part of our past and should not be lost as ancient manuscripts in these languages give clues to our past.

    How we keep them alive is another matter.

    Welsh for example, 75% of the population do not speak Welsh yet it is still the official language of the country.

    Not sure how that works.

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  • There is one good application of over-dubbing: “Bad Lip Reading“… especially those involving the current crop of candidates for POTUS! Another good example is Peter Serafinowicz’s series on Donald Trump… though these are Trump’s actual words.

    Some people have way too much time on their hands!


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  • I seem to remember reading that learning a second language as a young child helped brain development. In high school (grades 9-13) in Canada, I took English, French, German, and Latin, and after school for a while, at least, we had a Greek Club taught by our Latin teacher. I suspect this would be really rare in the U.S. If you learn French and Latin while young it helps considerably when/if you want to learn some of the other Romance languages – Spanish, Italian, etc. Greek is also nice, but difficult as he// at the beginning. I think if I were suddenly parachuted into France or Germany, I would remember enough from long long ago that I could survive. Sometimes if I address Canadian French audiences I preface my English with the remark “On m’a dit que j’ai du bon accent, mais je manque de la pratique.” (I’ve been told my accent is good, but I lack practice.)

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  • As someone mentioned the word “cool”, I’d like to expand on that.
    In this electronic age, most anglophone kids have access to PCs, smart TVs, smart phones and streaming of foreign films etc.; if they wanted to they could learn any language they want. But the motivation lacks.

    Non-anglophone kids learn English because it’s cool, because of Hollywood and movie stars and rock stars and Kim Kardashian etc. One might argue, it’s because they’re “exposed” to this, but the exposure is there because it’s popular, and it’s popular because it’s cool.

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  • Voting yes for subtitles.
    For better or for worse English has slowly become the language of the masses. There are many benefits to a common language that are mostly obvious. The negatives are not always so obvious. Multilingual people do have an advantage in that they can better experience the other cultures from which their secondary and tertiary languages arose. The expediency of technology is rapidly making language differences irrelevant. In several decades, mobile translation software could all but eliminate language barriers. However, speaking more than one language may improve brain function, I am not sure. Fact remains that for whatever reason, we are where we are, and now the task is to decide where to go from here. Should the Western world ramp up language requirements in the schools, or should other languages just be allowed to fade into history along with the many others that already have? It is a question above my pay-grade and one that may be answered by the invisible hand of the market and the policies of supranational organizations. Another language issue is the ever expanding specialization of academia that results in professional vernaculars so diverse and foreign to the average person, that by all metrics they are subsidiary languages, utilized by a small select group of practitioners. I am amused how anytime I am in the position to talk with a medical doctor, I invariably get asked if I have medical training, merely because I can use some of the medical vernacular. This parsing of the common language by specialization may represent a communication challenge itself. Not everyone is an autodidact, and most people are already unable to effectively discuss their medical issues with the providers in any meaningful way. It results in free reign by physicians and an unbalanced patient/caregiver interaction.

    One thing I have not noticed in the comments is the entertainment value of poor dubbing. I think we can all agree that the nascent Japanese monster films remain a source of hilarity for aficionados of the genre.

    adios, arrivederci, auf Wiedersehen, Ciao, sayonara, au revoir, Bye

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  • rod-the-farmer #35
    Aug 24, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    I seem to remember reading that learning a second language as a young child helped brain development. In high school (grades 9-13) in Canada, I took English, French, German, and Latin, and after school for a while, at least, we had a Greek Club taught by our Latin teacher.

    On a modern front, my younger son is fluent in several languages for communications of the future!

    C++, C#, Ruby-on-Rails, Java, . . . . . . ..

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  • Hi,

    I’m here to comment on the “personal preferences” because I don’t think in this case to be balanced, as Richard disclaimed (for a better argument, true).

    I’m French and we were a dubbing country. And to be frank we were and are still pretty good at it (we also have our French Will Smith voice and French Bruce Willis voice, the dubbers are even recognized by voice in public, in restaurants for instance, but people don’t know where they know them because they look so different from the actor. But I’m getting lost here).

    I say ‘we were’ because I feel like there has been a profound change in the past decade in our media, especially movies and TV-shows. In the past we dubbed everything but now we have subbed movies in theaters (as well as dubbed and not everywhere but in most cities), be it from Hollywood or Japan. And we have English subbed version on TV-shows/movies on cable (as well as on Netflix).

    Most people I meet, even when they are not good (or very bad) in English (even more so in Japanese) like the original version form the rhythm, the intonation, the authenticity.

    We are still dubbing, and our French Disney movies are a success too ^^ But I would guess that we lean into English not as much as a cultural domination but also as taste. After centuries of dislike, what a change!

    I may be biased but I think this issue is not as balanced as it would seem…

    On Mr Dawkins’ argument I would add something. As you don’t hear (and so learn) as much as French or German or Russian or etc… because of voice-overs you are not really paying attention (doing any effort?) in your movies/TV-Shows either. In most of those when characters speak our language it is deeply off, or even plainly painful, for us. Please stop.

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  • A very good article, and something I’ve thought for a long time too. I’ve also thought that the use of voice overs is bad for the native speakers of the language being voiced over – it’s rude to assume no one wants to hear the speaker in their own language.

    I’m an English native speaker, fluent in Spanish, and I read French and understand a fair amount spoken French, but in both Spanish and French my problem is one of accents.

    There are some people for whom I can understand everything they say, and others, whom I can barely make out that they are speaking a language I do understand.

    To be able to hear a variety of accents, which news coverage is particularly good for, is very valuable, and especially in that the context is clear, the exchanges are short, and the topics are factual, making it valuable stepping stone towards the much more difficult task of understanding fiction – movies, and TV.

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  • I couldn’t agree more – I saw this in Prospect, but couldn’t comment.

    When I watch Dutch or Flemish TV news I can hear about half a dozen languages spoken, precisely because interviewees are subtitled and don’t have their words drowned out with voiceovers, although that’s because they’re less parochial. After the killings in Oslo and Utoya five years ago, Dutch TV led with the King of Norway giving a speech, which was subtitled. I saw it on YouTube with English subtitles, and it was deeply moving to watch, which would have been ruined by somebody talking over it.

    The Nordic, Portuguese, Greek, Romanian and ex-Yugoslav broadcasters do the same. Al Jazeera English uses some subtitling, but all too often it uses voiceovers, as do RT and France 24, partly because that’s what the Russians and French do, and because they assume that’s what English speakers are used to from watching BBC, Sky, CNN et al.

    As regards dubbing, I don’t know what speakers of German and other major Western languages have to fear from not having it. Until twenty years ago in South Africa, foreign TV programmes were often dubbed in Afrikaans, which even Afrikaans speakers disliked as they already understood English. Although it was five times cheaper to dub an imported TV programme than to produce a local one, the number of TV dramas and films produced in Afrikaans has never been higher, without the need for subsidies or quotas. So if Afrikaans, with only 7 million native speakers can do away with dubbing, what are German speakers afraid of?

    Even worse than dubbing is the lektor system they use in Poland and Russia, which is the worst of both worlds – you get one man doing the same voice for everyone, including women.

    Portugal under Salazar actually banned dubbing as a way to protect the local film industry and discourage the high number of illiterate people from watching foreign films, which is still the norm, unlike in Brazil, where dubbing on free-to-air TV was made mandatory, although it was a much bigger market. In some parts of India they also have dubbing bans, meaning that they have to have local remakes, although as tens of millions of people speak, for example, Kannada, a remake is more commercially viable.

    I do sometimes watch films I’ve seen before dubbed in Brazilian Portuguese, as it means I pick up vocabulary from the context, but sometimes it’s completely ruined. For example, in the Sacha Baron Cohen film The Dictator, there’s a joke about his car being a Porsche 911, but in Portuguese, the 911 is called a ‘Nine Hundred and Eleven’. And the famous scene in Downfall with Hitler ranting about an order not being followed doesn’t work in Portuguese (or English) because the stress is on the first syllable, whereas in German, it’s on the last, so you end up with this.

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