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Benefits of Subtitles in English Learning


1.1 Background

All through the years, there has been an increasing emphasis on teaching English as an instrument for communication, and technology has played a critical function in facilitating authentic communication. The movement of language teaching objectives and practices has changed from the printed word and knowledge of language systems to the use and communicative value of the spoken language in the everyday setting (Vanderplank, 1993). In a sense, the efficacy of multimedia has drawn great consideration and is presumed, under the theory of adding an additional channel of media to send out a message, to significantly improve communication and comprehension (Dwyer, 1978). Multimedia technology (like TV, computers, networks, emails video cassette recorders (VCRS), compact disc ready-only memories (CD-ROMs) and interactive multimedia) aids the teaching technique of integrating real-life situations with the target language into the language classroom. In this meticulous setting, learners slowly expand their language acquisition by being exposed to the authentic environment of the target language.

According to one of the most outstanding theories of second language acquisition, Krashen (1985) proposed that learners can learn a large amount of language unconsciously through ample comprehensible input. The Input Hypothesis, stated by Krashen, argues that the use of a target language in real communicative environments and the stress on rich comprehensible input by exposing the learners to the target language in the classroom facilitate their language acquisition. In other words, language acquisition only happens when comprehensible input is suitably delivered. In this respect, language teachers struggle to employ a wide range of teaching techniques to make authentic situations and to promote learners’ language acquisition.

Many researchers have presented strong evidence that multimedia (like computers, video, and TV) have helpful effects on language learning due to rich and authentic comprehensible input (Brett, 1995; Egbert & Jessup, 1996; Khalid, 2001). Results of these studies demonstrated the significance of the use of multimedia develops learners’ language performance in reading, listening comprehension and vocabulary recognition. One survey study by the American Association of School Administrators showed that 94 percent of teachers and supervisors believe that technology has enhanced students’ learning considerably. Similarly, many English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) teachers concur that educational technology presents many possibilities for progressing students’ language proficiency, including their vocabulary, reading, listening, and speaking.

Similarly, television programs and videos have created a place in the communication of information and are powerful apparatus in improving language teaching (Anderson & Lorch, 1983). Both TV and videos communicate not only visually through pictures but also aurally throughout the spoken word, music and sound effects. The subtitle, a key role on television and videotapes, is coordinated with the dialogue or narration of the program’s audio track, expanding comprehension and understanding of TV programs and videos. Lambert, Boehler and Sidoti (1981) have asserted that the constant general movement indicates that information coming through two input types (e.g., dialogue and subtitles) is more systematically processed than if either dialogue or subtitles are presented alone. This result is in agreement with the dual-coding theory by Allan Paivio (1971), sustaining the usefulness of multiple-channel communication. In the same way, Hartman’s (1961a) findings support the between-channel redundancy theory which suggested that when information is redundant between two input sources (e.g., dialog and subtitles), comprehension will be superior than when the information is coming through one input form, (e.g., dialog). He also gave a description of redundant information as identical information from the visual and verbal stimuli. In this respect, Hartman completed that the benefit of the multiple-channel learning system is this: information coming from two information sources is more comprehensible than that through one. Information input through different sensory channels supplies receivers with additional stimuli reinforcement to guarantee that more complete learning happens. More explicitly, the additional stimuli reinforcement helps out learners in systematizing and structuring the incoming information.

However, a contrasting theory, the single channel theory proposed by Broadbent (1958), states that human can only process information throughout one channel at a time. This theory assumes that the decline of learning takes place if the information is received through two or more sources. The learning is delayed when the multiple-channel presentation of information is used in the teaching-learning process. Along with this contentious viewpoint between the single and the multiple-channel presentation, an awareness of and interest in the use of multimedia resources have been increasing, like the presentation of subtitled materials.

Today, language learning has turned out to be more available by implementing multimedia with spoken information and full visual context, such as subtitles. For instance, subtitled videos representing words and pictures in an aural and in a visual form are more probable to activate both coding systems in the processing than words or pictures alone. The dual-coding theory proposed by Paivio (1971) suggests that when pictures are added to the meaning, the number of signals connected with the message increases. Viewers then will be more probable to keep the message in mind. Therefore, the results of the past research appear to sustain the aspect that the use of subtitles causes multi-sensory processing, interacting with audio, video and print mechanisms. These information input foundations get the process of language learning better, improve the comprehension of the content, and increase vocabulary by looking at the subtitled words in meaningful and stimulating circumstances. In addition, a lot of teachers consider subtitles shed some new light on a better way of using various multimedia in the ESL classroom. When subtitled technology appeared more than 15 years ago, many educators quickly saw value in exploiting its potential in helping students process language in a different way and effectively by means of the printed word. (Goldman, 1996; Holobow, Lambert, & Sayegh, 1984; Koskinen, Wilson, Gambrell, & Neuman, 1993; Parks, 1994; Vanderplank, 1993).

1.1.1 Subtitle

Subtitles, which are English written subtitles on instructional English-as-second-language (ESL) videos in this study, are the written version of the audio constituent that permits dialogue, music, narration and sound effects to be shown at the bottom of the screen on most televisions. There are two kinds of subtitles explained in general terms: the open subtitle and the closed subtitle. Closed subtitles refer to the subtitles that are not automatically visible to the viewer; however can be viewed by turning on through use of a remote control or an electronic subtitle decoder. By contrast, open subtitles are visible to all viewers without turning them on with a remote control. Subtitling is not only the main function of the TV but a positive function of video tapes. Video tapes offer subtitling by those who specialize in computer workstations. To make subtitles visible, an electronic subtitle decoder is obligatory, that is easily attached to a television set. Although it is not available in some areas of the world, subtitling technology is broadly accessible and draws great attention in the United States. In 1990, the U. S. Congress passed the Television Decoder Circuitry Act requiring that all new televisions, thirteen inches or larger, be prepared with subtitle decoder circuitry. The function of the decoder circuitry is to receive, decode, and show closed subtitles from cable, DVD signals and videotape appropriately. With reference to this regulation, the consumer is no longer required to pay for a separate decoder, when in possession of an applicable TV set. Therefore, thousands of people in the U.S. have access to subtitles without any trouble by pushing the button on the remote controls (National Subtitleing Institute, 1989). However, available access of subtitles on foreign film videos is still restricted in other countries, such as Taiwan and Japan, where external subtitle decoders are necessary for viewing.

Subtitleing was devised initially for the hearing impaired. The statistics on the number of decoders sold confirm that more than half were bought for the hearing impaired who assert that decoders are helpful to them. Increasingly, the use of subtitles has also augmented among the non-native speakers who are motivated to improve their language learning. A study by Hofmeister, Menlove, and Thorkildsen (1992) discovered that 40 percent of people other than the hearing impaired buy the decoders, such as foreign students. To be explicit, the motive for this phenomenon is that subtitles show words in a motivating atmosphere where the audio, video and print media help viewers comprehend the unknown words and meanings in their context. However, subtitles have a great impact on comprehension improvement of specific TV programs and improve English language learning progressively.

For the benefits of the multimedia approach, ESL programs began to incorporate subtitled materials into the curricula to help ESL students’ language learning. The focus on teaching techniques and on means of optimizing students’ comprehension of the second language has been of great concern through this multimedia. Koskinen, Wilson, Gambrell, and Neuman (1993) stated that the subtitled video is a new and promising approach for improving students’ vocabulary, reading comprehension, and motivation. Other researches have been conducted to inspect whether subtitled TV and video improve or obstruct students’ learning. The results have indicated that subtitled TV and videos are helpful for the hearing impaired, ESL students and disabled students (Bean & Wilson, 1989; Borras & Lafayette, 1994; Ellsworth, 1992; Garza, 1991; Goldman, 1996; Goldman & Goldman, 1988; Markham, 1989; Nugent, 1983; Parlato, 1985; Price, 1983; Vanderplank, 1991; Webb, Vanderplank, & Parks, 1994; Wilson & Koskinen, 1986).

Despite a large number of studies suggesting/demonstrating the benefits of the use of subtitles for the hearing-impaired, language learners, and disabled students, similar studies on the use of English subtitles in English teaching are still limited in Iran. Thus, there is great scope for additional examination into the potential use of subtitled television videos to enhance language teaching to English-as-Foreign-Language (EFL) students. The design of this research elaborates mainly on the language learning achievements.

This study adds to the aforementioned to investigate the exposure of target language input to students through the presentation subtitled videos. This research focuses on the absence or presence of 10 English subtitled ESL instructional video episodes for a period of five weeks as a primary variable in an experiment to help determine the conditions for the improvement of Iranian college students’ learning English as a foreign language in Iran.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

Many people in Iran have problems when it comes to communicating with foreigners in English. In addition, to get information from the Internet, having a fair amount of English knowledge is required. That makes accessing information a problem for those with limited English language proficiency. In addition, those Iranian students who wish to study abroad, language is the main problem since they have studied in Farsi for all their educational life, and thus adapting to a non-Persian environment is consequently very difficult. Students in Iran, start learning the Basic English at their secondary schools, however the curriculum structure, is based on teaching grammar rather than oral skills; therefore, most students’ oral communication skills are limited. .

Moloney (1995) states that the emergence of English in the global market has resulted in the current ardor for learning English in developing countries. The need for English in Iran is unique. English is not only a required course for Iranian students, but also required and tested as part of major entrance examinations in Iran. These mentioned issues are going to be considered in proposing subtitles in videos and English learning movie solution.

1.3 Objectives of the Study

The purpose of this study is to investigate the effectiveness of subtitled videos in enhancing university students’ language learning in Iran [English as a foreign language (EFL)]. In the study, the term language learning represents two types of performances. The first is students’ content comprehension of a particular video episode, as evaluated by a Content Specific Tests (CST) and the second is to investigate the learner’s vocabulary acquisition.

1.4 Significance of the Study

Teachers’ professional development activities always focus on those types of teaching strategies that help students improve along with their path of learning process. As the research has been designed to discover the effectiveness of presenting subtitles on the movies on vocabulary acquisition and content comprehension, it would be of much significance if confirmed that this strategy works. Generally speaking, it can also been resulted that the finding of this research also could be added to the body of language teaching, learning and use of multimedia technology knowledge. The findings of this study can be share with the curriculum designers, EFL/ ESL teachers for the technology to be implemented in the classroom, materials developers for English teaching

1.5 Hypotheses

This study focuses on English language learner’s performance on the Content-Specific Tests (CST) of vocabulary, and content comprehension of videos with and without subtitles. The researcher tested each of the following null hypotheses as she controls the initial differences of the participants in their general English proficiency.

Ho 1: There is no significant difference on the scores of the content comprehension subtest of the CST between subjects watching videos with subtitles and those watching videos without subtitles.

Ho 2: There is no significant difference on the scores in the content vocabulary subtest of the CST between subjects watching videos with subtitles and those watching videos without subtitles.
1.6 Research Question

1. Does presence of English subtitles on the videos help learners improve their vocabulary significantly?

2. Does presence of English subtitles on the videos help learners improve their content comprehension significantly?

3. Does presence of English subtitles on the videos help learners improve their English language proficiency significantly?

1.7 Definition of the Terms

The definitions are given here to make sure uniformity and understanding of these terms throughout the study.

1.7.1 Subtitle

Subtitle is the spoken words designed for the deaf and hearing-impaired people helping them read what they cannot hear. The terms subtitles and subtitles are interchangeably used in this research and are described as the translations of the spoken words to the written with the identical language shown at the bottom of the screen.

1.7.2 Closed Subtitle

A subtitle of spoken words viewed by a special decoding device installed in the television set or a special decoder machine.

1.7.3 Open Subtitle

A subtitle of spoken words that always is printed at the bottom of the screen.

1.7.4 Content-Specific Test (CST)

An instrument designed by the researcher for this study used to measure learners’ overall comprehension in terms of vocabulary and content comprehension of a particular video segment. The CST includes the two subtests: vocabulary and content comprehension.

1.7.5 Content Vocabulary

The vocabulary that comes into sight from the particular video piece viewed by the subjects

1.7.6 Content Comprehension

Content comprehension that focuses mainly on the whole story script and test viewers’ comprehension of the particular information shown in the video

1.8 Limitation of the Study

The researcher encountered difficulty in access to the samples of all Iranian population of EFL learners since the country is very huge and the numbers of English learners are so many. It was very hard to control teachers’ inside-class activities based on the methodologies presented to them. Non-generalizability of the findings to all English learners, especially ESL learners is another which is because the research is conducted in an EFL (Iran) context. The last but not the least limitation is the material choice since there are various types of videos. Therefore, the researcher had to restrict the video to an instructional video, connect with English since it is both with and without subtitle available as well as being suitable for the proficiency level of the participants.


This study is divided into five chapters. Chapter I introduces the foundation for this research, the purpose of the study, and definitions of key terms used throughout the study to diminish potential misunderstanding.

Chapter II presents a review of the literature of the use of subtitles. It starts with a theoretical review of the cognitive information processing relevant to the single channel theory and the multiple-channel theory, with focus on the cue-summation theory, the between-channel redundancy theory, the dual-coding theory and the capacity theory. It then keeps on with a discussion of the schemata theory, the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis by Krashen and the ACT Model by Anderson. Subsequently, the relevant major research on subtitles for the hearing-impaired, disabled, normal reading ability, and language learners is offered.

Chapter III outlines the method of hypotheses testing formulated in Chapter I. It also includes the research design, followed by a description of the subjects in this study, the treatment materials employed, the testing instruments, the data collection procedure, and the details of the data analysis applied.

In Chapter IV, the analyses are performed to reveal the research hypotheses are explained in detail, with the quantitative results of these analyses and an interpretation of the results.

The final chapter, Chapter V, summarizes the findings of the study in light of research hypotheses and discusses the performance of the subjects and the results of the analyses shown in Chapter IV. The conclusion interprets the effect of subtitled videos on EFL students’ language learning in relation to their listening and reading comprehension and their vocabulary. To synthesize the conclusion of this study, pedagogical implications, the limitations of the study and further research are presented.

2.1 Cognitive Processing Theories

In many communities around the world, competence in two, or more, languages is an issue of considerable personal, socio-cultural, economic, and political significance. (Fred Genesee McGill University, WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT BILINGUAL EDUCTION FOR MAJORITY LANGUAGE STUDENTS). Historical documents indicate that individuals and whole communities around the world have been compelled to learn other languages for centuries and they have done so for a variety of reasons such as language contact, colonization, trade, education through a colonial language (e.g., Latin, Greek), intermarriage, among others (Lewis, 1977). The term “learning” has been considered in different ways by psychologists throughout history. Some behaviorists believe that “learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior which occurs as a result of experience or practice”. In addition Iranian students consider the radical-changing world as a situation of globalization that makes them study English as their second language and also a key to main language of scholarship. Thus Iranian government obliged students to start studying courses in English from early primary school through to university over a course of about 7 years. Despite this, reports show poor linguistic results; thus there is a requirement for an in-depth analysis of the teaching methods to understand the reasons for failure.

Analyzing the process of effective learning, usually this is divided into two different components, first is individual interest in a topic and the second part is situational interest (Hidi, 1990). Individual interest is said to be the degree to which the learner or the reader is interested in a certain topic, subject area, or any special activity (Prenzel, 1988; Schiefele, 1990). Situational interest is explained as an emotional state aroused by situational stimuli (Anderson, Shirey, Wilson, & Fielding, 1987; Hidi, 1990). The literature shows that the individual interest of the reader learner has a positive influence on text comprehension (Anderson, Mason, & Shimey, 1984; Asher, 1980; Baldwin, Peleg-Bruckner, & McClintock, 1985; Belloni & Jongsma, 1978; Bernstein, 1955; Entin & Klare, 1985; Osako & Anders, 1983; Renninger, 1988; Stevens, 1982).

However these researchers defined individual interests as the relatively long-term orientation of an individual towards a type of object, activity, or area of knowledge. This is why exciting tools such as movies seem to have positive effect on learning. (Schiefele, 1987). Schiefele also believes that individual interest is itself a domain-specific or topic-specific motivational characteristic of personality, composed of feeling-related and value-related valences. Then, individual interest is naturally generated by a text that constitutes a ‘feeling of enjoyment or involvement’. Individual interest motivates the learner to become involved in reading the specific subject matter.

Fransson (1977) indicated that students who were interested in a special topic exhibited and showed deeper processing of a related text. Using free recall and extensive interviews, Fransson found that high-interest subjects made more connections between both different parts of the text and also between what was read and prior knowledge or personal experience. Benware and Deci (1984) and Grolnick and Ryan (1987) arrived at almost the same results, demonstrating that topic-interested – We shall also call it ‘intrinsically motivated’ – students exhibited markedly greater conceptual comprehension of text content in contrast with non-interested and extrinsically motivated students.

The process of the ‘language learning’ is seen as a complicate cognitive skill. According to Neisser (1967), cognitive psychology considers that all information passes a process through which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, focused, stored, recovered and used.

Gardner and Lambert (1972) are said to be pioneers in the investigation of socio-psychological aspects of second-language learning. They conducted numerous studies on the relationships of attitudes and social-context to the process of learning a second language. They proposed a distinction between these two models: integrative and instrumental motivation. The former is defined as a full identification by the learner with the target-language group and readiness to be identified as part of it. The latter indicates interest in learning L2 only as a tool to procure a better future through social mobility; in this case the learner does not identify with the target-language speakers. However integrative motivation is often considered more likely to lead to success in second language learning than instrumental motivation. Bandura’s (1986) and Zimmerman’s (1989).

In particular, some of cognitive theorists believe that information-processing theory has the concept of capacity theory within itself. They suggest that the human capacity for learning a language is not regarded as an apart and disconnected from cognitive processes. According to Beck and McKeown (1991), most research on vocabulary leaning has focused on written text, probably because vocabulary research has developed under the umbrella of reading research. Having this fact in mind that arousing interests causes effectives in learning, is supported by a number of studies which have clearly indicated that television programs and movie videos may also be used as a motivational tool to affect teaching techniques in the field of language learning, especially in the area of vocabulary learning. For instance, Rice and Woodsmall (1988) found that children learn words from their first language when watching animated films with voice-over narration. Such learning can be further improved when the films are subtitled, i.e., when voice is accompanied by orthographic information. Schilperoord, Groot, & Son (2005). Researches shows that in countries like the Netherlands, where almost 20% of all programs on Dutch public TV and commercial televisions are ‘foreign’, learners are provided with opportunities to learn foreign languages, especially since the 1980s, when the teletext was introduced. Similarly, Koolstra and Beentjes (1999) maintain that in the small language communities, a considerable number of television programs are subtitled, causing and creating the possibility of vocabulary acquisition not only in one’s first language but also in his foreign languages learning process. Actually, the use of television programs and movie videos for educational purposes is not new. What researchers are interested in is how much learners can learn from films and television programs, and what factors influence the amount and kind of learning and how much. According to Reese & Davie (1987) to address this concern, researchers have examined features like message structure and format characteristics to identify those which best facilitate learning. Reese & Davie report studies which suggest that visual illustrations are most effective when they are accompanied by the script.

Looking at socio-cultural factors ‘attitude affecting’ in success of learning, however the combinations of traits explain the use that the learner makes of the available learning opportunities, all of which affect L2 learning. Wong-Fillmore (1991) indicates three main factors affecting L2 learning: the need to learn the second language, speakers of the target language who provide learners access to the language [cultural openness], the social ‘setting’ that brings learners and target-language speakers into contact frequently enough that makes language developments possible [social openness, cultural openness, interaction between learners and target-language speakers]. Clement (1980) also places great emphasis on the L2 learners’ motivation and the cultural milieu. In Clement’s model, primary motivational process, is defined as the net result of two opposing forces—integrativeness minus fear of assimilation. Integrativeness refers to the desire to become an accepted member of the target group; fear of assimilation refers to the fear of becoming completely like the other culture and losing one’s native language and culture. Fear of assimilation along with fear of ‘loss of one’s native language’ and heritage may weaken L2 learning motivation, especially in the countries like Iran where people are brightly proud of the history and heritage. Schumann (1986) suggests a model focusing on a cultural aspect of learning that he terms “acculturation,” that is, integration of the social and the psychological characteristics of learners with those of target-language speakers. Under this heading, he classifies the social and affective factors cluster both as a single variable. According to Schumann, there are two factors in acculturation [social integration & psychological openness] namely, sufficient contact and receptiveness between members of target-language and L2-learner groups.

There are clearly a number of common features between the above models. They all include the effect of social context attitudes (integrative or instrumental) and acculturation. A problematic social context usually affects L2 learning negatively, especially when the learners are minorities learning L2 as the language of the dominant group like it seems to have the same role with English language as a semi-dominant language of the world especially in contrast with the middle east languages. However, learners’ awareness of the necessity for learning the L2 affects their success positively even if it symbolizes a conflict between the minority and the majority. L2 learners apply instrumental motivation, which operates as a meta-cognitive strategy whereby they persuade themselves to engage in L2 learning even though they have no liking for the language and the culture (Abu-Rabia, 1991, 1993; Bandura, 1986; Zimmerman, 1989).

Looking to the movies and TV programs as a motivational tool in learning a language, and based on a justification of the outperformance of students exposed to subtitled video theories are grounded in research either on the single channel theory or on the multiple-channel theories. Multiple-channel theories hold an overview of the cue-summation, the between-channel redundancy theory, the capacity theory and dual-coding theory. Moreover, the schema theory, the Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and the ACT model by Anderson are also evaluated in the following part, attending to how information processes and learning happens.

2.2 Schema Theory

According to Bartlett (1932), a schema is defined as a ‘store of perceived sensory information’ in memory. He explains that schemata are formed and culturally regulated. “As the number of schemata increases, one is able to recall an ever-larger amount of information in minimum time; adapting new information to an appropriate schema allows one to remember new and important ideas” (Rumelhart, 1981, 1984). However consistency with an existing schema leads to understanding and inconsistency generally causes problems in the comprehension process. Schemata can impede and slow down reading comprehension and memory; details that are inconsistent with one’s schema are deleted, or transformed, and rationalized to fit the existing schemata in the memory. On the other hand, schemata can also play a facilitating role when their details are consistent with the reading content; in this case cognitive processing occurs quickly without serious obstacles (Anderson, 1987; Van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983). Researchers usually compare reading of culturally-familiar and unfamiliar stories by students from different ethnic backgrounds. Results have shown that students’ comprehension of cultural stories is a function of their cultural familiarity with these stories (Abu-Rabia, 1991, 1993, 1995; Abu-Rabia & Feuerverger, 1996; Adams & Collins, 1977; Anderson & Gipe, 1983; Anderson, Reynolds, Schallert, & Goetz, 1977; Baldwin et al., 1985; Carrell & Eisterhold, 1983; Lipson, 1983; Paul, 1959; Reynolds, Taylor, Steffensen, Anderson, & Shirley, 1982; Steffensen, Joag-Dev, & Anderson, 1979; Yousef, 1968; Zegarra & Zinger, 1981).

However, learners’ awareness of the necessity for learning the L2 affects their success positively even if it symbolizes (according to Abu-Rabia’s above) a conflict between the minority and the majority. Second language learners apply instrumental motivation, which operates as mentioned like a meta-cognitive strategy whereby they persuade themselves to engage in L2 learning even though they have no liking for the language and the culture (Abu-Rabia, 1991, 1993; Bandura, 1986; Zimmerman, 1989).

2.3 The Single Channel Learning Theory

The single channel theory is based on the principles that the human processing system has limited capacity in the central nervous system (Trave

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