Cinema Fix: Is dubbing detrimental to language acquisition?


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Dubbing, or re-voicing is a post-production process used in the creation of films. It involves additional recordings being ‘mixed’ with original production sound, for example the replacement of voices with dialogues in another language, and is often part of a translation process. It enables the screening and distribution of audio-visual material to audiences all over the world, despite language barriers.


Different countries across Europe, however, have very different approaches to dubbing. While some countries, such as Sweden, Norway or the United Kingdom prefer to maintain the original language of a movie which is consequently subtitled, in others, such as France, Germany, Spain or Italy, the use of full-cast dubbing is prevalent. There are also certain countries which use voice-over dubbing, performed by only one or two actors, such as Poland and Russia.

The choice of subtitles or dubbing can be a budgetary one, with small markets often opting for the former, which is a lot cheaper. Subtitling is also favoured in countries where two or more official languages are used, which allows productions to be comprehensible to speakers of different languages. However, it can also be an aesthetic issue, with artistic purists, traditionalists who advocate that art remains true to its essence and free from diluting influences, often demanding subtitles. They believe that dubbing can devalue a film by adulterating some of its artistic value, as well as the audio-visual interplay of the actors’ performance.

However, dubbing has much more far-reaching implications than just personal preferences. Often the most characteristic aspects of dialogue, such as jokes, can get lost in translation – which is to some extent lessened by retaining the original sound version. As well as issues linked to inaccurate script translation, many films have also been criticised for careless dubbing, such as poor lip sync and awkward dialogue, which can produce hilarious results. Often it is voice actors who are blamed for poor dubbing, but there may be other factors, such as the rhythmical differences between languages. A successful dialogue must not literally translate the sentence structure of the original language, but rather aim to convey the same meaning and register, while mimicking the speech pattern, as well as the tone and depth of the primary speakers in their own language. Synchronised dubbing must insure both phonetic, semantic and dramatic synchronicity.

To highlight the importance that successful dubbing can have on our perception of the film, and the hilarity which can ensue in case of misinterpretations or mistakes, one Youtube user created an account called ‘Bad Lip Reading’, where videos are dubbed for humorous effect. See this example from Star Wars:

Furthermore, dubbing is often considered as a barrier to multilingualism. In countries where subtitles are preferred, basic knowledge and understanding of foreign languages, such as English (which is most commonly used in blockbusters and popular culture productions) are statistically much higher than in countries which favour dubbing. Subtitled original-language movies allow spectators to learn new vocabulary and familiarise themselves with pronunciation, aiding in the passive process of language acquisition. According to the 2015 EF English Proficiency Index, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are rated as the top three countries, while Spain, Italy and France were ranked as having moderate to low proficiency in English. This seems to reflect quite accurately the dubbing-subtitling divide in Europe.

In response to these statistics, in December last year, the ruling political party in Spain has vowed to remove all dubbing of foreign language films and replace them with subtitles, in a bid to boost the country’s grasp of the English language. The party wanted to move away from what are seen as the remains of the fascist Franco regime, which used dubbing in order to censor, remove or alter anything which was not in line with the regime. Most famously, in the film Casablanca references to the character Rick’s fight against fascism have been removed, such as the line: “In 1936 he fought for the Republicans in Spain”.

However, dubbing is not an obvious or simple case of right and wrong. In certain areas of the world, such as Quebec, dubbing contributes to culture and language preservation. Many movies are dubbed instead of being subtitled in order to preserve French as the official language, and prevent English from replacing it. It also renders films accessible to wider audiences, many of whom do not understand the original language, and even those with visual impairments or difficulties in keeping up with the often fast-paced subtitles. Furthermore, the link between dubbing and language proficiency is not an incontestable one. Poland, for example, where the majority of films and television programmes are dubbed or use voice-over, ranked 9th in English proficiency, showing that, though using subtitles can help to cement the knowledge and proficiencies acquired during active and focused language learning, it is neither detrimental, nor can it serve as a comprehensive tool, substituting formal language education.

Ultimately, though, must art always strive to be educational? Should dubbing be a concern: does its presence or absence define the true value of a film? Though successful dubbing (or subtitling) can help preserve or enhance the artistic value of a film, surely the true essence of cinema can be removed from all language and dialogue, the domain of novels and the written word. A mute film, though certainly sacrificing much through its lack of words, can still be extremely successful, achieve greater heights of expression through non-verbal means. Perhaps instead of getting across words and speech, often hackneyed and clichéd, films should, above all, strive to communicate feelings with the universal language of music and images. For once, perhaps, language comes second.


We are interested in knowing what you think: do you prefer dubbed or subtitled films?



If you would like to read more about dubbing, here are some interesting articles:


Written by Iweta Kalinowska
Communication Trainee at TermCoord