As a child I hated subtitles. The words constantly multiplying and changing on the bottom of TV screens distracted me from the scenes in shows and movies. Sometimes the white words moved across a black background at a faster pace than what the on-screen characters were actually saying and ruined what was to come. I’d rather the teachers who showed educational specials at school turned off the boxy ’90s televisions altogether.
Obviously, an aversion to captions spoke to my privilege as a non-disabled child who had the option of not liking them in the first place. But surprisingly, subtitles have grown on me as an adult. Being a lover of many things Black, I like to watch movies made in other countries like Nigeria, South Africa and even France (shout out to Netflix’s she-wolf† As my film and TV palette has expanded, I’ve learned from the innate multiculturalism of most black people in the African diaspora (not just America) that translates on screen. It’s quite common for scenes in these movies to have characters talking in Pidgin English (a mix of a local language and a version of English) or in two other languages completely separate from English. While body language is also a very communicative tool, missing even a few words can alter the understanding of what is happening in a story. Subtitles help put the pieces of these conversations together.
Subtitles are also very useful for those of us who want to gain confidence in speaking another language. I am years away from my high school days studying French and even further from my days learning Spanish in grammar and high school. Immersing myself in non-American entertainment has renewed my interest in memorizing and improving my French speaking skills; it has also prompted me to learn local languages, such as the Lingala of the Bantu people, which is not so easy to learn unless you are in communion with Congolese or other Bantu peoples. I now see those once-irritating words at the bottom of television screens as an opportunity to refresh and expand my communication.
As beneficial as they are, subtitles have their flaws. Talks about Netflix’s at the end of last year Squid Game, one of the streaming service’s most-watched series, exposed how poor transcriptions in the show completely shift the understanding that non-Korean speakers likely have of the storyline. As a native speaker of English, it’s a question I often ponder: Do the subtitles presented accurately capture what is being communicated on the screen? Still, I’d say switching in your subtitles here and there is a good start to expanding your knowledge of other parts of the world.