In Defense of Closed Captions – Chicago Reader

As a child I hated subtitles. Words constantly multiplying and changing at the bottom of television screens distracted me from scenes in shows and movies. Sometimes the white words overlaid on a black background moved faster than the on-screen characters were saying, spoiling what was to come. I’d rather educators showing educational specials at school turn off square ’90s TVs entirely.

Obviously, the distaste for subtitles spoke to my privilege as an able-bodied child who had a choice not to like them in the first place. But surprisingly, subtitles have grown on me as an adult. As a lover of a lot of black stuff, I love watching movies made in other countries like Nigeria, South Africa, and even France (with thanks to Netflix’s Lupine). As my palate for film and television has expanded, I have learned about the innate multiculturalism of most blacks in the African diaspora (not just in the United States) that translates on screen. It is quite common for scenes in these movies to have characters conversing in Pidgin English (a mixture of a local language and a version of English) or two other languages ​​other than English. As much as body language is also a very communicative tool, missing even a few words can change the understanding of what is happening in a story. Captions help put the pieces of these conversations together.

Subtitles are also quite useful for those of us who are looking to become more confident in speaking another language. I am years away from my high school days of studying French and even further away from my days of learning Spanish in grammar and high school. Immersing myself in non-American entertainment has renewed my interest in remembering and improving my French speaking skills; It also made me want to learn local languages ​​like the Lingala of the Bantu people, which is not as readily available to learn unless you are in a community with Congolese or other Bantu peoples. Those words that once lurked at the bottom of television screens I now see as an opportunity to refresh and expand my communication.

As beneficial as they are, subtitles have their flaws. At the end of last year, the talks about Netflix squid game, one of the most watched series on the streaming service, brought to light how the poor transcriptions in the show completely change the understanding non-Korean speakers likely have of history. As a native English speaker, it’s a question I often ask myself: do the subtitles presented accurately capture what is being communicated on screen? Still, I’d say turning on subtitles here and there is a great start to expanding your knowledge of other parts of the world.

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