Does dubbing TV harm language learning?

As anyone who’s attended my “pet hates” English corner will know, I’m not a fan of dubbed TV and films. As an example of a pet hate it works well – it’s accepted by society at large, but annoys me on an almost visceral level, and I’m eager to recruit others to the cause. The reasons I give are:

1. When lip-movements and speech don’t match the film will always look ridiculous, especially when the languages have different speeds.
2. A film is a piece of art and replacing the voices of the actors is an insult to everyone involved
3. The translation will always be mangled in order to match lip movements
4. Countries that use subtitles for English-language TV have a better standard of spoken English than countries that dub everything.

The last point here is a nice final flourish for a classroom full of people who are trying to improve their proficiency in the language, but to be perfectly honest it’s nothing more than a guess, based mainly on the experience of meeting Scandinavians with untutored near-native English, but also on travel to France and Italy where (despite the huge amount of tourists there) I’ve found the opposite.

Last year the international English-training school EF produced a study called the “English Proficiency Index” – a survey which “benchmarks English proficiency across 54 countries using a sample of just under 2 million people.” (The full report can be downloaded from the website here) Looking through the figures, I thought it would be a good chance to see whether my hunch was correct. Would countries which dubbed TV have worse English, or would my idea turn out to be based on a couple of outliers?

For comparison I went to the Wikipedia article about dubbing – one of the messiest, most poorly-written articles on the site, but one which has a useful map of the different forms of dubbing used in different countries. Some countries only dub children’s cartoons, some dub most TV (either in their own language or one they can understand) and then there’s Russia, where they don’t bother dubbing at all, instead having a single actor reading the script in a monotone over the soundtrack.* Europe was the area best-covered by both the study and the map, so I focused on this area for now.

The EPI has a score out of 100 which is divided into levels of proficiency – from Very High Proficiency to Very Low Proficiency. Most countries in Europe have scores above 55, and the majority have a High Proficiency ranking or above, but there’s still a substantive variation

Here’s the comparison of the study and the map. I think it speaks for itself.

EPI vs dubbing

EPI vs Dubbing Chart

There seems to be a definite correlation, then – though of course we can’t conclude that this is definitely the case, it at least looks more likely. The two countries which don’t fit into my idea are Portugal, which surprises me as I met people there with much better English than in Spain, and Poland – which is surprisingly high up the chart considering they use the dreaded voiceover method. On the whole, though, I think I’ll be able to express my idea with more confidence now.

*It astonishes me that an entire nation could put up with this, but there are lots of surprising things about Russia.

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7 Responses to Does dubbing TV harm language learning?

  1. RanE says:

    I can add another country that falls in line with your theory – Israel. We don’t dub unless it’s for young children.

    Considering the fact that the mother tongue for most Israelis is Hebrew, which is not a Hindu-European language the English level is quite high. It used to be higher but now we dub more…

  2. Huh… once you throw the Asian countries into the mix the correlation begins to weaken considerably. Japan traditionally prefers subs over dubs when it comes to Hollywood but their English proficiency barely gained anything from that. In my country (Malaysia) we also (traditionally) leave English shows in English yet the overall English proficiency in the former British colony has reportedly been on a steep decline – according to David Crystal (2003) only 20% of about 27mil Malaysians can speak English reasonably. Comparing this with the correlation chart on this very blog post (half of France and Italy speaks English reasonably well despite their dubbing culture? as a Malaysian this makes me go “wow”)… drives me to wonder if so much English media could be COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE to English proficiency in a country having a history of having been once conquered and culturally compromised by the Brits and all that.

    • English proficiency in Malaysia may well be in decline, but it’s still significantly better than in Asian countries that dub their TV – including Japan, which still dubs more than it subtitles.

  3. Alf Hucom says:

    Intuitively we realize over years of trying that listening to a foreign language doesn’t improve comprehension/integration nearly as much as actually ‘trying’ to speak it – in other words, the feedback system is what makes language ‘comprehendable’ and gives it life. Many DVDs have the option of several audio language tracks, I always prefer the original language that the film was made in, and use English or Spanish subtitles if I want to know what’s being said :-)

  4. Seriously says:

    Is the person who made this article stupid?
    Of course Scandinavia and Netherlands, which have English more spoken on their TV than their own language will be good at ENGLISH (and not at “foreign languages”).
    How does it mean that dubbing “harm language learning”?
    These countries are cucked into hearing English everyday in every entertainment, so it’s normal they speak it well.
    Still they aren’t better than anyone else when it comes to learning a language that isn’t English, so your hypothesis is shit.

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