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.
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.