The use of subtitles in the teaching and learning of Afrikaans vocabulary and comprehension

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When teaching a second or foreign language there are numerous methods that can be used to assists students to enhance their learning of and interest in the new language. The use of subtitles is one of those methods. Although subtitles are often utilised as a pedagogic tool in second and foreign language classrooms, these are usually employed for helping students to understand a film they are watching. Given the emphasis on using multimodal teaching for both language teaching and learning, subtitles can be a highly beneficial component of foreign language learning.

The advantages of using subtitles in the foreign language classroom include the following: they serve as a motivational tool to acquire a new language through watching a movie; they narrow the gap between the teaching and learning of reading and writing skills of students; they improve students’ understanding of a specific language context; they help students to follow the storyline of the movie; they make the learning of new vocabulary easier; and they improve the pronunciation skills of students (King 2002:513). Talaván (2007) emphasises the following advantages of using subtitles: they can be used in many different instructional settings; the combination of sounds (audio), images (visual) and texts (subtitles) has great value in teaching and learning vocabulary and they are a great source of socio-cultural information. Vanderplank (1988:272–3) is of the opinion that subtitles “have potential value in helping the learning acquisition process by providing learners with the key to massive quantities of authentic and comprehensible language input”. Most foreign language learners initially have little or no vocabulary of the language they are learning, and subtitles in the classroom can be a useful method for acquiring such vocabulary.

The purpose of this article is to report on research undertaken with foreign language students learning Afrikaans at university. The study is one of the first empirical research studies undertaken on the use of English subtitles in an Afrikaans language acquisition module designed for students to acquire Afrikaans vocabulary and improve their comprehension skills. The 15 students enrolled in the Afrikaans language acquisition 178 module in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of Stellenbosch have little or no knowledge of Afrikaans. The module focuses on the development of the academic and social communication skills of the students so that they can understand and participate in basic Afrikaans conversations. To do this, students need to acquire vocabulary of Afrikaans and understand conversations in Afrikaans, therefore their comprehension skills of Afrikaans need to be enhanced.

The theoretical framework of the research is the second language acquisition theory of Krashen (1982, 1985), with specific focus on the input and the affective filter hypotheses. Krashen’s theory was used in similar studies to this one – see Harji et al. (2010), Rokni en Atæe (2014), Donaghy (2014) and Miller (2016). The Common European framework of reference (CEFR) for languages (Järvinen 2006; Little 2009) was also utilised, as well as theoretical underpinnings and research on the use of subtitles in the teaching and learning of new languages (see for instance Aurstad 2013, Beauprez 2014, Bravo 2008, D’Ydewalle 2002, Kruger 2013, Sokoli 2006 and Zanón 2006). Several modes of subtitles are available to be used in language acquisition (Zanón 2006 and Talaván 2007). Standard subtitling (also called interlingual subtitling) is a form of translation where the audio (dialogue) of the film is in the foreign language while the subtitles are in the first language of the viewers. In reversed subtitling the audio is presented in the first language of the viewers while the subtitles are in the foreign language. Bimodal subtitling (also called intralingual subtitling) can be seen when both the audio information and the subtitles are presented in the foreign language.

The participants in this study were divided into two groups: a control group (seven students) and an experimental group (eight students). A mixed research methodology was followed by using qualitative and quantitative methods in gathering and analysing the data. A questionnaire with open and closed questions, a pre-test and three post-tests and a self-assessment grid were used. As authors we are aware that two of these data input methods (questionnaire and self-assessment grid) are subjective and yield unverifiable input, which does have a restricting effect on the results. Steps were taken to ensure the validity of the results by triangulation. Only data about which there was no doubt was used. This research had some limitations which could have had an influence on the results. One limitation is the first language of the students. Most students are English main language speakers and the use of English subtitles could have been to the advantage of these students. Another limitation is the small participant group. The results of the tests were relatively high. We ascribe this to the fact that the study was undertaken in the second half of the academic year – the students had already had six months of Afrikaans lectures.

The research took place over three days and consisted of three phases. The first phase was the completion of the self-assessment grid of the CEFR and a questionnaire gathering information on the language background of the students. They had to give information on their Afrikaans language skills and other language background as well as on their knowledge of Afrikaans movies and their opinions on the use of subtitles. During the first phase the students wrote a vocabulary pre-test to determine what the range of their existing Afrikaans vocabulary is. In the second phase the students watched a 20-minute extract from the Afrikaans movie Semi-Soet. The control group watched the extract without subtitles, while the experimental group watched it with English subtitles. Immediately after watching the extract the students wrote a comprehension test and a vocabulary recognition test on the vocabulary that was tested in phase one. An additional word definition test that tested both the comprehension and the vocabulary of the participants was also completed. During the third phase an adapted copy of the background information questionnaire of the one used in phase one was completed by the students, as well as the self-assessment grid of the CEFR. This was to determine the differences in opinions and Afrikaans language skills of the students after the use of subtitles in the classroom.

The researchers used questionnaires, the CEFR self-assessment grid, subtitles and pre- and post-tests to establish whether, and if so, how, subtitles helped students acquire vocabulary in and comprehension of Afrikaans and whether it improved their Afrikaans vocabulary and comprehension. The results show that all the participants were of the opinion that their Afrikaans language skills had improved after the completion of the experiment. The results further show that the use of subtitles did not improve the comprehension skills of the foreign language students. The control group had an insignificant improvement compared with that of the experimental group. The utilisation of the subtitles did contribute to the development and improvement of the students’ vocabulary. The experimental group had a significant improvement in their vocabulary compared with the control group. The main finding is that the use of subtitles helped the students with their vocabulary and comprehension.

One reason for undertaking this study was the gap in research on the use of multimodal teaching with students learning Afrikaans. The study gives a new view on the use of multimodal elements in language learning. Another reason is the lack of research on subtitles in Afrikaans language acquisition – therefore this study offers an alternative way of teaching Afrikaans as a second or foreign language.

Key words: Afrikaans comprehension; Afrikaans language acquisition; Afrikaans vocabulary; subtitles

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die gebruik van onderskrifte in die onderrig en leer van Afrikaanse woordeskat en begrip

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