To Subtitle or Not To Subtitle? That is the Kung Fu

The issue of whether or not providing English-language subtitles to video input materials for EFL / ESL learners is a good idea is one of those delightful little pockets of controversy that rages back and forth for decades. Here at English Attack! we are definitely in the no-subtitles camp, for reasons which seem logical to us but for for which others, I am sure, can find refutations by the bucketload. Simply put, we’re not fans of subtitled language learning video because:

(a) reading and listening constitute two very different brain functions, which, when attempted simultaneously, tend to cancel each other out. Or do your most scintillating conversations with your spouse take place when he or she is reading the Sunday papers?

(b) As an EFL learner, you can visit England, Scotland, Canada or New Zealand; but not Subtitled England; Subtitled Scotland; Subtitled Canada (“ay?”) and Subtitled New Zealand. If we want to equip learners to function in English in the real world, we shouldn’t create an artificial learning medium which simply doesn’t exist in that real world.

(c) A corollary to (b): half the battle in language learning is building up self-confidence in the target language, even if not everything is understood and production mistakes are made. To lull learners into a false sense of security via subtitles, only to yank them away in real-life situations when they really need to execute on unassisted comprehension, can do much to harm a learner’s self-confidence. That’s why the first phase of our Video Booster video-based exercises on English Attack! is called Survival Test. The exercise is designed to foster confidence in understanding the gist of a video passage, without subtitles, even if not every single word or fact is understood: in fact, it’s healthy to convey to learners that even mother-tongue English speakers don’t understand every single word in an English language film (Trainspotting, anyone?).

In conclusion, and not really as a supporting argument but because they are so hilarious, here are a few “so bad they’re good” mis-translated English-language subitles to Kung Fu movies from the ’70’s and ’80’s. If nothing else, keep them in mind as a throwaway threat which will totally confuse would-be attackers to the point of rendering them inoffensive.

* “I threat you! I challenge you meet me on the roof tonight for a duet!”

* “I will kill you until you are dead from it!”

* “The bullets inside are very hot. Why do I feel so cold?”

* “I got knife scars more than the number of your leg’s hair!”

* “I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way.”


* “Fatty, you with your thick face have hurt my instep.”

* “I’ll fire aimlessly if you don’t come out!”

* “You are too useless. And now I must beat you.”

* “Gun wounds again?”

* “A normal person wouldn’t steal pituitaries.”

* “You always use violence. I should’ve ordered glutinous rice chicken.”

* “Take my advice, or I’ll spank you without pants.”

* “Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected.”

* “Who gave you the nerve to get killed here?”

* “Quiet or I’ll blow your throat up.”

* “You daring lousy guy.”

* “Beat him out of recognizable shape!”

* “How can you use my intestines as a gift?”

* “Damn, I’ll burn you into a BBQ chicken!”

* “This will be of fine service for you, you bag of the scum. I am sure you will not mind that I remove your manhoods and leave them out on the dessert flour for your aunts to eat.”

* “Yah-hah, evil spider woman! I have captured you by the short rabbits and can now deliver you violently to your gynecologist for a thorough extermination.”

* “Your spear is useless… You better use it for mixing excretory.”

* “Now I feel flatulent, and you did it.”

* “My innards have all been disturbed by him.”

* “That may disarray my intestines.”

* “I please your uterus. You kiss my toes. It’s fair.”

* “This is the Martial Arts Competition, not a place for fighting!”

* “A normal person wouldn’t steel pituitaries!”

6 Responses to To Subtitle or Not To Subtitle? That is the Kung Fu

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention EFL: To Subtitle or Not To Subtitle? That Is the Kung Fu | English Attack! Entertainment English Blog --

  2. TEFL101 says:

    Good post. Sounds are processed in a different part of the brain to text, which again is processed in a different part of the brain to visual inputs. The processors that handle the written word are slower but far stronger than our sound processors and so the skill of reading easily dominates your listening skills and abilities, which is why when you watch a film with subtitles, after a while you stop listening to the film and instead naturally prefer to follow the text.

  3. Interesting analysis. I love the kung fu subtitle fails! very funny. Thankfully subtitling has improved for most same-language translations.

    I totally understand why to learn a new language you might be anti-subtitles for the reasons you state in this article. It is true that subtitles won’t be there to help in you in a real scenario and so the brain must be able to cope and fill in the gaps that subtitles often fill in. I come from a slightly different angle – being hard of hearing meant I struggled to learn new language when it came to verbal and aural understanding. I fared much better in verbal when I could read the text since my association with the visual word helped me over come what I lacked in remembering and learning through aural practice only. To this day I am far more likely to remember something if I see the word written down than if someone just tells me the word.

  4. Pingback: Subtitles to learn a second language – good or bad? « i heart subtitles

  5. Pingback: Eric Donald Gray


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