|Research on the benefits of subtitles for learning was pioneered by Price (1983). Her study found
that captions, also known as intralingual subtitles, which were primarily intended for the deaf and
hearing-impaired viewers, facilitate language acquisition for viewers who were not hearingimpaired.
Since this ground-breaking study, researchers have investigated the use of different
types of subtitles in different educational contexts. The use of subtitles in the classroom may be
particularly useful in the multilingual classrooms, where they can be used to facilitate
comprehension of content.
In the present study the impact of subtitles on comprehension when learning content of a specific
subject was explored. The aim of this study was two-fold. First it aimed to find out how the
language and style of subtitling affected comprehension. The empirical component of the study
examined how Sesotho L1 and English L2 subtitles impacted the Sesotho L1 participants’
comprehension of the academic content presented in the videos. The participants each watched
five videos, each presented in one of the five modes: full subtitles English (FSE), full subtitles
Sesotho (FSS), keyword subtitles English (KSE), keyword subtitles Sesotho (KSS) and no
subtitles (NS). The comprehension of the content was assessed by using a comprehension test
at the end of viewing each video.
Second, it used the SMI iViewX RED500 eye tracker to examine how the extent of subtitle reading
affects comprehension. The participants’ eye movements were monitored as they viewed the
experimental videos. The study considered eye-tracking measures such as the Reading Index for
Dynamic Texts (RIDT) and Unique Fixation per Mean Word (UFMW).
Other issues to consider when studying subtitles include how task effort and attitude towards
subtitles affect participants’ performance. These two factors were not the main aims of the study,
but they are included in the study because they could potentially affect comprehension and the
reading of the subtitles. Through self-report questionnaires, the participants were asked to rate
their perceived task effort experienced while viewing the videos and their attitudes towards
subtitles in general and in the educational context.
The data was analysed using the mixed-effects model. With regard to language, no significant
effect was found in the differences for the performance between the presentation modes, thus the
hypothesis that subtitle language would have an impact on comprehension was refuted. In terms
of subtitle style, no practical effect on comprehension was found, therefore refuting the hypothesis
that subtitle style would have an effect on comprehension. Despite this, the participants’
experience provides interesting insights into the study. The participants found FSE to be most
helpful and KSS to be the least helpful, regardless of this, the negative correlation found between
comprehension and subtitle helpfulness for the KSS was found to be practically visible. In
contrast, the content was found to be most difficult when presented with KSS and least difficult
when presented with FSE. This is consistent with the responses in the attitudinal questionnaire
where participants indicated that they would recommend FSE for use in the educational context.
This could be attributed to the fact that the majority of the participants were familiar with English
subtitles in general television viewing. Another possible explanation is that the participants
perceive English as "the language of education", i.e. they are so accustomed to English being the
dominant language of education in South Africa (particularly at university), that they see the FSE
as the "normal" or "ordinary" subtitles to use.