Hearing people – it’s time to give subtitles a chance

Last week, the Mail Online ran a story called SPEAK UP! Or why mumbling actors are ruining TV drama, in which Leo McKinstry described sitting down to watch the BBC’s expensive production of Birdsong, only to find he couldn’t understand a word.

“At first, I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing,” he wrote, before complaining that the lead actor’s performance “was about as intelligible as a post-match interview with a monosyllabic Premier League footballer.” Well, I think most of us deafies can relate to that experience – poor enunciation and sound quality on television is the bane of many a deaf life.

What jarred for me a tad, then, was McKinstry’s comment that “what really let the show down was theΒ  lack of subtitles.” That’s because, like the rest of the BBC’s output (the corporation has a 100% subtitling rate, no less) the drama was subtitled – it was just a matter of turning them on.

(Top tip: pressing ‘menu’ on your remote control, followed by ‘settings’ seems to get you to the right place, or if you’re really lucky, your remote may allow you to turn subtitles on with the push of just one button.)

Before Christmas I met one deafie who told me that she’d struggled to hear the television for years before discovering subtitles when an enlightened friend came over.

I couldn’t believe that this could happen in the 21st century, but what the Mail’s article tells me is there’s still a remarkable number of people who don’t know subtitles are out there, alive and kicking, ready to lend a helping hand.

All of which made me extra pleased to read this blog post from a hearing film fan this morning – called Experiencing Open Captioning. The blogger describes going to see a film, only to find that subtitles were appearing on screen.

Her initial reaction was that someone had made a mistake, but then she realised the subtitles weren’t being added accidently, and decided that “the idea of leaving or seeing a different film simply because the film had open captions felt ridiculous.” She stayed and gave them a chance.

Better still, she loved the experience.

She found the subtitles gave clarity to dialogue in the film, made her more aware of sound effects (and their possible significance), helped her remember character names, and weren’t so hard to adjust to because she’s used to watching subtitles on foreign films.

I’m still getting over the shock of finding a non-deaf film fan who likes subtitles (when I wrote this article for the Guardian about cinema subtitles, I found many examples of the opposite).

Let’s hope a few more people not only give them a chance but also become aware that they’re actually available, if you only turn them on.


  1. Hi Charlie. I work in the cinema industry and can tell you that the percentage of hearing people that complain about subtitled shows is FAR higher than the number of deaf people that complain that there is not enough subtitled shows.

    Hearing people should shut up and go to one of the non-subtitled shows, available all day, every day, in every town. Deaf people should let cinemas know that a better choice of subtitled films and shows would be appreciated. (I’m deaf by the way).

    Dean, http://www.yourlocalcinema.com

  2. Thanks for your kind words about my service Charlie. Regarding the blog you mentioned from a hearing film fan – Experiencing Open Captioning – where the blogger describes going to see a film, only to find that subtitles were appearing on screen. The film she saw was ‘Haywire’, which is not subtitled in UK cinemas. Silly, because the subtitle ‘track’ could simply be emailed to a company in the UK, reformatted slightly, and used for UK screenings.

    So if you want to catch it at the cinema the nearest one is probably New York…


  3. I agree with Dean. Here in the U.S. it’s the same thing. Most hearing people don’t want to be “bothered” with subtitles even if a deaf person is part of the audience. They complain that subtitles are distracting. Makes you wonder how they would feel if they lost the ability to hear. Hopefully, educating the general public about the needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community will improve this situation worldwide.
    (Public Relations Director at Deaf Service Bureau of West Central Florida)

  4. Hello Joe, been reading your blogs for years. Yes, the term subtitling is incorrect but for some reason it has ended up being used in the UK for captioning of films in cinemas, as well as on TV and DVD. I guess that most people don’t care!


  5. Well I’d say it’s incorrect. Subtitles are just a direct language translation. They assume you can hear footsteps, spooky whisper etc. Captions include sound effects and sometimes tone of voice etc.

    But hey, it’s too late now to change the terminology I think!


  6. Hi Charlie, love this post, can I reblog? I have two hearing flatmates – one of whom is now so used to seeing them that even if I am not watching the TV or DVD with them will still turn them on because its now “too weird without them”. I wish more people were like this πŸ˜‰ I do understand not everyone will heart subtitles, I wish I could convince those people otherwise!

  7. I have used cc for several years especially if there are accents that are difficult. Lately, I am losing some hearing so, in some cases, really need them. I have been watching Downton Abbey, second series, and the captions are terrible. I have not had this problem before and don’t have it on other channels. If I turn off the sound, i can’t figure out half of what is being said. When I have them on, I see that whole sentences get dropped! Nothing has changed in my equipment or on other stations. I have contacted local PBS, but, so far, no change. If it is frustrating for me, imagine what it is for truly deaf people. Does anyone have any ideas? If they can caption a tennis tournament well, why should it be a problem with this program?

  8. I’m shocked to find out that hearing people would have a problem with this? The most harm subtitles ever do, even at the cinema, is hide a little bit of the credits at the beginning… You can check anything you missed later on imdb!
    It may be because I’m not a native English-speaker therefore I’ve had to and often still have to rely on subtitles for a crisper understanding of the dialogue (except with “The Wire” where even subtitles were just too fast), but definitely with you on this one: we should give subtitles a chance!

  9. When I was a student, I was at a Hall of Residence in a common room watching TV with subtitles on. It was fine until there were about 20 people watching TV and one asked to have the subtitles off. It was a really awful experience as I had the remote control and you can imagine the rest….

    I then bought a TV and put it in my room so I could watch TV in peace.

    So, yes hearing people can’t stand subtitles…

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