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Screengrab: Newshub; Design: Toby Morris
Screengrab: Newshub; Design: Toby Morris

MediaDecember 20, 2022

The literacy magic of television subtitles

Screengrab: Newshub; Design: Toby Morris
Screengrab: Newshub; Design: Toby Morris

Originally created for people who are Deaf and hearing impaired, captions today are widely used by all kinds of TV watchers. Could captions also help endangered languages survive?

If you don’t know what “tentacles undulating moistly” or “creatures mewl pathetically” refers to, then you’re probably someone who can hear their “hand unfurling creakily” – old.

The Netflix show Stranger Things has not only wuthered Kate Bush up the charts and ensured Metallica doesn’t fade to black, it’s also made captions cooler.

Earlier this year, season four of the science fiction-horror-drama saw its captions go viral, with fans sharing screen shots with bizarre phrases “tentacles roiling wetly” (think agitating a squid in the sea) and “guttural gurgling” (evidently when your stomach sounds like it’s farting through its skin).

The Stranger Things creative team wanted to give fans – many of whom watch with captions – an enhanced experience by vividly describing the grisly sounds that most could hear anyway.

A classic Stranger Things closed caption

According to New Zealand research, 38% of us use captions on a regular basis and, of those, around half aren’t using them for the usual reasons related to hearing impairment.

Time for a terminology intermission: subtitles are translations for people who don’t know the language; captions are text versions of the audio and sound – closed captions can be turned on or off by the viewer but open captions can’t; and audio descriptions are an alternate audio track that describes what’s happening on the screen for the blind and low vision community.

David Kent, the Deaf community sector representative on the Media Access Charitable Trust Board (Photo: Supplied)

David Kent, the Deaf community sector representative on the Media Access Charitable Trust Board, says that for the 880,000 New Zealanders with some form of hearing impairment, captions are indispensable.

Kent gradually lost hearing in his late teens; by 24 he’d lost almost all hearing and relied on lip reading.

“While I now have relatively good hearing with two cochlear implants, and can participate well in almost all situations, I struggle to follow TV without captions,” he says.

“For many, many people, captions are essential – without them life becomes so much more difficult, contributing to a feeling of isolation from people, and from the world.”

In Aotearoa, captions and audio descriptions are created by the not-for-profit outfit Able NZ, which is funded by NZ on Air to provide services for free-to-air television. Broadcasters don’t pay.

Three recently added audio descriptions, making their content accessible to the 180,000-plus Kiwis who are blind, deafblind, vision impaired and low-vision.

The TVNZ+ and Three Now platforms don’t support audio description, which means it’s only available on broadcast television. Similarly, the TVNZ+ and Three Now platforms don’t support captions for live streams, so caption users have to watch live television via Freeview or another digital television device, not via the internet.  Prime, which is owned by Sky, currently doesn’t support audio description either.

Able Chief Executive Dan Buckingham says these issues are technology-related, but that his organisation’s remit is to work closely with broadcasters to support them to make their platforms and channels accessible for everyone. 

Could broadcasters be doing more?  Buckingham says unlike some other countries, there’s no legislation requiring broadcasters to offer caption and audio description services but Aotearoa “punches above its weight” for such a small population.

“For example, despite not having legislation, audio description has existed in Aotearoa since 2011 – nine years before Australia developed it on free-to-air TV,” he says. “The percentage of content we make accessible through AD is also much larger than in some other countries where legislation exists.”

Able chief executive Dan Buckingham (Photo: Supplied)

Buckingham says that beyond their primary audiences, captions in particular are valuable for the wider population due to the “curb cut effect”, which happens when addressing a disadvantage experienced by one group ends up helping others. The name refers to a popular example, that of adjusting the edge of a footpath (or curb) for wheelchairs – which is also beneficial for people with strollers, cyclists, skateboarders and people wheeling luggage.

Buckingham says the curb cut effect for captions includes helping to improve literacy rates. New Zealand research suggests using captions can significantly improve vocabulary and reading comprehension, especially among those from culturally diverse backgrounds.

One aspect of captions that has been less widely publicised is their role in supporting languages that are threatened with extinction.

Able NZ caption editor Kristin Williams says in the case of Te Reo and Pacific languages, captions can offer an opportunity to normalise and give added exposure to vocabulary, terms and phrases.

“A lot of speech-to-text software is quite Euro-centric, so it often struggles with Te Reo and other languages from the Pacific,” she says.

“Mishearings and errors need to be corrected by [Able] staff, and we work hard to capture as much as we can – for example music styles, place names and phrases when possible.”

The maintenance and survival of Pacific languages is a deeply personal issue for Williams, whose grandparents moved from Sāmoa to settle in Avondale, Auckland in the 1940s.

“With the best of intentions, my grandparents chose to speak predominantly English at home, so the Sāmoan language has been lost in subsequent generations,” she says.

“Not knowing the [Sāmoan] language, and therefore parts of the culture, has had a big impact on my sense of belonging and identity. I’m learning Sāmoan in my mid-30s through a private tutor as a way of navigating that.”

Captions can support language learning through immersion, as well as complementing formal classes.

Buckingham says localisation of language as a big part of Able’s kaupapa.

“Aotearoa is making progress towards becoming a truly bicultural society, as well as recognising and valuing the importance of Pasifika as part of our collective culture, and the broadcast sector is playing a vital role in these endeavours.

“We believe access services have a significant part to play in this by ensuring language is accurately represented on-screen,” he says.

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