an illustrated television with the Netflix logo and the word subtitles with a check mark next to it, all surrounded by a pink and purple glow
Monica McFadden

As a child I hated subtitles. The words constantly multiplying and changing on the bottom of TV screens distracted me from the scenes in shows and movies. Sometimes the white words overlaid on a black background moved at a quicker pace than what the characters onscreen were actually saying and spoiled what was to come. I’d rather the educators who screened educational specials at school turn the boxy 90s televisions off altogether.

Obviously, a distaste for captions spoke to my privilege as a nondisabled child who had an option to dislike them in the first place. But surprisingly, subtitles have grown on me as an adult. As a lover of many things Black, I love watching films created in other countries like Nigeria, South Africa, and even France (shout-out to Netflix’s Lupin). As my film and TV palate has expanded, I’ve learned of the innate multiculturalism of most Black folks in the African Diaspora (not just in America) that translates onscreen. It is quite common for scenes in these films to have characters who converse in Pidgin English (a mix of a local language and a version of English) or two other languages separate from English altogether. As much as body language is also a very communicative tool, missing even a few words can shift an understanding of what’s happening in a story. Subtitles help put the pieces of these conversations together.

Subtitles are also quite useful for those of us looking to become more confident in speaking another language. I am years from my high school days of studying French and even further from my days learning Spanish in grammar and middle school. Immersing myself in non-American entertainment has renewed my interest in remembering and enhancing my French-speaking skills; it’s also made me want to learn local languages like Bantu people’s Lingala, which isn’t as readily available to learn unless you are in community with Congolese or other Bantu people. Those once-pestering words on the bottom of television screens I now see as an opportunity to refresh and expand my communication.

As beneficial as they may be, subtitles have their faults. Late last year, conversations around Netflix’s Squid Game, one of the streaming service’s most viewed series, brought to light how poor transcriptions in the show completely shift the understanding non-Korean speakers likely have of the storyline. As a native English speaker, it’s a question I often ponder: Are the subtitles presented accurately capturing what’s being communicated onscreen? Still, I’d argue that turning on your subtitles here and there is a great start to expanding your knowledge of other parts of the world.

The Sound Issue