Science

The weird reason Danes speak better English than Germans do

The weird reason Danes speak b...
Screening for English proficiency
Screening for English proficiency
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Screening for English proficiency
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Screening for English proficiency

According to 2006 research from the European Commission, more than 80 percent of people from the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden say they can hold a conversation in English. But that falls to below 60 percent in nearby Germany.

In Spain, those who sit the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score on average 89, whereas in neighboring Portugal the average score is 95. What could account for these apparent disparities in different pockets of Europe? New research published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization claims to have the answer: TV subtitles.

The researchers posit that countries where English-language television and films are subtitled rather than dubbed into the local language see a boost to the English-speaking skills of their people. "The magnitude of our effect is large, equivalent to 16.9 percent … of the average level of English skills," of a TOEFL score, the research states. Subtitling is particularly helpful with viewers' English listening skills, the study suggests.

This is by no means the only factor. A country's investment into education and how similar its native language is to English are very important. But the effect may be pronounced enough to account for much of the difference between otherwise similar countries.

The researchers highlight the Netherlands and Austria as two small countries with similar expenditure on education. In the Netherlands, 87 percent of the population say they can hold a conversation in English, whereas in Austria this number is 53 percent. The Netherlands subtitles much of its English-language programming, whereas Austria tends to use dubbed German.

Interestingly, the researchers suggest that, typically, the choice of particular countries to opt for subtitling over dubbing tends to date back to around World War II, and be influenced either by cost (subtitling is cheaper) or the tendency towards subtitling in countries with a native language less widely used internationally. This is important, because the researchers argue that countries that opted for subtitling would not have had a higher baseline for English proficiency to begin with. In other words, they argue causation, not correlation.

And according to separate research, no country in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has made the switch from subtitling to dubbing, or vice versa, since the war. Poland comes closest, with the switch to subtitling made for its TV channel TVP2, aimed at young people. (A more widespread switch was met with strong opposition.)

Polling various populations, the European Commission found a strong preference for dubbing in countries that dub, and subtitling in countries that subtitle, which would help to explain why switches from dubbing to subtitling haven't happened.

But in light of this research, and with English still an increasingly influential language on the world stage, the researchers even suggest that governments could encourage subtitling as a means of improving English language proficiency and potentially increasing trade.

The team's research, TV or not TV? The impact of subtitling on English skills, was published January 14. The paper was authored by Ainoa Aparicio Fenoll, AlbertBanal-Estañol, Arturo Brise and the late Augusto Rupérez Micola, to whom it is dedicated.

12 comments
IanHoldsworth
Hasn't a large proportion of the population of Holland been able to pickup British Television Broadcasts since the 1950s that might also account for the uptick.
McDesign
Ainoa A, Albert B, Arturo B, and Augusto R. Seems statistically unlikely!
Brooke
I knew a woman who was a native Mandarin speaker who always turned on English subtitles even when watching a program where the spoken language was English. Note that she had college level proficiency in both spoken and written English.
guzmanchinky
Makes perfect sense. I grew up half my life in Germany and I hated how everything was dubbed into German (I remember watching Top Gun in America and then again in Germany, I almost started laughing in the theater it was so bad). But yes, my friends from Austria, not so good at English. My friends from Denmark, amazing at it...
Roomie
This has been well known, at least in Sweden, for a very long time. And I would guess that if you would have made these polls before the internet then the differences would be even higher. I think the internet will eventually be an equalizer. But I might be wrong as much of the social media have bias algorithms isolating interests, specifically content in certain language in this case.
Pupp1
The idea of using the self-reported ability to hold a conversation is not really a valid basis to get a scientific result. There may also be significant differences in how the people report, and what they consider to be a conversational level.
rude.dawg
I love how the characters in Norsemen speak in English
James Holloway
The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is the more important marker in the paper. Sorry if that’s not so clear in the story.
RobW
There is a additional influence, in my opinion: the size of the particular 'language world' as an economic factor supporting dubbing; the smaller 'language worlds' opting for more economic subtitling. There are, according to Wikipedia, almost 100 million people worldwide who have German as a first language. It is the most widely spoken native language in the European Union. When you compare this with the number of native speakers of Swedish (9.6M), Danish (5.5M), Norwegian (5.2M) or Dutch (22M), it is clearly a larger market.