Learning English at the academy of Brad and Angelina

Could less film dubbing make Spaniards better linguists?

The subject of showing films in their original language - and its relationship with the mastery of foreign tongues, above all English - has been raising passions in Spain for decades.

One of the most recent participants in the debate is Education Minister Ángel Gabilondo. While recognizing that Spain has a dubbing industry made up of highly qualified professionals, he said that it was "also evident that in countries where films are not dubbed, it has clearly had a bearing on the knowledge of languages."

Spain is the fourth-worst country in the EU when it comes to mastering foreign tongues, according to a recent report by Eurostat. Among the top-performing countries to which the minister was alluding are Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Finland and Slovenia, though he made it clear that original-version movies, accessible in a few dozen or so film theaters, all located in big cities, are not a "cure-all" for the problem.

Original version movies are not a "cure-all", says the education minister
"It is risky to say dubbing is the cause of inferior linguistic skills," says a report

Julio Morales Merino, director of the Doblarte de Madrid acting school, as well as a translator and show adaptor, is emphatic: "If languages must be taught, why don't they ban the profession of translator, and let everyone fend for themselves when reading Shakespeare in his language, Schiller in German or Tolstoy in Russian?"

It is an exaggeration, but Morales' argument reflects a concern among dubbers, exhibitors and distributors. Last week the Federation of Dubbing and Voice Professionals said that links between dubbing and poor knowledge of foreign languages were "imprecise." It is a view supported by the EU report Study on Dubbing and Subtitling Needs and Practices in the European Audiovisual Industry, which, covering 31 countries, highlights that "it is risky to conclude that original subtitled versions favor the learning of any language and that dubbing is the cause of an inferior level of linguistic knowledge."

That said, teachers agree that even indirect exposure to a language can help master it. "Even though it is a passive activity, [watching original version movies] provides a lot of information, perhaps at an unconscious level, about the language," says Paul Kelly, who has been teaching English in Australia, the UK, Italy and Spain for more than 20 years. "It's more about familiarizing oneself with the music of the language, with how it is expressed, with the intonation... This is something very difficult to teach in a class because the pupils only have one model, the teacher, who in many cases changes his way of talking due to not being in contact with other native speakers, something that occurs in an unconscious way."

Teacher Karen Hees insists on the importance of broadcasting programs in their original version on television. In the era of digital and pay TV, television could become more of an opportunity to get accustomed to languages (which in 90 percent of cases means getting used to US productions). In recent weeks, Fox has been promoting the latest series of House in English with Spanish subtitles.

According to the channel's director of programming, Pablo Viñuales, it has been doing this for the early premieres of series such as House, Cold Case and 24 for several seasons. "It gets us closer to the US premiere and satisfies the demand of an important group of pay-television viewers, for whom subtitled original versions have added value," he explains.

One of the most frequent arguments used by defenders of original-version films is the link between dubbing in Spain and Francoist censorship. It is true that the grotesque maneuvers of the dictatorship's board of censors destroyed - to give just one famous example - the story of John Ford's Mogambo. In 1950s Spain it was inconceivable that the married woman played by Grace Kelly in the film could have an adulterous relationship with Clark Gable. The dubbing and dialogue alterations helped to change Kelly's husband into her brother, thus making the adultery look like incest.

But after so many decades of compulsory dubbing, would it be legitimate to impose original-version films? "You don't go to the movies to learn English, that is what schools are for...," says Elena Palacios, an actress with 23 years of experience and the voice of characters in Cold Case and Lost, among others. "Why don't we leave things as they are, with freedom to choose?"

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.REUTERS
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