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English as She is Spoke

by Neena Louise

Slogging through the reality fare that made up this past summer's television season, I noticed a rather strange addition to the screen clutter: subtitles. English subtitles for people already speaking English. I hadn't even realized that I'd come to expect subtitles until I was watching a movie on DVD with heavily-accented English-speaking characters and automatically looked for the subtitles. I find this curious and a little startling. I've never needed subtitles for English dialogue before, why do I think I need them now?

On most reality shows, anyone with a southern drawl has accompanying subtitles for every single word they speak. I've never found southern accents hard to understand, but I'm automatically drawn to the words at the bottom and don't pay much attention to the audio. Now I've come to expect it and am having a harder time understanding southern accents. I can only conclude that subtitling English-speakers is breeding laziness and, perhaps, intolerance (though that's a bit of a stretch). I could understand subtitling whispers or when there is a great deal of background noise making the words hard to hear, but English with even the barest hint of an accent? No. People aren't going to bother trying to understand anyone without a generic "American" accent if television keeps subtitling anything remotely different.

Even if the words may be difficult to understand at first, most people will quickly get used to a particular accent and have no problem comprehending. This would obviously be beneficial in the long run, because if you ever meet anyone in the real world with that particular accent, you'll already be able to understand them. But how are you supposed to learn to understand plain English in the real world if you're used to subtitles? What if you are trying to do business, but can't understand potential business associates since you've never had experience with different accents? What if you have an accented doctor in the emergency room? Or are traveling, but can't understanding anyone even if they're speaking perfectly good English? The list goes on...

In this multicultural world we live in, we would be better served to try to understand English spoken with different accents or inflections. It's really not hard - you just need to listen. But why would we bother listening and learning when television conveniently "translates" for us? Television is doing a grave disservice with this practice. They won't stop, of course, so the best we can do is stop reading and start listening. 
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