Reading first and second language subtitles: Sesotho viewers reading in Sesotho and English

  • Esté Hefer


Subtitling can offer valuable support in multilingual countries by giving people access to materials in the language(s) of their choice. Within the South African context and its known problems with literacy, this article poses the following questions: How useful are second language (L2) English subtitles compared to first language (L1) subtitles, and how effective is the practice of subtitling in South Africa? This study examined the effectiveness of L2 English subtitles by presenting native speakers of Sesotho with a video clip containing L1 Sesotho and L2 English subtitles while monitoring their eye movements. The hypothesis was that there would be a difference in L1 and L2 subtitle reading in terms of processing. Statistically significant differences were found, but they were more extensive than anticipated. Participants were unable to finish reading the L1 Sesotho subtitles within the given display time, whereas the L2 English subtitles were read with seemingly more ease. However, their reading of the L2 English subtitles was still not optimal. The findings point towards literacy as an important problem – many South Africans do not possess the reading skills to interact with written materials offered by the media. This exacerbates challenges related to subtitling in South Africa. If people are unable to read the subtitles presented to them on television, subtitling is failing its purpose to facilitate the communication of information.

Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 2013, 31(3): 359–373

Author Biography

Esté Hefer
School of Languages, North-West University (Vaal Triangle Campus), PO Box 1174, Vanderbijlpark 1900, South Africa

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1727-9461
print ISSN: 1607-3614