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Overlooked Languages: Tools of the Trade

Whether it’s a cup of tea and a slice of cake when you settle down to watch Downton Abbey, or that replica broadsword you wield as you hum, loudly, along with the opening credits of Game Of Thrones (…just us? Oh…), we all have our little routines when it comes to watching our favorite films and TV shows.

For some, it’s as simple as that: whip out the popcorn, settle back in your seat, enjoy. But what about those of us who are visually or hearing impaired? What adds to their routine to ensure that they can geek out just as much as those of us lucky enough to have at least half-decent vision/hearing do?

Stepping slightly outside of our comfort zone, over the next couple of weeks we are going to look at two very important languages that are often overlooked when it comes to talking about the importance of learning languages: sign language and Braille. To get there, this week we are looking at the tools used to help those with visual/hearing impairments enjoy our favorite film and TV.

Descriptive video service (DVS)

Also referred to as Audio Description in the UK or Descriptive Video Service in the US and Canada, this is a service provided for viewers who are visually impaired. It is a tool that can be found on TV and DVDs, at the cinema, in theaters, at museums, and at many live events. Think of it as commentary – perhaps not with quite the same excitement as Mike Emrick for the Stanley Cup playoffs – but enough to give the viewer clues to what is going on to assist the dialogue they are hearing.

Through DVS, viewers can discover what characters look like, what their expressions are saying despite whatever words are coming out of their mouths, things that are happening in the background that are important to the context of what is going on; the possibilities are numerous. In fact we’re kind of excited to hear the DVS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens: how exactly do you describe the sound of a light saber? We need an onomatopoeic word for that!

Netflix’s first foray into DVS was in April 2015 with Daredevil; what a way to start! Since then there has been an impressive increase in TV shows and films offering DVS and similar services.

Image via Wikimedia / Wikimedia

And if you think that audio commentary can’t bring a cinematic experience to life for someone not able to view it for themselves, think again: Your Local Cinema has collected a long list of quotes from satisfied DVS users that will make you realize what an impact this tool can have.

What makes our little language hearts thud is that services similar to DVS are offered in various countries around the world – and if you think about it, why wouldn’t they be? In Canada there are numerous services provided in French (for example, Sassonique), in India BarrierBreak is the main provider bringing commentary in English and all Indian languages, in Argentina on the El Trece network, and in Sweden Syntolkning Nu gives Swedish viewers those details they might otherwise miss out on.


Subtitling for much of the world can be helpful for either non-native language speakers or for those who are hearing impaired. In the United States there is a clear distinction between the two, with the term closed captioning used solely for those requiring auditory assistance.

Earlier in the year we spoke about the different ways foreign language films are presented to non-native ears, and the use of subtitling was one of them. Which poses the question: is subtitling for hearing impaired viewers as hit-and-miss as it often is for non-native speakers?

If you’ve ever tuned into Doctor Who and been watching it with someone who uses the subtitles, you’re probably already aware that there is often a vast difference between what is being said, and what is being written (depending on which Doctor it is, that could be a bad, or good thing perhaps). And, taken out of context, those little “clues” added to the subtitles to assist you can mean you find yourself even more clueless as to what is going on: let us demonstrate with Supernatural:

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We’ve watched the episodes obsessively so we know what’s happening, but taken out of context even we’d be scratching our heads.

Subtitles can be so bizarre that there are entire blogs devoted to celebrating them: if you’re interested, we’d suggest giving Subtitlesarenecessary a look.

Because subtitling crosses the divide between language learning and hearing assistance, it can, in effect, kill two birds with one stone. Think about particularly strong accents: Adele recently had to be subtitled in the US!

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Sign language

If you’ve ever wondered why sign language is used instead, or in addition to subtitling on TV, think of it like this: not all those reading the subtitles have the ability to read, and even if they can, having a person talking to you is so much more personal than just reading a line of text. Since body language and facial expression can convey so much more meaning than purely the written word, sign language is an incredibly embracing tool to have to hand.

Sophie Stone, one of Britain’s most talented actresses who just also happens to be deaf, is a great ambassador for learning sign language on the whole. If you haven’t seen the Doctor Who episode Under The Lake, go and take a look and you’ll see why.

Image via Flickr / Flickr

Sign language interpreters are just that: interpreters bridging the gap between one language and another. Get a good one, and you’ll know exactly what’s going on in your favorite show. Get a great one, and you’ll be so absorbed in what they’re saying to you that you might forget to watch the actual show itself.

If you need some examples, here is a snippet from Inbetweeners. Also, the New York blizzard briefing is an absolute must watch. And so we’re hitting all our language points, take a look at this Swedish scene-stealer whose dancing almost – or most definitely – outshines the performer doing the actual singing.

There is even controversy if you need your little gossip fix: back in 2013 there was outrage when the sign language interpreter for the Mandela memorial signed everything but what he was actually supposed to be saying. Shocking behavior!

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Language for all

Whether you’re cynical and think that services provided by the likes of the BBC, Sky and Xfinity are there just to ensure they’re getting maximum exposure to all target markets, or if you believe they are genuinely reaching out in all inclusivity, it isn’t really up to us. The fact is that these tools should be available to all. The ability to communicate is not only a right, but is also one of the things that connects each and every one of us; whatever form that communication comes in.

Next week we’ll be looking at sign language, and why it’s just as international a language, full of similarities and differences as, for example, English, or Spanish. See you then!