In this episode, I got chatting with Henry Warren who is running a campaign called ‘Turn on the Subtitles’ where he is encouraging broadcasters and technology platforms to turn on the subtitles as research has shown that it can help improve children’s literacy rate.
Even though this is not predominately deaf-related, it still touches upon it. As someone who is dependent on captions/subtitles, this campaign is something that I agree with and as it turns out, it has a lot more benefits than people think, as Henry explains in this podcast.
You can listen to the podcast interview below, or you can read the transripts by scrolling down:
- ‘Turn on the Subtitles’ website and Twitter
- Research on how subtitls can improve children’s literacy rate
- Henry Warren on Twitter
- The Benefits of Subtitles/Captions
Announcer: This is the Hear Me Out! [CC] Podcast. A place to hear stories from the deaf and hard of hearing people, and from your host Ahmed Khalifa.
Ahmed: I’ve been very curious about what you’ve been doing. It’s ‘Turn on the Subtitles’ a campaign, it’s not even a company, just a campaign.
So, I just figured I need to find out who are the geniuses behind that and talk about why it’s important all these things.
So I want to start off with, for those who don’t know, ‘Turn on the Subtitles’. What is it? What is it about and why have you started it?
What is ‘Turn on the Subtitles’ & its purpose?
Henry: Okay, well, I mean this all starts with a did you know, and that did you know in this case is if you turn on subtitles for children’s television programmes, it dramatically improves their literacy. Which to me is just such a brilliant thing.
Now, I’ve worked in education for wow, must be coming up to 20 years and I had never heard of this, I’m embarrassed to say.
Now I was sent through an article by my co-founder, Oli Barrett, a little while back, which spoke about some of his academic research and Oli and I got together and well, why is this not a thing? This is just so obvious.
And it turned out that there are a number of different reasons for that. The first is the technologically, up until pretty recently, this was really quite difficult to do.
The combination of subtitles, frankly being either absent or pretty poor was pretty much the de facto standard. It was also really quite complex to do. You may remember having to hit eight, eight, eight on one your television set.
Ahmed: On Teletext, of course.
Henry: But then what would happen is if you turn the television off, then you’d lose the settings. But now with video on demand, this is now much, much simpler to do.
The second thing was really this was an idea that was fundamentally locked in academia. I mean, he talked academics, many of them already knew about this. In fact, there’s, you know, dozens and dozens of different studies on this exact topic, but they just hadn’t really moved into the public consciousness.
So I mean, frankly I have very few actual skills, but one thing I do have is a great tolerance for caffeine and a reasonable address book. So Oli and I sat down with… Well maybe we could just make some introductions here.
Maybe we could introduce the broadcasters, the big tech platforms to this idea to the academics that have been championing this and hopefully we can see some positive good coming out of it.
Ahmed: I think it’s a great thing. I mean for me, I depend on it a lot as someone who, even with the hearing aid on and I watch it with that on, it’s still not enough.
So I’ve been dependent on subtitles so much that if the cinema don’t have it, don’t have the option, I just don’t go watch the latest movies or anything like that. And I remember those days that people outside the UK will not understand what we’re talking about within the 888 on the teletext.
We’re asking broadcasters and tech companies to TOTS (turn on the subtitles) by default, to improve children’s literacy.— Oli Barrett (@OliBarrett) July 13, 2019
Please check out and share this short film to spread the word! More here; https://t.co/cjxkyhfTSa @TotsCampaign (film by @TaylorMadeTV) #TOTScampaign pic.twitter.com/Wj3R7phigm
And every time I turn on the TV watch programme automatically put in 888 and so much has changed since then and I guess you’re right.
Auto-captions is not the Solution
Technology has made it easier, but it’s still not perfect especially because people use automated captions. So I’m guessing that’s not going to be good enough, auto-captions?
Henry: No they’re not. And certainly not at the moment. Although a huge amount of investment is going into improving language recognition. So down the line I think it will be but right now, no, it’s not suitable.
So really what we’re talking about is content that already has subtitles. And the good news is that the vast majority of children’s content does have it. In fact, 100% of BBC content has subtitles.
So I mean, what we found, let me talk a little bit about kind of the sweet spot for this. So the evidence seems to suggest that the best impact for for subtitles is the age group between about six and 10.
So this is when children are really looking to improve their fluency, their speed, their comprehension, their vocabulary, and that’s when it really, really kicks in. But there’s also evidence to show that even below the age of five, they starts to have a positive impact.
Ahmed: Because this is the thing that people don’t really think about is when you are reading to children even toddlers and babies, you’re reading books to them. It’s not because they’re going to understand every single word, is it?
It’s because they’re going to pick up the word, become part of their vocabulary. It’s going to be part of their natural spoken language eventually.
And just because they don’t understand every single word, it doesn’t mean reading books is not useful. And I guess it’s the same thing with what you’re saying, isn’t it? It’s about children even if they are under the age of five, if they see subtitles, they can still benefit from that.
Henry: Yeah, categorically that’s not the case. But I mean we forget quite how important literacy actually is. I mean in the UK 28% of kids are behind when it comes to the reading proficiency and that number rises to 45% for poor families.
But why is that in itself important? That’s important for a bunch of reasons. Not least that if your level of literacy is low, you have three times the chance of being hospitalised, you have three times the chance of getting a criminal record, and you have three times the chance of having meeting an early death.
So it’s literally life and death.
Ahmed: Wow. I never thought subtitles is something that could be life and death. And people don’t understand, not only just from your perspective, that is one thing about even for example in other situation I have seen situations, the news channels abroad where you have an emergency news. Kind of like one of the natural disasters are happening and the news telling people what to do and how to evacuate and stuff like that.
But the thing is there were no subtitles available.
So that was definitely life or death in that situation because of, I think it was a flooding with the hurricane, that girl, I can’t remember which country it was, but even subtitles like that is literally life and death and it just really will just in the way you put it.
And I understand more now you’re talking about the age of merely six to 10. The children at that age. What I find even more interesting is that you don’t even focus predominantly on children who are deaf or hard of hearing. I mean, do you have any link to the topic of deafness at all?
Is ‘Turn on the Subtitles’ for the deaf children?
Henry: No, not specifically, no. I mean we have actually spoken to a number of the leading charities on this and, and of course, National Deaf Children’s Society for a start. And of course they are very supportive of this.
But the great thing about this particular programme is that it can impact everyone, deaf children, hearing children, everyone, I mean, let me, I want, if I could just talk a little bit about kind of some, the data actually shows on this and I’m kind of what we are advocating for with these broadcasters.
I mean, what we’re trying to get them to do, and actually the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Really hats off to to the broadcasters and the tech companies and we’ve been welcomed with open arms.
What we’re asking them to do is to turn on subtitles like default for children’s programmes aimed for between the ages of six and 10. Now that’s not to say that people can’t turn them off again if they really want to hope they don’t, but we need to give them that option.
For us, the default setting is, is really, really important because it’s actually, it’s the children who are seems to be being raised by television in some of the poorer households across the world. But we really want to help, but we really want to impact. And so just a standard public awareness raising campaign isn’t really going to do that.
But let me talk a little bit about perhaps some of the data that underpin this because I mean I’m naturally having worked in education, I’m actually pretty sceptical about lots of these kind of magic bullet programmes.
And when I first heard about this, I’ll confess, I was thinking, “Well it sounds kind of interesting and logic dictates that it might have an impact, but really how much impact does it actually have?”
I tell you, I was blown off my chair and I’m not the only one.
And we partnered with a national literacy trust and it went through this evidence and they also said we’d never seen anything like this, really. So I mean there’s, there’s dozens of experiments I could run through, but let me just tell you about one in particular.
And there was one in India where they put subtitles on a TV programme called Rangoli. This is a fairly big trial. 13,000 kids in total and they watched 30 minutes of this cartoon… This programme three times a week. Now, five years later, long trial, five years later of the kids that were part of the control group, so those who hadn’t been exposed to subtitles, 24% of them are functioning better.
However, of those that have intervention, 56% are functioning better. I mean, it’s a massive impact.
Ahmed: And it seems so simple with subtitles. It seems like almost hard to believe that that’s the power of subtitles that it can have on children and pretty much their entire future and their life.
Henry: Well, I mean this is why Oli and I were just, “We can’t let this go.” And we have to try and do something to support this and so yeah, so we’re spending our time practically drinking a lot of coffee, talking to the likes of YouTube and Netflix and the BBC and I’ve just come back from a great series of meetings over in LA and San Francisco with the guys at YouTube.
Ahmed: And I’m all for that overall. I I think if it’s a very interesting concept, you want to own by default, so essentially you want closed caption because it’s about the option of turning off and I think people would panic about having the subtitles permanently burned on the video itself which is open caption. And I am, again, people are saying there’s no way I want that on my TV.
I’ll get frustrated, I get angry and I’ve seen none of the tweets, those campaign about more options to watch cinema subtitles during sociable hours and anything and I’ve seen tweets
People are saying if I ever see that I will leave the cinema, if I ever see that I will complain, I would never come back all that kind of… You’re the minority.
Do you receive the same thing? Do you have any kind of setback or people challenging against you or people are afraid? Have you had any kind of negative reaction to your campaign?
Henry: No, because if you really feel that you absolutely don’t want to watch children’s programmes with the subtitles on you’re perfectly within your rights to turn them off.
So it’s really not a problem. If you’re going to get that exercised about it, then turn them off. But I think what we’re saying, and we’re saying this loudly and clearly, is that it really does need to be on by default.
Does it help with learning foreign languages?
Ahmed: So what about then for foreign languages? Is it the same kind of impact in terms of those who are learning the foreign languages or do you tend to want to focus more on your main national language? First off, how do you feel about that as well?
Henry: Wow, that’s a really great question Ahmed. I mean it’s a whole different set of of data around second language acquisition. What we’re really talking about here is same language sometimes which is the case.
So watching a programme in English and having the subtitles in English. Now we are looking at other languages as well as in if the programme is in Hindi or the programme is in French with the subtitles also being French.
That’s kind of step two frankly. The the piece around learning other languages, I mean anecdotally I know of dozens of people that have told me that they have improved their language acquisition by having subtitles in the language that they are trying to learn. But I mean that’s not really within the remit of this particular programme.
Ahmed: Which is a good thing to hear as well because I mean there are benefits to having subtitles. Anyway there are benefit of learning foreign languages, there are benefits to all of these things.
So you know it opened up a whole world. If you are learning a new language then you have access to new culture and then if you can access that culture in that foreign language is great.
And I find it amazing that it’s only acceptable to see subtitles on foreign films yet to see in your own language then it’s not acceptable, it’s a hindrance but it’s not a hindrance in foreign film.
I guess that it’s like a vicious cycle all the way. But then I have always been an advocate of it and I just try to push it more and more and more about it.
And you know, I go out of my way to make sure, for example, when I do podcast, there are transcripts or when I’m doing my YouTube videos, I put in the subtitles in there as well and you can do it for free or you can pay for all these things.
But of course technology has made it easier for myself and for all of us to create the subtitles to give you the option of doing that.
Are the technology platforms & broadcasters doing enough?
Do you feel that those technology platforms, do you think they are doing enough in terms of providing resources? Do you think they should have extra resources?
What kind of changes would you like to see from the broadcast and the technology platform apart from having it on a default, what kind of changes would you like to see from them to take action on?
Henry: Oh, I think the news is overwhelmingly positive on this. If you look at how many people are actually viewing content now with subtitles on, especially people who are computing as well and increasingly children are just growing up finding them they’re just there. I mean, my kids complain when I turn them off.
So I mean I think really what we’re saying here is that a lot of children are watching quite a lot of television. In fact, in the UK it’s 13 and a quarter hours per week on average that they watch.
Now I’m not here to say whether that is too much or too little, but what I do know is that we could use that time better and we could use that time to improve literacy. And that’s what we’re talking about.
Ahmed: So it’s kind of a almost multi-tasking in a way you can watch TV…
Henry: I like that. Yeah.
Ahmed: … but you can also learn something along the way and you are dispelling the literacy. So yeah, it’s kind of multitasking in a very, very positive way.
And I think you made a very good point about video consumption and especially again we’ll talk about technology is increasing and I’m sure it will increase every year.
And there are numbers out there in terms of like the amount of minutes that’s going to be watched on video, on internet per second is increasing. I think apparently there’s over one million minutes of video crossing the internet per second and that’s according to Cisco. And I think that’. Mind-blowing.
What about subtitles on social media platforms?
So it’s going to be a whole new challenge then in terms of videos online, so we’ve mentioned YouTube, but then what about by social media and those quick videos, those Instagram stories, those Snapchat, those quick story that people don’t really put a lot of time and effort into putting subtitles on.
Do you have any issues around that? Are you fighting for changes to happen on that as well, or are you mainly focusing on the programme, television programmes, and movies that are on broadcasting channels and YouTube essentially?
Henry: Well it’s very much the latter at the moment. I mean, we’re really focusing on what you would consider to be fairly traditional television. But television that’s on video on demand.
So within that I include the likes of YouTube and Netflix. So would we advocate for the likes of Snapchat, people in Instagram? Interesting question.
Honestly, I don’t know. And I think that’s probably something we would look at down down the line. But we have a big enough challenge focusing on the big broadcasters and tech platforms with our traditional content at the moment.
Ahmed: So it’s a big challenge as you say and if people want to help with that or get on board with that and push that campaign, what can they do? How can they help you in a way?
Henry: Really all we’d ask is that you just turn on the subtitles and you can do it manually now you don’t need the likes of the big platforms to do it for you. If you hear this podcast and you think this sounds like a sensible thing to do, then we’d encourage you to do that and just just tell others.
If you want to read more about some of the research around it or our progress, by all means go to turnonthesubtitles.org and you can track our progress from there.
Ahmed: And I’ve been reading it and I’ve been looking at the research which I find it very, very interesting. I’ll put the link in the show and people can access it.
And it’s like the numbers don’t lie, you can’t fake it in terms of what you have found the research that you have found about the benefits of having subtitles, and the one thing that I’ve noticed that if you’ve mentioned the word same language subtitling and not afraid that, I’ll be honest that I have not heard that before.
I’ve heard of other things like sign supported English and obviously British sign language and then the other words around that. I’ve never heard of same language subtitling. So could you explain what is SLS?
Henry: Well, basically it is what it says on the team. It’s the languages in the same title that you’ll hear the same language you’re hearing. So if you’re watching a programme and someone is speaking in English, this is about having the subtitles beneath there in English.
Ahmed: So what about then you the subtle differences between subtitles and captions? In terms of captions, you tend to also describe info around the spoken language that for example the sound effects, the music player, the background noise all these things.
Is that something that is also part of your campaign or are you focusing more on the actual spoken language instead?
Henry: I think at this juncture we are really looking at sounded closed-captions and they’re usually, usually but not always does include sound effects in the background et cetera and that’s fine. That’s great.
There’s, that’s a positive benefit as long as children understand the grammar and what’s where it’s saying that this is something that is going on in the background rather than being spoken, but that doesn’t seem to be something that confuses people.
I think what is particularly interesting though is where you get that kind of variation between what you hear on the screen and then what is typed. And what we are advocating for us is just making sure that that gap is closed.
That’s actually exactly what you hear, is what you would see in subtitles. And that certainly is what Ofcom is is being told in its various different consultations with viewers.
Ahmed: Okay. Well it sounds like a lot of plans, lots of exciting plan and a lot of challenges ahead. So what is the, I mean to kind of wander up and I want to learn more about yourself. I’m going to be more about it and see what can I do in my part apart from I shout about it, the need for it from the deaf perspective.
And I focus on that because that’s personal to me and that’s important to me and for many others but as you’ve mentioned it can benefit so many other people as well.
What’s the long-term goal in terms of you’ve got your immediate challenge of the broadcasting and these things, do you have the next step? Do you have other avenues? Do you have other direction that you want to take with the Turn on the Subtitles campaign?
Henry: We do, we do. I think we have a big enough challenge with our short-term goal at the moment.
But for example, I was contacted by the equivalent of Ofcom in Nigeria recently. They have 68 million children under the age of 15 and they’re looking at whether they could, whether they should be mandating that this be rolled out across all of their channels.
So there’s a question there about what kind of organisation do we become to enable to support that? But I mean that really is a question for for next year I think at the very earliest.
Ahmed: That makes sense. I think it’s great. I mean I do appreciate you sharing a bit more insight and the stories behind it, why it’s important. And I would definitely urge everyone to go to turnonthesubtitles.org, I’ll put the link in the show notes, check it out, why it’s important.
And it’s nothing that will harm anyone. You put it on, you’re watching TV and you’re improving your literacy as well, especially for children. And it’s awesome.
And, and I have to obviously from my perspective, from my personal way to thank you for that as well, because that’s going to have a positive impact on my life as well, not just for children, but also would help other people as well, like myself who are struggling to hear and pick up things as it is.
But it’s going to help us as well, so I definitely have to thank you if that’s what I want to say for your effort into making it happen and for the future generations as well. So it’s really, really awesome.
Henry: That’s very kind of you, I mean, I really don’t think I can take much of the credit at all. I mean the real credit needs to go to the amazing researchers and academics that have been working tirelessly on this for the last 10, 15 years.
And also to a number of organisations that have supported us and backed us through this. So not least, the National Literacy Trust, see the Annington Homes, the list goes on. So there’s a lot of people working on this and I’m extremely grateful for their time and support.
Ahmed: That’s great. And as I might as well. So thank you Henry for your time and obviously pass on my thanks to Oli and everyone else behind-the-scene and all of these researches and all the journalists and people writing it and I appreciate your time. So thank you for that.
Henry: Not a problem. And also if you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m just @HenryWarren and you’re going to push me for what the Twitter handle is for the @TOTS. I think it’s, Oh my God. Follow. Just follow me and you’ll find it. I’m on there too.
Ahmed: I’ll, I’ll put the yeah, it’s a good point. I’ll put your link to your Twitter in the show so that anybody who want to connect with you and have question, they can go there as well. So thank you Henry. I appreciate that.
Henry: All right, you take care!
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