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Quality TV is the big casualty of Spain’s dubbing

Lack of subtitles doesn't help language skills, but it also hurts Spanish TV.


'Dallas': the bane of Spanish TV and the country's English teachers.

That Fox Television’s recent announcement it would be screening medic drama series House in the original English —with subtitles— was considered a news story by the Spanish media might go some way towards explaining this country’s poor ranking in EU tables of member populations’ knowledge of languages other than their own. More saliently, it highlights this country’s dismal record when it comes to producing quality television programming.

Spain ranks as the fourth-worst country in the EU when it comes to mastering foreign languages, according to a recent report by Eurostat. Those figures coincide with a report by the EU’s Dubbing and Subtitling Needs and Practices in the European Audiovisual Industry, which, covering 31 countries, states: “it is risky to conclude that original subtitled versions favour the learning of any language and that dubbing is the cause of an inferior level of linguistic knowledge.” It is a view supported by the Spanish Federation of Dubbing and Voice Professionals, which said that links between dubbing and poor knowledge of foreign languages was “imprecise.”

The Spanish Education Minister Ángel Gabilondo weighed in by saying that in countries where films are not dubbed, “it has clearly had a bearing on the knowledge of languages.” The minister then added the caveat that original-version movies, accessible in just a few dozen or so film theatres across Spain, all located in big cities, are not a “cure-all” for the problem of the country’s poor linguistic performance. A cursory glance at the television page of any newspaper shows that more than 60 percent of non-news programming on Spanish television comes from the United States, and it is all dubbed. It is also mostly second rate, a reflection of the lack of imagination of Spanish television executives rather than the output of the US television industry, which is increasingly capable of producing high-quality series.

And that is the real issue here: not whether we are likely to learn a foreign language better through watching television programs or films in their original language, but that importing low-quality US television series and movies has systematically stifled the quality of Spanish television over the years, simultaneously preventing it from nurturing home-grown talent.

The reasons for the dearth of original-language programming on Spanish television lie in the country’s Francoist past, reflecting a profoundly reactionary understanding of the function of the medium, as well as a historic failure to grasp its full potential. A 1941 law forbade the screening of films in any other language than Spanish. Until 1989, Spain had just two television channels, both state controlled. They were loosely based on the British and French model of an entertainment-led channel and a second one with a remit to show more edifying programming. One of the few positive things to be said about Spain under Franco was how little television there was: it didn’t come on until the afternoon, and was pretty much finished by 11pm. That said, the caudillo understood the power of television, and made sure that it entertained the masses on a lowest common denominator basis, a policy that continues to this day. When the general passed on to the great military regime in the sky in 1975, his successors tried to give the impression that the two state channels were mirroring the social, political, and economic changes sweeping Spain.

Too much David Hasselhoff

Given the explosion of talent that produced so many high-quality, low-cost movies in the late 1970s and 1980s, there was clearly no shortage of people around in Spain who could have brought their skills and energy to revolutionising television. But revolution wasn’t in the air. The Socialist Party government of Felipe González, which took over in 1982, also understood the power of television, and wasn’t about to relinquish control of it to anybody. Instead, Televisión Española sought to keep up with the times through the nifty solution of importing US television series: Dallas, Dynasty, The Love Boat, Knight Rider, The A Team, Falcon Crest, MacGyver… the list is long, very long. The problem has been compounded by two decades of private television that has pursued the same model as state television.

Even pay-per-view channel Canal Plus, most of whose content is made up of US movies and series, offers programs dubbed into Spanish (although with an original-version option on the remote control). The result of this dependence on imported US programming has been to further stifle the emergence of home-grown talent, which, as was the case 30 years ago, is not in short supply. It seems that television companies have systematically kept out talent, instead opting for a race to the bottom to produce mainstream, low-cost programming based on tried and trusted formulae: hospital dramas, cop dramas, and situation comedies.

Let’s spell this out: languages are learned at school and at university—or by attending night school. Once some proficiency has been achieved, travel or an extended stay in the country of the language being learned will help, as will reading, conversation, and yes, watching films or television in the original language. And yes, if Spain were to show more films and television in the original language, it would help familiarise those interested in learning a second language through exposure to its sound and structure. But as said, language learning isn’t the real issue here. The education minister has no business laying the blame for Spaniards’ poor grasp of foreign languages on the film and television industries. His ministry is chronically underfunded, as Spain’s poor showing in educational league tables highlights.

And dubbing of foreign language programs and films isn’t about to disappear any time soon: surveys show that 80 percent of people prefer dubbing to subtitles. That said, doing away with dubbing would at least highlight this country’s cultural deficit: households the length and breadth of the land would suddenly be filled with the sound of English. It might prompt us to ask the question as to why so much television is imported. Let’s face it, a lack of confidence in Spain’s own culture explains why it has to import the bulk of its television programming from another country, and not even one that speaks the same language.

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Published: Dec 1 2010
Category: Culture, Films
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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8 Comments for “Quality TV is the big casualty of Spain’s dubbing”

  1. I'm confused. I thought this article was about language acquisition relating to dubbing films and TV shows. After reading about the history of Spanish TV, I found these contradictions:

    "and yes, if Spain were to show more films and television in the original language, it would help familiarise those interested in learning a second language through exposure to its sound and structure"


    “it is risky to conclude that original subtitled versions favour the learning of any language and that dubbing is the cause of an inferior level of linguistic knowledge.” It is a view supported by the Spanish Federation of Dubbing and Voice Professionals, which said that links between dubbing and poor knowledge of foreign languages was “imprecise.”

    What a shocker. The Spanish Dubbing and Voice Professionals don't want to lose work. They want to keep their jobs! There's a reliable source. Maybe that's why the guru of English learning, Richard Vaughan, agrees with Nick and the dubbers. How much would he lose if people actually were exposed to the language?

    V.O. obviously not the only solution, but it helps. Just ask some the Dutch, for instance.

  2. For what it's worth most dubbed programming can be watched in V.O. with the TDT/digital box. Using the audio button you can change the language track/channel to the original. The only program I've seen/watched where this did not work was the Simpsons.

  3. Well done Pete.I get the impression you´ve not read this site before.Iberosphere seems to be a master at producing inconsequential nonsense,look at the recent smoking law article.Yes this one too is full of nonsense-were you aware that Holland and the Scandinavian countries produce world class tv? No,me neither.YET they all speak superb English,better than the average native speaker,AND they don´t go for dubbing either.So not too sure,like you,what this article is on about.

  4. I agree with the comments above: The article is not all too clear in its message.

    I would still argue that original-language programming IS important for developing abilities to speak a foreign language — if watched during early childhood, at least. The nascent brain harbours the ability for a person to pronounce more than 600 different sounds. The developing brain, however, ruthlessly throws out sounds that a person does not need in its toolbox.

    A language like Spanish that has a particularly not-rich set of sounds in its register means that those children exposed to only Spanish (and very limited to other languages) are left with very big difficulties in differentiating between sounds coming from other languages, and, therefore, these children, as they grow up, will have an increasingly difficult time pronouncing (and speaking) different languages.

    So even if foreign-language teachers in Spain may be below par, they are also up against a much steeper learning curve that teachers are faced with in countries like Holland and Denmark, where these languages are nearly as rich as Chinese Mandarin when it comes to the amount of different sounds used and where exposure to original-language TV and film screening is abundant.

    Apple just launched it new film and TV series rental in Spain: It carries only Spanish-dubbed films — and not even subtitles are offered. Clearly, the local industry of film importers has a strong grip on how programming is carried out.

    I say, as the article also gets at, skip the expense of dubbing, and donate those savings to the domestic film production industry. If 80% of the population indeed prefers Spanish-language entertainment, not doubt the local film production industry should flourish. And a chance to expose Spanish children to the wealth of spoken sounds embedded in foreign languages could become a reality.

    [also, often, Spanish teachers' approach to teaching a foreign language is structured in the way that Spanish is taught: I.e., with a high focus of grammatic rules. Learning English, e.g., requires much more focus on use of the live language in writing and conversation]

  5. I have altered the headline – hopefully that helps clear up any confusion. The article is not saying that watching TV has nothing to do with language skills – it actually says that basic language skills are learned in other ways and that original version TV can then reinforce those skills.

  6. I have to second what Christian states above, regarding the human brain steadily discarding the variety of sounds it can recognise and reproduce.

    This can be seen in the historical evolution of Spanish.

    Consider, for example, how Early to Middle Castilian included open and closed vowels, the Italianate "ts" and "dz" and "dg-" sounds as well as boasting French-like "j" and "sh" common to other Romance languages. But as the centuries went on (certainly by the 16th century and Early Modern Spanish), the language would go through a spartan transformation, stripping it of much of its phonological variety.

    Some have suggested that this simplification was the result of a response to Castilian's status as an expanding lingua franca across the vast peninsula; the language 'dumbed down' phonetically, if you will, in order to become more wieldy and economical amongst other speakers.

    This rationale, however, confuses me; after all, were not Portugal or indeed Catalan-speaking lands of the Aragonese Crown, outward-looking maritime trading powers?And yet those languages displayed a propensity to maintain or indeed expand on their phonetic toolbox (as evidenced by Portuguese nasal vowels, for example).

    If my primitive understanding of linguistics is sketchy on the details here, I'd really appreciate if Guy or any readers might expound on how and why these historical processes came to be.

  7. I'm afraid I am not an expert in this area, although it is fascinating. It certainly would be ideal material for a future article.

  8. There are no television programmes dubbed in the UK. What does this say about language skills in the UK?

    Foreign language skills in Spain are far higher than in the UK.

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