Time to read the film

Sally McKeown

VideoCaptioning does not just benefit the hearing impaired. Sally McKeown finds other uses, such as improving language skills.

Many of us like to pass an evening with a takeaway and a good video. But people with any level of hearing loss have always been excluded from the twists and turns of the plot. The VideoCaption Reader from the National Captioning Institute means that they can now follow some of the latest films.

The Reader is a little black box which reveals hidden subtitles on videos. Many videos available for rental and purchase have a discreet symbol which shows they have been closed-captioned. At present, there are nearly 500 titles but more are added each month. These include In the Name of the Father, Mrs Doubtfire, The Chronicles of Narnia, Prince of Tides and all Disney Cartoon releases. Cartoons are a particular problem for deaf viewers because it is impossible to lip-read any of the speeches.

Captioning has raised a number of interesting issues. Should the captions be verbatim or a summary? Who decides what should be excluded? What about bad language? Obscenities and swear words may have little impact when spoken aloud but when printed on the screen, they can acquire a strange dominance. On the other hand, why should deaf viewers have a bowdlerised version of the story?

VideoCaption Readers are also finding their way into schools. In a recent survey by the National Council for Educational Technology, over 40 schools and colleges reported that they had bought a VideoCaption Reader.

VideoCaptioning is also useful for students wanting to learn English. Jonathan Lewis, UK manager of the National Captioning Institute, has sold the caption service to Russian customers who wanted to improve their language skills. The American Captioning Institute in Virginia has a number of instances of closed captioning being used to teach students who want to learn English as a second language.

Staff found that it had many benefits. For a start, films often provide a realistic simulation of real life conversation with greetings, questions, requests for information and exchanges of opinion. It is hard to obtain the same effect by reading dialogues because many students lack the confidence to read aloud, regardless of their language competence. Similarly, role plays are often stilted and, while they might provide language practice, they are not necessarily very motivating.

Closed captioning seems to benefit all different types of English language students. Some learners may have good speakinglistening skills but find reading and writing an effort. Others may struggle to make sense of the spoken word, finding it hard to break a barrage of sound into meaningful chunks.

However, staff found that most of the students picked up new and more sophisticated vocabulary with apparent ease. Some of them wrote down words they didn't recognise and checked them afterwards with the teacher. Without captions they wouldn't be able to spell the words and would almost certainly have forgotten them by the end of the session. Seeing and hearing words in context helps to fix them in the memory.

Jonathan Lewis is persuading an increasing number of home video companies to pay for their videos to be captioned. The institute is non-profit making and its goal is to increase the quantity and quality of closed-captioned programmes. The benefit to the video companies is that they increase their potential audience. There are over 7 million people in Britain today with some level of hearing loss. This is too big a market to ignore.

The VideoCaption Readers cost about Pounds 100 plus VAT but deaf or hard of hearing people are exempt from paying VAT. They can be bought from Blockbuster Video or Radio Rentals or from Sound Advantage in Peterborough, a subsidiary of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf.

For more information contact the National Captioning Institute on 01733 891391 (Minicom 01733 890468); Sound Advantage 01733 361199

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