A paper presented at the 30th Annual IATEFL Conference, Brighton, England, April 2-5, 1997.  (Summary published in IATEFL 1997 Brighton Conference Selections, P. Grundy (Ed.), 68-69.)

Taiwan Students Discover the British Murder Mystery

Johanna E. Katchen



Students at a Taiwan university enrolled in an advanced listening course were each given a videotape of an Inspector Morse or Inspector Wexford mystery with Chinese subtitles for a midterm project.  They had to summarize the story, transcribe a five-minute segment, and comment on the problems and successes they encountered in performing these tasks.  The results of this project are reported here.


In recent years satellite and cable television has become more widespread in East Asia.  This trend has resulted in more stations from abroad and more local stations.  Many of the programs are from the United States for obvious reasons: the productivity of Hollywood over the past several decades and the successful marketing strategies of US-based cable TV companies in Asia.  Moreover, in places such as Taiwan, the local TV and film industries are just too small to produce a high number of high quality programs.

In Taiwan, things American, including films, are popular.  However, even though English is a required subject in the schools and has been for a number of years, for most high school graduates, their level is not nearly high enough to comprehend English films or TV shows without assistance.  Therefore, in order to please the audience, and to gain a wider audience, Chinese subtitles are added in most cases.  For the EFL teacher, subtitling is far better than dubbing: at least we can hear the target language. 

Programs with target language subtitles, such as English closed captioning, have been shown to be useful for both first and second language learning (e.g., Vanderplank, 1991).  The first language, however, is prohibited by many practitioners, particularly in ESL, although in EFL contexts it may be neither practical nor necessary to use the target language exclusively (e.g., Robb et al., 1989). Moreover, it has long been assumed that we should avoid programs with first language subtitles when using video because it is easier for all of us to read in our native language rather than listen in a foreign one we have a poor command of, especially when we want to follow the story.  In many EFL situations, however, more and more television stations and cable companies are providing English programs with L1 subtitles to get a wider market; for example, TNT offers Chinese or Thai for audiences with those first languages. Thus it is no longer practical to ignore this source of spoken English.

With so many English programs with Chinese subtitles coming into students' living rooms every day, we began to wonder whether those subtitles could be used to aid student learning of English.  This project represents a prelimi­nary attempt to discover just what sorts of issues and questions may be involved when intermediate to advanced EFL students attend to both the spoken English and written Chinese, whether the Chinese can help them advance their English abilities, and whether any of these ideas can be applied to our classroom teaching of listening skills.

The Advanced Listening class--first semester--was chosen as the most appropriate for conducting this research.  It is an elective course for third and fourth year students majoring in English at National Tsing Hua University.  Video materials are used throughout the course to help students find ways to improve their listening outside of class.  Furthermore, within the Advanced Listening class, it was necessary to give students some sort of outside project.  In-class listening tests reveal students' current ability, and language abilities do not improve rapidly despite student effort.  With an assignment in which students could exhibit both listening ability and serious effort, we felt they would be more motivated to complete it and grading would be fairer.  More importantly, students should be able to learn something and believe they learned something from completing the assignment.

There was another reason for conducting the research as part of a class require­ment.  Working with subtitles entails a lot of time and work from subjects; paying students at a fixed rate for a limited amount of time might not entice them to put forth their best efforts, and an experimental setting might not produce the most natural results.  If the students were given an assignment as part of the requirements of a course, however, and in which they could work at their own pace on their own time, we felt students would put forth more of an effort and show more of their true ability.  That is, students in general believe that more work on their part may result in a greater reward--a higher grade.


A good source of English programs is STAR-plus, one of five stations we can receive in Taiwan from Hong Kong's STAR-TV network. All the programs are in English from American, British, or Australian sources.  For several months in 1995-96 about half of these programs were subtitled in Chinese; thereafter, subtitling was abandoned.

Taiwan's students are taught the American English variety and sometimes express dissatisfaction when asked to listen to British English.  This attitude is not very practical, because if they go abroad, they will be exposed to all varieties of English, and even if they stay in Taiwan and use English in their future employment, they will need to comprehend the British varieties spoken by the many Europeans who visit and work in Taiwan.

The British murder mystery is a well-loved genre.  These are shown on STAR-plus, are in British English, and although they are about murder, there is little or no violence shown. Solving the puzzle from the many clues is most important, so language is critical to understanding.

The Inspector Morse and Inspector Wexford stories from The Ruth Rendell Mysteries were chosen for another reason: the author is fond of the genre and videotaped several episodes for personal enjoyment.  The did not have enough episodes with Chinese subtitles of either program alone at the time but combined had enough for each student.  Both series are similar enough to make little difference whether students had one or the other:  the main protagonist is a middle-aged male detective with a younger assistant, there is a mix of standard and regional accents and social classes of Britain, and the time setting is from about 1985-1991.


There were fourteen students enrolled in the Advanced Listening class: 5 seniors, 4 juniors, 1 sophomore, and 4 freshmen (these were so-called "intelligent" track students recommended to take this class in place of the regular freshman listening class).  Except for three of the seniors all students were majoring in English.

For an out-of-class midterm project, each student was given a copy of an episode from either Inspector Morse or The Ruth Rendell Mysteries--Inspector Wexford spoken in the original British English varieties and subtitled in Chinese.  Each episode ran about 100 minutes when the commercials were ignored.  Students had 5 to 6 weeks to complete the project.  They had to (1) summarize the story, (2) transcribe a 5-minute portion of the video word-by-word, (3) comment on the helpfulness or hindrance of the subtitles (citing specific examples), and (4) comment on their own listening ability with regard to the program.

One of the requirements of the Advanced Listening class was that students write a weekly listening journal (Katchen, in press) in which they reflected on their outside listening each week; thus students already had some practice in analyzing their own listening strategies and characteristics of the material that affected their listening ability.

Results and Discussion

An initial complaint of several of the students was about the British English.  As one said "It didn't sound what it should be.  Therefore, even if I know the word, I still can't recognize it."  However, they also reported that they gradually got used to the British accents and the Chinese subtitles were of great help. “This film was in British English that was even harder to understand, so we need the Chinese subtitles' help. I found I got improved every once more I listened, and I noticed something maybe skipped out by me at the last time.  It's a sense of achievement.  Finally I found the British English easier than I imagined--though I am not very good at English.”  Another said f British English, “the accents are not the American we used to hear (vocabulary, intonation);  the subtitles work then.”   “After several times, I gradually got used to the British accent.  However, there were some sentences that the actors didn't speak clearly.  In my opinion, they sounded more closely to murmuring than speaking.”  One student observed differences in vowel sounds between British and American, another learned the English pronunciation "can, can't, transport”, while yet another heard differences between Inspector Morse's more standard and his sergeant's regional accents.

If our EFL students are to use the L1 subtitles they see on TV every day to improve their English, then the role of the translator is crucial.  Good translations helped students learn words and phrases like cock-and-bull story, which was gleaned from the Chinese subtitle expression “talking nonsense”. The same student also reported learning engage “to get someone interested in” and excommunication.

From another student, “You couldn't have first call on his time.  As I see the sentence, I can understand every word in it.  But I still can't figure out the whole meaning.  After I read the Chinese translation, I realize it means her husband can't come to her side immediately whenever she needs him.  Also at first I don't know how to spell adultery.  But after I saw the Chinese meaning, I check it up in a Chinese-English dictionary.  I got one more new word!”

Another student reported "...the sentence I don't buy it.  Generally speaking it means `I am not going to purchase it.'  But I saw the Chinese subtitles say 'I don't believe it' then I realize this sentence can show another meaning."

In one episode (Wexford, Achilles’ Heel), the characters were visiting a historical site, and the student was helped greatly by the Chinese subtitles to find the English terms Vandals, Goths, Saracens, Genoese, reporting "I had to use big dictionaries to find them."  Another student had an episode (Morse, Day of the Devil) in which the occult played a role and had difficulty with related terms and their spelling could not access the word occult nor the word “infirmary (but the man is in jail)...Even if I were a native speaker, I thought that I also could not comprehend the causality at once.”

Students’ reactions to subtitles were mixed.  From one student:  “The Chinese subtitles would give me a certain direction to guess". However, another said, “In short, to me, I prefer to watch TV without the subtitles.  Because according to my listening ability, I think I can understand 80% of the programs without subtitles.  However, if the subtitles are available, then I may rely on the subtitles.  Thus I will never improve my listening ability.” 

An interesting suggestion from another student: “We had almost learned the conversations and stories by heart, but in Chinese.  I think it impeded my natural learning to some extent, though it did help much.  Every time I wanted myself to think in English, the Chinese subtitles came to mind first.  Maybe we should look at the film without Chinese first, then try to find the words we still don't know by watching the English subtitles.”

Yet another problem:  “I would transfer my attention to the subtitles to check whether I am right or wrong.  A big distraction I think.  The reason why I understand more English from the radio than from the screen lies in Chinese subtitles, more or less.”  Another complained that sometimes the subtitles appeared after speech and it was hard to focus on both at the same time.

One student, though describing herself, summarized the experiences of several of the students: “subtitles help with individual words or sometimes passages, but not for overall content”.

There were a few more specific criticisms about the subtitles.  On student mentioned that some interjections, such as bloody hell! and heavens! were not translated at all.  Another was unhappy with translating Got time for a bath before supper, haven't I?  as "Wo keyi syan chyu syi dzau ba?"  That same student, however, also commented on some excellent idiomatic translations, such as What exactly happens at these things? rendered by the Chinese "Tamen lai jeli dzwo shemma?"

Another positive comment on the Chinese translations concerned a sociolinguistic observation (Wexford, An Unkindness of Ravens): "Teenage girls like Helen and Sara talk more casually, whereas adults like Joey Williams and Inspector Wexford use more formal language.  The Chinese subtitles are able to show such differences, which I find to be its major accomplishment.

For this assignment, only one student commented on male/female speech: "I discovered that every woman in the film spoke better than men--they were clearer and their pronunciations closer to standard.  That's pretty interesting."

In general, students reported the usefulness of Chinese subtitles as giving them a direction to guess.  As one student observed, "Because it is a mystery movie, and there are many details for us to notice, and those details are always the key points for finding out the clues of the mystery... Maybe in some ordinary movies, Chinese subtitles will not be so important, and we can get the main ideas by ourselves.  Like romantic movies, we may usually get the correct information without knowing the details." 

In the Wexford and Morse stories, there is a main plot and one or two subplots.  One student thought that even if she were a native speaker, she would have trouble following it all the first time.  It is her teacher's experience that her observation is correct; in such stories, the native speaker misses many details and perhaps some important points, especially if she is not paying close attention for the whole two hours.  How much more difficult it is then for the nonnative speaker?  The videocassette player and recorder is useful for native and nonnative speaker alike.

Not all comments concerned difficulties.  One student, who was given Inspector Morse in Cherubim and Seraphim, enjoyed the portrayal of the relationship between Morse and his Sergeant Lewis  and their humorous moments, such as when Lewis, the Oxford man, corrects Lewis’ grammar--Morse:  Too frightened...Lewis: What of?  Morse: Of what, Lewis.  Of what? ...loosing control, I think.


Those students judged in this class and others to be better in English skills turned in transcriptions closer to the original.  However, it may still be the case to some degree that some students put in more time and effort on the task and got better results; that is, they were more willing to listen again or to check another dictionary.  In fact, as a student with one of the best transcriptions reported to her teacher when they met in the students' self-access language laboratory while the student was working on her transcription, the student kept transcribing far more than the required five minutes because it was fun.  But then if success breeds success, what can we do for a lower level student?

In past semesters, we have given a similar transcription assignment with videotapes which did not have Chinese subtitles (reported in Katchen, 1996a); with the experiment reported here, some students wondered how they would have done had they watched the program first without Chinese subtitles.  We have since obtained a few programs both with and without Chinese subtitles; with these materials we may next be able to set a up a more strictly controlled comparison study.

In the end, what seems most important is that students reported learning something (new words, phrases, observations about language) from doing the assignment and that they gained self-confidence in their English skills when they could figure something out.  One student comment­ed in her paper "Frankly speaking, it's fun to find the mistakes in the Chinese subtitles, because you'll be proud that you're not depending on them and also show that you might do a better job."  We hope that in the future some of them will.



Katchen, J. E.  (1996a).  Using authentic video in English language teaching: Tips for Taiwan's teachers.  Taipei:  Crane Publishing Co., Ltd.

Katchen, J. E.  (1996b).  Listening journals:  A way to enhance students' listening strategies.   In S-Y. Huang and C-H. Chern (Eds.), Papers from the twelfth conference on English language teaching and learning in the Republic of China (pp. 352-362). Taipei: Crane Publishing Co., Ltd. 

Robb, T. N. et al. (1989).  Native language in the classroom: Really a no-no?  Academic session presented at the 23rd Annual TESOL Conference, San Antonio, USA.

Vanderplank, R.  (1991).  A very quiet revolution: Teletext subtitles and language learning.  TESOL Video News, 2(2), 9-10.

Midterm Assignment

Question:  How can you use Chinese subtitles to help improve your English?

You have been given a videotape of a mystery movie that lasts about 2 hours with commercials.  These films are from two popular series: The Ruth Rendell Mysteries with Inspector Wexford, and characters based on the character created by Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse. 

For your assignment you will do the following:

1. Write a brief summary--about two pages (double-spaced), to let me know that you understood what the program was about. 

2. Choose about a five-minute segment and write a word-by-word transcrip­tion.  This will naturally take up a few pages.

3. Write down your reflections and comments--at least two pages (double-spaced). 

            3A. Transcribe any parts of the film in which the Chinese subtitles are the most beneficial to you.  Why?

            3B. Write down which part of the film in the hardest one for you to comprehend. 

To help you answer 3A and 3B, think of the following questions related to the use of the Chinese subtitles.  How did you use them with regard to the main ideas?  How did you use them to help with your transcription?  To get the general idea of a sentence?  To find a specific word?  To check?  Give specific examples.

Did the Chinese subtitles help?  In what way?  Did they hinder (give you more problems)?  In what way?  What else did you discover?

4. This part is optional.  You may also critique (point out the good and bad points of) the program itself.

Part 3 is the most important, the most interesting, but you have to do Part 2 in order to do Part 3.  I really would like to know.  In this part there can be no right or wrong answers.  You will be graded on how much effort, how much thought, you put into doing the assignment.

THIS ASSIGNMENT IS DUE APRIL 24 (but may be slightly later if you have a really good reason).  Please type your assignment on the computer.

Possible Procedures for Completing the Assignment

Here is one possible way to start doing this assignment.

1. Watch the whole film from beginning to end for fun and to see what happens.  Read the Chinese subtitles if you feel like it.

2. Watch it a few more times to make sure you understand the story, who the characters are, etc.  You might want to repeat certain parts.  These stories often have subplots that are unrelated (or maybe in the end related) to other subplots, so even native speakers can get confused.  You can write the summary of the story at this point.

3. As you do Step 2, take note of places that are easy, difficult, enjoyable, etc. because you may want to go back to them later.  You may decide on the parts you will transcribe.

4. Make an audiotape of a portion of the film, especially parts you may want to transcribe.  Some students record the whole story and listen when they have time.  This may force you to pay more attention to the English.

5. Do your transcription from audiotape.  Going back and forth and pausing frequently hurts both machine and tape.  VCRs are more expensive than ordinary tape recorders.  After each section you transcribe, you can go back to videotape to check.  You will especially need the videotape to check the Chinese subtitles.

6. Don't leave the assignment until the last minute.  Start on it as soon as possible because it will take a lot of time.  You have 5 weeks, so do the summary the first week, the transcription the second and third weeks, write your comments the fourth week, then check it all.

Back to Articles Available On-line