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Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing in Singapore

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    Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (SDH) allows a hearing-impaired audience (DHH) access contents of movies, dramas, theatrical plays, political speeches and school lectures through textual descriptions on screens. In order to achieve a more complete and effective communication, the subtitles must ensure accurate and inclusive delivery of the audio elements present. In addition, the flow of the contents needs to have sufficient time gap in between lines for SDH to be presented. Besides its primary audience (DHHs), SDH could potentially benefit groups of the unintended, abled audience who rely on visual aids for effective cognitive learning. However, for the purpose of this paper, the target audience refers to the DHHs in Singapore and the proposed SDH are mainly applicable to English shows.

    Despite the fact that over 5% of the world’s population is facing hearing loss, not every country is imposing mandatory legislation to provide SDH. Reviewing the literature, there has been much researches carried out to find out the preferences of the DHHs in order to improve the guidelines of SDH and enhance their experiences. However, a research gap has been discovered on the impact of SDH has on the language acquisition of the audience. The following review is structured to first present the development of SDH, followed by the status of SDH, addressing the way the SDH is being delivered. At the end of the review, the needs of the DHHs in Singapore will be discussed, referring to the current researches on their accuracy level in understanding the shows. Thus, the research question that is proposed is: How does SDH help in the language acquisition of the DHHs?

    Development of Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. Traditionally, DHHs rely on friends and families to make sense of a movie. Before legislations were passed, interest groups and passionate individuals have taken up the role of providing assistance, be it sign language or self-motivated SDH, for the DHHs. Research on the development of SDH in different regions has been conducted by some scholars. Neves (2005) provides a descriptive analysis of SDH in various European countries with the aim of arriving standardised guidelines, while Tamayo (2017) talks about how signifying codes of audiovisual texts might affect subtitling decisions, taking into consideration the needs of the DHH audience. Others have directed their focus to the contents in SDH guidelines, in hope to optimizing the SDH experiences.

    Countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States have legislations and guidelines in place to provide SDH. For instance, movie theatres in the United States must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, ensuring movies in digital format must include SDH and Audio Description (AD) for audience with special needs. The Federal Communications Commission (2018) stated that subtitles “must match the spoken words in the dialogue and convey background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible”, setting the parameters for quality SDH. Audio Description belongs to a branch of Audiovisual Translation, assisting the Blind and Visually-impaired create mental images of the shows they go to.

    One movie which complied with the legislation is The Jungle Book, a 2016 production by Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures, providing the option of SDH when it was released in Australia. There are other countries which work on providing SDH even when no legislation is passed, such as New Zealand. As for the representative of English-speaking nation in the East, Singapore is providing same language captions for English shows and English subtitles for Chinese and/or foreign movies. Status on the delivery of Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing In general, SDH in Singapore is nowhere near the developing stage compared to the West. Mediacorp as the only free-to-air television station in Singapore, started providing same language captions on their respective channels in 2013 and applied this practice throughout all digital platforms, starting from 1 January 2019.

    Near verbatim SD Fresno (2017) carried out a descriptive study by analysing 43.5 hours of recording of children’s programmes in the United States, obtaining the corpus for her research from seven channels aimed at children or teenagers. The purpose of her study is to find out if the speed of the SDH is at a comfortable pace for the DHH children. The results show that the average speed was 19 wpm faster than that recommended in the guidelines. However, the explanation for this phenomenon is due to the preference for verbatim information which the hearing audience receive. It is also understood that edited SDH is viewed by some as “patronising” that their reading speed is lower than their hearing peers.

    Szarkowska, Żbikowska and Krejtz (2013) conducted a study with a sample consisting of 135 DHH participants aged between 12 to 60 years old and to watch five sets of scenes from four films with two versions of SDH in polish: near-verbatim and edited version with explicit attribution. The findings indicate that the DHH participants would prefer to have more rather than less information on foreign dialogues. Although the sample size is relatively wide, there are quite a number of limitations in this study. First of all, the age gap is too big, demonstrating the varying literacy backgrounds of the participants. Secondly, synopsis of each film was provided before the participants viewed each scene. This allows the participants to have some background knowledge and anticipated what they might not know thus generated in-depth thinking. Thirdly, the participants were asked to watch two versions. However, no mention on which version was watched first, which indicates ambiguity. Thus, the results cannot be generalised to represent the DHH people on their preference of SDH.

    Ward, Wang, Paul and Loeterman (2007) carried out a preliminary investigation on the effect different versions of SDH has on the comprehension of students. In this study, 15 children aged between 7 to 11 years old participated in watching Arthur, a popular children’s programme. At the end of watching both near verbatim and edited versions of SDH, the results on the comprehension show minimal difference. However, feedback received from the participants inclined towards edited SDH for reasons like “I know most of the words” or “When I feel tired and/or weak”. The conclusiveness of the findings is limited by the small sample size, and the fatigue caused by the viewing of six videotapes, which might led to the choice of edited SDH.

    Tamayo and Chaume (2017) carried out an experimental study involving 75 DHH children aged between 8 to 13 years old, getting the participants to watch 14 videos of two versions of SDH between 1 to 3.5 minutes long. At the end of the viewing, questionnaires of no time limit were administered and the results show that language level plays a part in comprehension and that verbatim SDH is not a rule of thumb. However, the limitation of this study is the same as the previous study: fatigue caused by excessive viewing. Needs of the DHH community in Singapore.

    Each language has its own characteristics, needless to say for community with special needs, which in this case, the DHHs. Not only do they require more effort in focusing on receiving the textual message on screen, they have to pay attention to the facial expressions or read the lips of the characters speaking. With the presence of SDH, it will spare them from much work and enjoy the shows more. The presence of mandatory SDH legislation in other countries ought to push Singapore in doing the same soon. Although audiences are highly heterogeneous beings with varied experiences and preferences as illustrated in the literature reviewed, it cannot be an excuse for the stakeholders to delay the implementation. With approximately 500,000 DHHs in Singapore, the welfare and knowledge acquisition should be on the same level as other hearing fellow Singaporeans. The real and varying needs of the DHH audience in countries, which mandatory SDH legislations are present, are not fully addressed yet, needless to say for Singapore which is still not anywhere near the developing phase in providing SDH.

    With the baby step of providing transcripts and post real-time same language captions for the National Rally and the Singapore Budget, it shows that the government is conscious of the needs of the DHHs, which will benefit politically. Though entertainment-wise like televisions shows and movies, the presence of SDH is still far from acceptable. Current situation still draws a line between the hearing peers and the DHH community, causing a social marginalisation. From the literature reviewed, it can be concluded that SDH is definitely fundamental in the DHH community, regardless children or adults. However, no actual research nor inference is present to illustrate the relationship between SDH and language acquisition; only the level of comprehension was measured, and that is dependent on individuals’ cognitive performance. Hence, further research addressing this research gap needs to be developed in order to arrive at a clear conclusion. Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing in Singapore.


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