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Then and Now:

A March trip to Prague a few years ago provided a wealth of new experiences: we went especially for an exhibition of Bohemian art, and a layer of heavy snow enhanced the city’s medieval beauty. One night, the Bear feeling a bit poorly, we watched TV – and most programmes and subtitles were in Czech. We eventually found a French channel showing a 50s Hollywood movie with the original English soundtrack, which suited the Bear, while I followed the subtitles in French. We found it really quite surreal to be sharing the film simultaneously in different languages.

The way I’ve always worked with subtitles is to read them quickly first and then flick my eyes up to lipread the characters. It’s slightly different from the usual experience – in real life lipreading a conversation to which you haven’t seen the first few words makes it more difficult to pick up the thread, but because the subtitles provide you with the thread, it’s easier to pick it up in the middle of the dialogue. I’ve often done this with English subtitles to French movies, too, though lipreading French is harder, and never got further than perhaps lipreading the last few words – but using French subtitles to anticipate the dialogue in the original English was something of a novelty.

We’re great fans of the BBC4 Saturday night foreign-language programming strand and are currently watching Spiral, a French crime drama. As a result, I’ve come to realise that I’ve been doing something different again, using the English subtitles to mentally reconstruct the original French dialogue, and thus to hear and understand it as it is spoken. As the weeks have gone by, I’ve recognised more and more individual words, then phrases, then a full subtitle’s worth at a time. It depends on the characters and the nature of the dialogue – French police jargon and underworld slang is less easy to follow than the other interactions – but I’ve surprised myself with what I’ve been able to achieve.