Audio description of TV and movies: a great source of comprehensible input for language learners

Various logos for audio description and described video

A potential goldmine of content might be just the press of a button away if you’re a language learner who wants to pick up a language through watching and listening.

Audio description, also known as described video, video description, or visual description, adds a narrator’s description of precisely what’s happening on the screen to a program’s soundtrack.

Various logos for audio description and described video

Audio description is primarily intended to benefit people who are blind or visually impaired by making the visual content accessible to them through hearing.

What appears to be overlooked is its tremendous value as a tool for language acquisition.

By providing a great source of comprehensible input—language made understandable through context—audio description also makes the target language more accessible to language learners.

Discovering audio description

I first encountered audio description in 2004 while watching The Simpsons with friends on a university common room TV with the SAP (second audio program) accidentally turned on.

We thought the incredibly detailed descriptions of the on-screen action were a joke that was part of the episode until I remembered hearing about described video.

Its value to language learning occurred to me a few years later, after I had discovered comprehensible input and was using it to improve my French by watching and listening to a lot of French media.

I had subscribed to digital cable with many French language channels, and found that some of them featured shows with audio description.

Because the narration matched the on-screen action precisely, I often found these descriptions more understandable than the dialogue of the program.

However, I didn’t experiment with it for long, as around that time I started to learn Mandarin from scratch with the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach of learning without study or translation, and unfortunately I could find nothing comparable for Chinese.

A powerful source of comprehensible input

Audio description is invaluable for beginners acquiring a new language because it gives them language about exactly what they can see in front of them.

This kind of talk about the “here and now” with a lot of visual context is what young children routinely get in abundance but adults often sorely lack when learning new languages.

Audio description also overcomes a couple major drawbacks that many TV shows and movies have as sources of comprehensible input and listening practice.

One is that the spoken dialogue is often about abstract matters and things that are out of view, so it lacks context, making it less comprehensible for the learner.

Audio description will provide far more talk about what you are seeing, so that, as I discovered with French, this narration can actually be a lot more comprehensible than the dialogue.

The other problem with using TV shows and especially movies for listening practice, as many language learners have noted, is that they often feature long sequences that are purely visual with little or no dialogue.

Audio description transforms these interludes into excellent content to pick up language from by filling them with rich narration that eloquently describes exactly what you are seeing on the screen in the target language.

This clip of the end of Disney’s 1994 animated film The Lion King shows just how much language can be added where there was none before.

Soundtracks with audio description might also be very useful for listening to while doing other things, as you get to hear the target language almost the whole time, and even without seeing the pictures, the narration and dialogue reinforce one another to make them more comprehensible overall.

Like MovieTalk (in some ways) for self-study

Using audio description as a resource for language learning has strong similarities with the Focal Skills Movie Technique, now known as MovieTalk.

This technique for teaching second language listening comes from the Focal Skills approach, which involves creating comprehensible input using authentic target-language materials.

Like other comprehension-based teaching, classes that use MovieTalk don’t seem to be widely available, so audio description of TV and movies can provide an alternative for self-study.

With MovieTalk in a classroom setting, some advantages are that the teacher is paraphrasing dialogue and explaining the story further, and can stop the video to point to and describe things on the screen.

In contrast, audio description is confined to a voice just describing the visuals and action as they are happening, without further elaboration.

But possible advantages of audio description are that it’s scripted and recorded, so the language may be richer and more dense, and you can listen to this same content again and again.

Finding content with audio description

Audio describer in live theater.jpg
An audio describer working in a live theatre setting.

Audio description appears to be becoming more widespread.

For example, in 2016, Netflix agreed to add audio description to its own shows and to try to include it on other content in its libraries.

Even a popular pornographic website has gotten in on the act, introducing a category of described videos that same year.

Much of this development of audio description content seems to be in English, putting the English language learner again in a somewhat enviable position.

However, you can find many examples of audio description in other major languages by searching a site like YouTube with the equivalent term in that language, which you can find through Wikipedia or Google Translate.

For example, “Audiodeskription” brings up some short films and other materials in German with audio descriptions of what is happening, “audiodescripción” returns examples in Spanish, and “口述影像” yields movies in Chinese languages.

And while there isn’t much yet, Thai learners might want to keep an eye on “เสียงบรรยายภาพ“, a term roughly translated as “sound describing picture”.

On Netflix, you can find movies and TV shows in your target language that have audio description by simply entering “audio description in” with your language of choice in the search bar.

Helping both language learners and people with disabilities

While research on audio description as a language learning tool is very limited, at least one recent study does suggest it can aid foreign language vocabulary learning.

I think that audio description is another example of how advances in media and technology are inadvertently making an increasing amount of comprehensible input available to language learners.

This makes me wonder how much more and better comprehensible input could be created intentionally.

Audio description is also an example of how a tool or resource created to help people with disabilities can also come to be used by language learners.

Closed captioning, originally created for people with hearing impairments, found a probably even larger following among people learning English as a second language, who use it to help them understand TV shows by reading along with what they are hearing.

Audio description, in contrast, is much more suited to creating comprehensible input that’s compatible with natural approaches like ALG, which advocates learning language without conscious study, and delaying reading until after one has internalized the sounds of the language through listening.

I think it’s worth exploring further how tools and resources meant to help people with disabilities can also used to help language learners, and conversely, how tools and techniques for language learning might be able to help people with disabilities.

As a result of such research, perhaps more efforts can be combined to create tools and opportunities that serve both of these groups of people.

Creating multilayered and multisensory learning experiences

Another aspect of audio description that really interests me is how it creates a richer and more multilayered sensory experience that can aid learning.

Descriptions of what is seen on the screen add another dimension to the overall viewing experience, reinforcing and adding to what the visuals and dialogue are communicating.

This may not only benefit people with disabilities and language learners, but enhance learning opportunities for everyone.

In an article for the Described and Captioned Media Program, Bill Stark describes ways that audio description can help all students, from increasing attention to detail to developing their ability to use language to express themselves.

“This pairing of visual and audio can be a great boon to the vocabulary development of those without visual impairment, and also helps them develop descriptive writing skills,” he writes.

I see audio description as another way to help create content and experiences that go beyond language learning to helping people gain other knowledge and skills and be entertained, while language learning happens anyway as a result.

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