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Subtitles for Early Readers

We leave subtitles on the TV as a default in our home. It started as Dena’s personal preference, but became a necessity in order to keep the volume down due to apartment living and shared walls. Then we had a baby, and we didn’t want to disturb Sprout while she slept.

Keeping the subtitles on became habit, and a useful one. Little jokes didn’t fly by unnoticed. Shows and movies became more quotable.

And then Sprout started reading.

The moment this all came together was while watching the Sesame Street anniversary special. Dena and I watched as Sprout used the subtitles to sing along with a song she’d never heard before, and my heart became a puddle of feelings.

Then came the Sunday morning Sprout tromped downstairs to find me watching Solaris. She grabbed a blanket, snuggled up next to me, and started reading the screen.

“That’s not what they’re saying?”

“No. They’re speaking in Russian. Those words on the screen tell us what the words mean in English.”

“Oh.”

(five minutes pass)

“Can I watch PBS Kids?”

The next weekend, she comes down while I’m watching Floating Weeds. She grabbed a blanket, snuggled in, and this time started asking questions about the story.

We watched about a half hour before she got bored and wanted to see if there were new episodes of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. But for that half hour, we were sharing a lazy morning with an Ozu film.

I know it’s still a long time before she’ll be fully onboard and I’ll get to watch some of my favorite foreign films with her. I’m not expecting to have a five-year-old who wants to start her day watching Wong Kar-Wai or Ingmar Bergman films.

What I want is to plant the idea in her head that the subtitles are just there. They don’t make the movie something other or more difficult. If anything, I hope she’ll see the value they offer, giving her a gateway to stories from all around the world that she wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

We set expectations for kids with what we enjoy and share with them. My parents watched a lot of black and white movies, so I thought it was normal to watch older films. And that habit never really went away for me.

Or when we listen to music, and we pepper in some of our favorites, or some other genres, in with the kid music. It doesn’t always pay dividends, but when I start a jazz playlist during breakfast and Sprout puts down her spoon to snap along, well… It’s a good feeling.

But I need to remind myself with all of this that it’s not about making sure she likes the same things I like.

Whenever I’m sharing music, or movies, or food, it needs to be about the idea of making sure she gets to try new and different things. She’s very five, so she’s not shy about what she does and doesn’t like.

My hope is that she’ll get a strong sense of her personal taste. She’ll be able to explain and understand what she likes and doesn’t like. She’ll seek out and explore. She won’t passively shrug and accept whatever’s presented to her as vaguely okay, but instead, she’ll look for something to love.

Or, at the very least, that she won’t roll her eyes and think it’s weird when I suggest we watch a movie with subtitles.

By Chris Csont

Becoming a better writer. Becoming a better Homo sapien.