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The growing popularity of foreign language films and TV shows

The saying goes that “art knows no boundaries” (K. D. Lang) but, until fairly recently, language was a huge barrier when it came to the world of film and TV. If we rewind even just ten years, it would be a very rare occurrence to watch subtitled films or TV shows in an unfamiliar language.

Now, streaming giant Netflix features content in over 60 languages, with 80% of the platform’s users claiming to use subtitles at least once a month. From Italian to Yiddish, 45% of Netflix’s offering is foreign language content, which many viewers utilise to learn a new language.

So, what’s changed? What has made viewers overcome the subtitles barrier and open their eyes to a whole new world of film and TV?

We take a look at the shows that have helped put foreign language content on the map, the key role subtitles have played in this, and how watching international titles can be a great way for viewers to connect with new people and places. We think Bong Joon-ho put it best when he said “I think we use just one language, the cinema.”

How foreign language content has taken over

Over the past few years, some of the biggest hits in the world of TV and film have come from non-English speaking countries. And, thanks to online streaming services and developing technology, these titles are more accessible than ever.

We can’t talk about foreign language content without mentioning the game-changing series La Casa de Papel (aka Money Heist in English). The Spanish drama series is one of Netflix’s biggest ever hits, and is a perfect example of how international titles have been brought into the mainstream.

The show’s final season was watched in over 44 million households, making it Netflix’s most-watched international series in a non-English language. But Money Heist didn’t just break records in the international language categories. In the week that its final instalment dropped, the show racked up a whopping 190 million total viewing hours, with the closest English-language competitor reaching “only” 47 million hours. Clearly, subtitles aren’t much of a barrier any more when it comes to enjoying good TV.

Next, a challenger to Money Heist’s title of most-watched international series. Last year, it would have been hard to miss out on the Squid Game hype, with the Korean drama series becoming Netflix’s biggest hit ever. That’s right, it’s not just number one out of the international titles, it’s number one out of everything Netflix has released, ever. In the show’s first 28 days on the platform, it was streamed for a total of 1.65 billion hours, with the second-most viewed show, Bridgerton (an English-language series, might I add), receiving less than half of the first-month viewership.

And it’s not just international TV series that are grabbing our attention – blockbuster hits like Parasite have helped change the game too. Released back in 2019, the Korean mystery-drama received critical acclaim the world over, thanks to its relatable characters and social commentary. Outside of Korea, Parasite has been watched largely in subtitled form, but that hasn’t held it back from reaching huge levels of success.

The film has shattered a number of records, becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. In fact, it was at the 2020 Golden Globes ceremony where the film’s director Bong Joon-ho dropped a big truth bomb, telling viewers that “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”.

This speech, as well as Parasite itself, can be seen as key moments that have helped promote the importance of subtitles, and how we can use them to enjoy a huge array of content.

So, clearly streaming services have helped drive an increase in the popularity of foreign language content, but we don’t only have them to thank. Without word of mouth, media reportage, and social media buzz, it’s possible that we wouldn’t have even heard of these shows and films in the first place. As more buzz is built around these pieces of foreign language content, we become more and more accepting of subtitles as the key for us to enjoy them.

Increased use of subtitles

Of course, when it comes to watching foreign language content, subtitles aren’t the only option. Some viewers prefer to watch a dubbed version of their favourite show, so the audio is still in their preferred language.

But this doesn’t take away from the fact that many viewers are switching on the subtitles, which helps the show or film maintain its original meaning, as expressed through the authentic speech of the actors.

And it’s not just consuming foreign content that subtitles are vital for – they can help viewers gain a clearer understanding of what’s happening on screen, whilst also offering more viewing options. By switching on subtitles, viewers can multitask more easily, or continue watching even in a noisy environment. In fact, the option of subtitles on a video can improve the viewing rate by a huge 40%.

So, thanks to the growing accessibility of streaming services, advancing technology, and good old-fashioned word of mouth, foreign language films and TV shows are more popular than ever. And the key in allowing us to enjoy all this great content from across the world? Subtitles. With audiences becoming increasingly tolerant of switching on the subtitles, this will only make more room for foreign language content to be created and enjoyed.

Here at Matinée, we provide professional subtitling and closed captioning services, no matter the project. Whether you need a set of multilingual subtitles translated into a range of different languages, or closed captions burnt onto your latest social media video, our expert team will no doubt be able to help you.

Why not get in touch with us today and find out how we can help you?

Call us on +44 (0) 118 958 4934

Or email project@matinee.co.uk