How fast should subtitles be shown?

a desk with two computer screens and subtitles at the bottom It seems most of us can read subtitles more quickly than first thought. Recent research has revealed that the golden standard of the six second rule doesn’t have any (traceable) evidence to back it up. Now that we know people watch audiovisual materials more frequently with subtitles and captions, this is an important topic – what is the optimum speed? A study from Europe has helped answer that question and it isn’t one-size-fits all. Using evidence from eye movements, Agnieszka Szarkowska , Olivia Gerber-Morón found that viewers can keep up with fast subtitles and that slow speeds can actually be annoying. However, future research needs to include a wider range of people with different levels of reading skill. The title of the paper is, Viewers can keep up with fast subtitles: Evidence from eye movements. Here is the abstract:

“People watch subtitled audiovisual materials more than ever before. With the proliferation of subtitled content, we are also witnessing an increase in subtitle speeds. However, there is an ongoing controversy about what optimum subtitle speeds should be. This study looks into whether viewers can keep up with increasingly fast subtitles and whether the way people cope with subtitled content depends on their familiarity with subtitling and on their knowledge of the language of the film soundtrack. We tested 74 English, Polish and Spanish viewers watching films subtitled at different speeds (12, 16 and 20 characters per second). The films were either in Hungarian, a language unknown to the participants (Experiment 1), or in English (Experiment 2). We measured viewers’ comprehension, self-reported cognitive load, scene and subtitle recognition, preferences and enjoyment. By analyzing people’s eye gaze, we were able to discover that most viewers could read the subtitles as well as follow the images, coping well even with fast subtitle speeds. Slow subtitles triggered more re-reading, particularly in English clips, causing more frustration and less enjoyment. Faster subtitles with unreduced text were preferred in the case of English videos, and slower subtitles with text edited down in Hungarian videos. The results provide empirical grounds for revisiting current subtitling practices to enable more efficient processing of subtitled videos for viewers.

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