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I have been learning English for many, many years now and think I have acquired quite some mastery. Yesterday I saw just another English (American) flick and thought it was a different language, but definitly not English. I had to turn the (English) subtitles on... :-(

Why is it so very hard to understand movies - and do you have a panacea to it?

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What was the movie? –  Kosmonaut Aug 27 '10 at 11:31
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I have a book about American English pronunciation (American Accent Training), and I learned that the pronunciation has some surprises, for who doesn't speak English as first language. For example, an apple is pronounced as a napple, the l is sometimes silent (could, would, should), and the t in Italian is pronounced differently from the same letter in Italy. –  kiamlaluno Aug 27 '10 at 11:49
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If it's any consolation, I as an American find it hard to follow British movies. I didn't catch all the dialogue in Chariots of Fire until the second or third viewing. –  mmyers Aug 27 '10 at 13:27
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@Kosmonaut: any movie with Brad Pitt in it will do. –  RegDwigнt Aug 27 '10 at 13:47
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Also, Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Barrel and especially Snatch are notorious for nearly no one being able to understand all their dialogue without subtitles. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 27 '10 at 19:12
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13 Answers 13

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I'm a native English speaker (American) and have trouble with American movies. The younger the actors, usually the worse it is. I believe it has to do with mumbling and slurring and rapid speech (sometimes dependent on the way the actor does the character, rather than the actor's natural speech patterns). It also has to do with hearing loss that comes with aging (I'm past the middle of life). It further has to do with the content, if it is a topic I am not familiar with, or if the dialog has little lead-up (if I'm anticipating what's going to be said based on the plot or the visuals, it's easier to comprehend. I found the same thing to be true when attending university lectures; if I'd already read the text I could keep up with what was said much better).

What I do about it is, have a good sound system at home that I can turn up, adjust the bass & treble if necessary, and I try not to have other distractions while watching something (such as running the dishwasher). If I go to a movie, especially one where there are likely to be children, I prefer to go to a second-run theater (cheaper, too), after they've had the movie a while so there will be fewer people in the audience. Also helps to go at off times. I've found that going to the late movie (9 or after) does not seem to significantly reduce the number of children in the audience, who actually are noisier because they are more tired (at least until/unless they fall asleep).

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Sound system can be essential. If the number of channels in the movie is higher than your sound-system support the channels get down-mixed to match you sound system. Dialog volume can significantly decrease during this process (relative volume to non-dialog audio) depending on how the down-mixing is done and which channels carry dialog. –  user3448 Jan 13 '11 at 2:13
    
Context is indeed very important. I find trailers much harder to understand than the actual movies. They just throw one-liners at you with virtually no context whatsoever and you have no time to process them because they are cut so quickly. No good. –  Christian Jul 19 '12 at 7:04
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I used to feel the same. I'm not a native English speaker either.

I think I got used to reading the subtitles when I was younger and didn't speak English. And even when my English became good enough to understand most of what was being said in the movies, I would still turn subtitles on because I didn't want to miss any lines. That's how you become dependent on the subtitles. Start turning them off more often and you will notice that gradually you will be missing less and less lines. That worked for me. You can try that with a TV series. As you become familiar with the characters and stories, you will be able to guess more often what they said when you missed a word. And then you will notice your improvement over the episodes. When you feel that you missed an important line, rewind a bit and listen again. Learning a language really requires a lot of commitment!

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Alternative to turning off the subtitles: Delay them by 2 or 3 seconds, so that you look at them only when you have to. (I like having subtitles on like this even when I can understand everything!) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 27 '10 at 19:14
    
I suppose you are not talking about TV movies –  Theta30 Apr 27 '11 at 6:43
    
@Bogdan Lataianu - I am talking about movies and series that I watch on DVD. –  b.roth Apr 27 '11 at 9:31
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I felt this way when I started to watch the The Wire, and English is my first language.

It got better after a while, though I still struggled with the gangster slang.

Which is all anyone can advise, I think; it gets easier with practice.

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Even watching "The Sopranos" there were lines that I missed, and their accents and dialect aren't that strong. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 27 '10 at 13:58
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I feel you, yo (grin) ...and come to think of it, Deadwood was also occasionally beyond me - especially during rants of the Swerengen character. –  Ed Guiness Aug 27 '10 at 14:02
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I think it's not just English-language movies. I'm a native English-speaker, and my Spanish is pretty good, but I had to turn on the Spanish-language subtitles for the movie "El Laberinto del Fauno" (Pan's Labyrinth). This helped me understand that the word was "un hada" (fairy) and not "un nada" and "sofocarlos" (quell them), not "sobrecarlos".

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I know exactly what you mean, but frankly I think it is less a matter of accents or dialects and just that the sound mixing of a lot of recent movies is especially bad. They have so much going on with the soundtrack and bass heavy sound effects that the dialogue gets drowned out.

A good example of this was Pandorum (2009), nobody had any pronounced accent yet I had to turn on the subtitles for half of the movie because it seemed like everyone was mumbling.

Funny side note: I have a friend who claims to have learned/practiced his English after he moved to the US by watching Stallone/Schwarzenegger action movies. Not exactly the language teachers I'd suggest.

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Does your friend slur his words or does he speak with an Austrian accent? –  delete Aug 27 '10 at 14:58
    
Actually, they aren't bad choices for starters, as their dialog is never extensive, and rarely goes beyond about a fifth-grade level. :-) –  T.E.D. Oct 3 '11 at 13:38
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He also claims to have been a fan of 80's hair metal bands at the time and learned from that too. Probably why he puts umlauts on all of his vowels. =) –  JohnFx Oct 3 '11 at 15:20
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Television and films are probably the toughest listening you will ever encounter as a foreign language learner, so if you can beat that then you can be confident you have mastered the language. You might like to note that the people who translate film subtitles don't work from listening to the film but from a written script.

The problems with listening to foreign language films are kind of obvious if you think about them: the speech is very fast, the vocabulary may be unfamilar, etc. The solution to the problems is just to practice listening, increase your vocabulary, etc. Can always watch the DVD with the "hard of hearing" subtitles turned on.

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I think you forgot about songs. Definitely an order of magnitude harder to understand than TV / films. –  user3448 Jan 13 '11 at 2:04
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I agree with Shinto Sherlock's answer, but I might add "telephone conversations" to that list as well.

My French is good enough that I can sometimes be mistaken for a native speaker (at least until I make a gender error -- English brains aren't wired to store genders for nouns), but I find certain French films quite difficult to follow. Even some English-language films can be relatively difficult for me, and I'm a native speaker. (And while I'm in my 40s and long past peak hearing, I've found this to be the case for my whole life, even though I have always tested normal for hearing sensitivity.) I think there must be something about the lack of actual interaction with the "interlocutor" that makes comprehension so difficult.

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French films are difficult to follow even if you understand every word. –  Marthaª Oct 29 '10 at 14:02
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I'm not a native speaker, been taking (American) English seriously for only 1 year (after 8 of "School English") and usually have no problem watching American movies. In fact, I hate subtitles. That video with quotes from "The Wire;" I understood almost everything. Though I think it's impossible not to have trouble understanding some African Americans talking. I also took a look at the Sopranos, and that was already harder for me (i.e. took more concentration to understand). I watched a lot of videos and movies on my computer with headphones, and that seemed to have helped me with the gradual elimination of subtitles.

I think there are a lot of things to consider, like the person talking, the quality of the audio, the volume, your concentration etc.

That is, as far as American English goes. When it comes to British English...that's another story. British English goes from hard to comprehend to plain irritating.

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I'm a native English speaker and have a lot of trouble understanding the dialog in some movies. The main reason is that the actors don't enunciate. (I guess it's more realistic to have people mumbling-?) This has been increasingly a problem in the last few decades. Watch old movies - from the 1950s or earlier. The mumbling started in the 60s/70s. (OK, I'm getting up there in years, but my hearing is still very good.)

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It's Brando's fault. His interpretation of Method acting somehow included a lot of mumbling and muttering and he (for reasons that escape me) was very popular. (About 10 years ago, I heard someone in his 50s say, "When I was a kid, we spent all our time trying to look like Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Now we spend all our time trying to not look like Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor." Of course, today, well, de mortuis nil nisi bonum.) –  Malvolio Apr 26 '11 at 19:10
    
there is a slight problem. English evolved since 20-50s. The usage of some words or expressions faded away and new ones emerged. –  Theta30 Apr 27 '11 at 6:51
    
On the other hand, older movies have lots of dialogue from which you can learn how to comprehend English. They are closer to the art of theater. The modern movies have more action or special effects. –  Theta30 Apr 27 '11 at 7:03
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As a non-native English speaker, I can understand very well American movies. But it depends on the kind of movie. There're some things you can do to improve your comprehension:

  1. Select the lower audio's quality. Usually there're two options the 5.1 and 2.0. The higher quality has a lot of effects that will disturb you to hear the words clearly;
  2. Try to listen English spoken as much as you can. If you have problem with the speed, try to listen to audios really fast;
  3. Don't use subtitles. If you don't understand something the first time, listen again and try to understand. By forcing your comprehension, you'll improve it!
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For me the big difficulty is the tendency for the director to make the vocals too quiet, and the background noises too loud. So in a very much native English speaking household, you will find the channel clicker being not only used to replay dialogue in rented movies, but you will find the native English speakers arguing over what's been said. And then we turn on the closed captions too.

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Inaudible dialogue and incomprehensible actors seem to be a mounting problem in the US as well as in the UK. More and more native speakers watch movies and series with subtitles on!

See the following articles and comments:

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Oh man! You have touched on one of my greatest bugbears concerning the comprehensibility of speech in films and TV, partly because so many of the problems are avoidable if only the makers would pay proper attention to what they are doing.

These are the factors I have identified as making it hard to understand speech, in no particular order:

  • Mumbling or whispering

  • Speaking very fast

  • Highly emotional speech (e.g. when crying, shouting or ranting)

  • Use of unfamiliar words, including novel or regional slang, professional jargon and abbreviations

  • Using dialect unfamiliar to the listener (encompasses unfamiliar vocabulary, grammar, accent and culture-specific referents)

  • Non-standard or grammatically incoherent constructions

  • Speaking in an accent that is unfamiliar to the listener

  • Mispronunciations

  • Monotonous delivery: little variation in volume, stress or emphasis

  • Song lyrics are particularly hard to decipher, partly because they often make very little sense to begin with

  • Uninteresting, excessively complicated or excessively specialized topic of discussion: lack of engagement or subject-matter comprehension encourages the listener's attention to wander, leading to misunderstanding of subsequent utterances (with associated sense of frustration)

  • Unfamiliar subject matter, especially popular-culture references. When such references are not understood, the wider significance or general context of the utterance that contains it may be lost. Typical examples are references to decades-old TV shows and celebrities, actors and singers

  • Ambiguous statements or puns, especially if the references are obscure

  • Speaker's lips are not visible

  • Speaker's facial expressions and/or body language do not match the informational or emotional content of their utterances.

  • Conversation contains excessive non sequiturs

  • Poor quality of recorded or transmitted sound (mobile phones/cellphones are abysmal for this -- mostly affects live broadcasts)

  • Clipping of frequency range (again, mobile phones are a terrible offender -- mostly affects live broadcasts)

  • Sound cutting in and out (e.g. due to poor phone reception or satellite link -- mostly affects live broadcasts)

  • Masking of speech by excessively loud music and/or other background noise

  • Other sensory overload: too much concurrent physical on-screen action, background noise, accompanying music, emotional content and rapid speech overwhelm the viewer's ability to decide what information is most relevant

  • Excessive difference in speech volume between speakers: listeners find it hard to adjust their expectations of what they are about to hear quickly enough

  • Except when the listener is conversing with someone in a live setting, no possibility of asking for clarification or repetition of what was said

  • Deafness of the listener, including difficulty hearing particular frequency ranges

  • Age-related slowing of speech processing: as most people get older, the rate at which they can interpret what they are hearing decreases, which means that rapid speech is harder for them to keep up with

  • Incomplete, inaccurate, unavailable, uncontrasty or badly synchronized subtitles (including the nasty habit some subtitlers have of substantially rewording sentences. And there ought to be a particularly unpleasant punishment for those decision-makers responsible for plastering subtitles right across the faces of the individuals speaking the lines to which they relate.)

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