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Why is it so hard for me to understand movies in English?

Updated: Jan 20, 2023




I have a student who loves movies. We meet two or three times a month to discuss clips from classic movies or shorts that we find on YouTube. He’s an advanced speaker with a rich vocabulary, and he has no problem reading literature, watching TED Talks, or listening to podcasts in English.


But when it comes to movies, he’s stuck. He can’t understand the dialogue without subtitles.


He told me, “I’ve been studying English for years. When I read the subtitles, I know the meaning of every word. How is it possible that I don’t understand?”


My answer to him, and to you, too, if you feel stuck is: movies are hard to understand!

 

What makes movies challenging for listeners?


First of all, movies often contain unfamiliar slang, idioms, cultural references, and jokes that don’t have a literal meaning.


For example, in this scene from Taxi Driver, there’s an invented word, “organizized.”



Robert De Niro’s character is making a joke that refers to a poster that was for sale at the time of the movie. Someone who grew up in the USA might understand this type of joke, but it depends on more than just your language skills.


Even if you understand all the vocabulary, you have to be able to recognize the words when you hear them. This is difficult because actors often speak quietly, quickly, with unfamiliar accents, and with different kinds of emotion in their voice.


In this scene from The Descendants the characters are emotional and it makes their speech harder to understand.



And in the movie Raising Victor Vargas, characters speak varieties of English that are different from the ones most students learn in the classroom.



Finally, it’s hard to focus on language when there is so much else going on. Background noise, like sound effects and music, can cover up the dialogue or distract us when we listen. We also have to follow the plot and learn about the characters while we try to understand what they say.


This scene from Miami Vice has all of these challenges—a complicated story, characters speaking fast and not clearly, traffic noise, music…



Even English teachers need subtitles, sometimes. If I saw Miami Vice for the first time without subtitles, I think I would understand about 60% of what was going on!


So, if you have the choice, don’t be afraid to use captions or subtitles when you watch movies. Being able to read the dialogue as you listen can help you learn new words, improve your ability to recognize the sounds of spoken English, and connect them to the vocabulary you already know.

 

But…


Maybe you’re not satisfied (like my student). If your dream is to be able to watch English movies in a theater without subtitles, here are some tips to help.


1. Learn about your challenges.


What, specifically, is difficult for you? Think about the best approach to solve this problem. Here are some common listening problems.


1) not recognizing words

2) getting lost when you don’t understand something

3) not chunking the stream of speech

4) missing the beginning or the end of the speech

5) problems concentrating

6) understanding the words but not the message


2. Monitor your understanding.


Check in with yourself while you listen. If you’re aware that you’re not understanding something, you can try to make adjustments, recover, and get the overall message.

3. Focus on "chunks."


Pay attention to larger chunks of speech, rather than individual words. Listen for intonation and pauses that signal new topics and ideas. If you miss part of a phrase or an idea, you can still catch the next group of words.

4. Use context clues.


Use clues from the situation, context, or your own experience to help you make sense of things that aren’t clear. Let’s imagine you heard something that sounds like the word “both,” or maybe it’s the word “boat”... What’s the situation? Are the characters talking about the ocean?

5. Watch with a friend.


Language learning is social. We learn better when we have other people to interact with. Try watching TV series or movies together with someone else who’s learning English. You can pause to ask each other questions or compare ideas when you don’t understand something. You’ll be surprised how much you can understand when two people are listening, compared to one.

6. Accept gaps in your understanding.


It’s almost impossible to understand 100% of the speech in a movie. Try to get comfortable ignoring some information or details that you missed. If you’re watching movies for fun, the important thing is to follow the flow and understand the main ideas.



One last thing to know about subtitles is that sometimes they are different from what the actors actually say. When the subs or captions are made by professional translators and writers, they sometimes edit the words so the text will fit on your screen. When the subs are auto-generated by computers, there can be mistakes—it’s hard for computers to understand movies, too!


That’s another reason to practice your listening skills, so you can tell when the subtitles are accurate, or not.

 

References


Anderson, J. R. (1995). Cognitive psychology and its implications (4th ed.). New York: Freeman.


Vandergrift, L. (2007). Recent developments in second and foreign language listening comprehension research. Language Teaching, 40(3), 191-210. doi:10.1017/S0261444807004338

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