Why is movie dialogue so hard to understand?
Have you seen the film Arrival?
It’s possibly the coolest, mainstream linguistics film ever.
In fact, I think it’s the only mainstream linguistics film ever.
It’s about a linguist, Dr Louise Banks, who’s sent to understand the language of alien invaders. Sounds crazy, but it’s a beautiful and moving film about love, loss, courage, past, present and future.
Forest Whitaker plays Colonel Weber. He’s the army tough guy who brings in Louise as the translation genius to communicate with the aliens and find out their intentions.
Whenever he spoke, I had to make a huge effort to understand. My boyfriend kept asking me what he was saying – I had to admit that I wasn’t too sure! Listen to this:
But when I watched a clip of Forest talking about the movie as himself, I was alright. Try this clip:
By the way, a fun listening game you can play with this clip is guess the question. Based on Forest’s answers, can you write the questions? This is the kind of activity I do with my clients and we love it – lots of fun!
The discussion under this clip clarifies why I had a hard time understanding Forest as Colonel Weber.
So characters can have unfamiliar accents. I guess it’s all part of playing a role.
In the original Chinese-American movie, Chan is Missing by Wayne Wang the dialogue is beyond natural. I don’t know how the director managed to get the characters to talk in such an authentic, informal way.
Just listen to the first 15 seconds of the trailer (and catch what you can):
The Good Old Days of Hollywood
My intuition was that back in classic Hollywood films (in the 1950s), the dialogue was more scripted and theatrical. Not improvised or at least not written to sound like real conversation.
I asked my cousin Mark about this (I’ve got 23 cousins, so probability suggests that one of them must know about this movie dialogue stuff). He’s a writer/director. Calm down: he hasn’t directed anything you’ve seen (but do check out his work here).
He told me that films started sounding naturalistic as far back as the 40s and 50s. Take On the Waterfront for instance:
Even the title screams natural, conversational English “I coulda been a contender”, not “I could have”.
But Mark also told me that the dialogue in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons was theatrical. From a film expert point of view.
To me, that clip sounds just as natural as the first one. You’ll probably find both of them tricky to understand.
When I think of old Hollywood theatrical and non-natural dialogue, Charlton Heston’s, The Ten Commandments comes to mind.
That dialogue is pretty easy to catch right?
Maybe this is something to do with biblical epics or fantasy films. Take a look at this Lord of the Rings clip.
Ned Stark was in Lord of the Rings – who knew!?
The only thing that’s difficult to understand in these types of films are all the weird names of mythical creatures and places.
I once tried to read the Lord of the Rings on an 8-hour flight to Canada. I figured I could manage it in that time.
I opened the first page and every other word was “Hobbit”. I was like – what the hell is a hobbit? And then put the book down and watched the in-flight movie. Please don’t judge my 16-year old self. For the record, I haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings films either, as you can probably guess from my Ned Stark comment.
So if movies are hard to understand, what can you do?
Feel good film viewing
- Start by forgiving yourself for not understanding. It’s not you, it’s them.
- Watch movie clips, not whole movies
- Use the subtitles as a learning tool. Subtitles can be your friend, if you let them.
- As a general rule (I’m sure you can think of plenty of exceptions) comedies, action films and fantasy epics are easier to understand than dramas.
- I’m working with a new student who told me “I’d like to understand at least 80% of what I listen to”. I was like: this guy gets it. 80% is a reasonable goal. I’m going into more detail soon about the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule and how it applies to understanding spoken English.
- If you want to watch a whole film, take some advice from my Italian teaching buddy and fellow listening specialist, Elfin Waters and play the subtitles on, subtitles off game. Watch for 10 minutes with the subtitles, then for 10 minutes without them. You can vary the duration if you like.
- Before you start watching, Google the plot of the film or jump onto a site like IMDb for more information and context. You’ll have a bit more of an idea of what on earth is going on during those weird, initial 5-10 minutes.
- Give yourself time to get into a film, like you would with a book. One of my students lent me a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. A wonderful, beautifully written book that’s tricky to understand, even for me as a native speaker.
She managed to finish it because she gave herself time to get used to that style. I get lost at the beginning of plenty of films and annoy my boyfriend by asking about the plot. You need time to get used to what’s happening and to adapt to the different voices you’re hearing.
That’s why I recommend watching films where the director casts the same actors. I’ve mentioned Wes Anderson’s films before, because I love them. And because in almost every film you’ll find Bill Murray, Jason Schwarzmann, one or both of the Wilson brothers etc.
Turn on the TV
- Watch TV series, not films. Now, don’t get me wrong, TV series dialogue can be hard to catch too. But
- Every week, you hear the same actors and the same voices. You’re not adapting each time.
- The context becomes more familiar to you as the weeks go by: the actors are in similar places, talking about similar things, using the words and expressions they always use.
Think about famous catch phrases you hear in series or things that happen week in week out:
- Uncle Phil throws Jazzy Jeff out of the house in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
- Kenny dies on South Park
- Someone dies on Game of Thrones and then comes back from the dead (maybe not in the same episode, but you know what I mean)
- Nothing in particular happens on Seinfeld
- The Gilmore Girls drink a lot of coffee (and eat loads of junk food yet never put on weight – what’s their secret?)
- You only have to concentrate for 20 minutes (sitcoms like Big Bang Theory, How I met Your mother, the Simpsons) or 45-50 absolute maximum if you’re a Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad fan.
- Watch examples of natural, unscripted language too. Movie and TV series dialogue can prepare you for chatting to people in real life. But the best way to get used to that is by:
- Listening to my podcast
- Watching YouTube vloggers or Facebook live videos
- Listening to podcasts where people sit around chatting. You’ll find some suggestions here.
Beat the movie blues
You dream of watching a movie without subtitles. But movie dialogue is tough to understand. Even for natives like me sometimes.
Your listening skills are not the problem here. What’s holding you back is:
- The unfamiliar context
- The trend towards naturalistic dialogue
- Actors you’ve never heard before
You have to give yourself permission (if you can’t, then I will), permission to
- Watch something that’s easier for you (a documentary, a cartoon, whatever makes you feel more confident because you know you can catch at least 80% of it, if not more)
- Watch movie clips
- Stick to TV series
- Watch with subtitles or play subtitles on, subtitles off
And if you do watch Arrival, don’t worry about Colonel Weber. Nobody understands him anyway.
Which clips did you find easiest or hardest to understand in this post? Let me know in the comments.
Fed up of not understanding films in English?
Movie Mindset Shift is a 30-day listening challenge that’ll show you how to work with movie clips, not whole films, to gradually build up your listening skills.You watch and understand 10 clips from 3 of the best films of the last 20 years.
You go beyond just listening – you do exercises that work because they teach you why you don’t understand. Click here to find out more and take on the challenge.