Have you ever been watching a TV show or movie and thought “What is wrong with me?! Why can’t I understand what they’re saying?”
Well, you’re not alone! If you find yourself easily understanding your favorite YouTuber (I hope I’m one of them 😉), and understanding most everything in daily conversations, but when you turn on your favorite TV show, you’re totally lost, there’s a good reason why that happens, and today I’ll tell you all about it.
Do you struggle with understanding people speaking on TV and in movies, and you feel like you always have to turn on captions, otherwise you wouldn’t understand anything? In this episode, I’m going to share with you three reasons for why that happens. And I’m also going to share with you a few tips on how to improve your listening so you don’t always have to use captions.
If you’re new to my channel, then hi, my name is Hadar. I’m a non-native speaker of English, and I am here to help you speak English with clarity, confidence, and freedom. Check on my website at hadarshemesh.com for a lot more lessons and resources to help you own your English.
So the reason why I’m making this video is because I’ve been getting a lot of comments below my video saying, “Hadar, I can understand almost everything that you’re saying, but for some reason when I watch TV, it’s a lot harder for me to understand people.” Or, “Why is it always hard to understand people on TV when in real life I don’t struggle with this so much?”
So, there are interesting reasons for why that happens and I’m going to share with you those reasons. Now, I collected three, there are more, but I wanted to make it concise and clear for you so you can get actionable tips on how to improve that.
So the first reason is your brain capacity. When you watch TV or when you watch a movie, then your brain is focused on a lot of things. You’re not just focused on understanding English, you’re focused on the storyline, and you’re focused on the dialogue and the characters and their facial expressions, and the intonation, and the tone of voice, and the editing and the music. And there’s a lot of information that’s happening when you’re watching something versus what happens in real life. For the most part. Sometimes in real life things can get a bit more overwhelming.
But when you watch a movie, there is a lot more that you need to process in your brain. And because of that your brain is focused on so many things, you probably don’t only focus on the dialogue or on the language, and as a result, you are not fully understanding everything that is happening. And that is perfectly fine, like you’re not supposed to only focus on the dialogue, that’s the experience of watching a movie, right? You need to look at all the things together to have that experience that people want you to have when creating movies and TV. So that is the first reason, your brain capacity.
The second reason is that maybe you are not that experienced in listening to English speakers using English. And the reason why I specifically say ‘English speakers using English’ is because there is a way in which English is spoken, that is very different than how it is written. Because when people speak the language, they put emphasis on the more important words and they completely reduce the less important words. And by ‘reduce’ I mean that they don’t pronounce it fully. For example, the word ‘you’ may not be pronounced like this – ‘you’, but ‘yuh’.
“I hear you.” “What do you think of my new wheels?” “Hey, I hear you.” “And I want you to know…” So instead of hearing ‘what do you want?’, which is how you are trained to hear, because you think about the words and you think about the vowels and the words and how it is when they’re written out here, when people speak, you might hear something like ‘wadaya’.
“What do you want?” “What do you think you’re doing?” ‘what’ becomes ‘wuh’, ‘do’ – ‘duh’, ‘you’ – ‘yuh’. And not only that it’s reduced, it’s also glued together. So again, when learning English and when you don’t have a lot of experience listening to native speakers, what happens is that you are training yourself to hear English word by word by word, and not chunk by chunk by chunk. And it’s really important to make that distinction to shift from trying to understand every single word to trying to understand the entire sentence or the entire chunk.
So in a way, what you wanna do is start looking for the stressed words. The stressed words are usually clear, they’re longer, they’re higher in pitch. And the reduced parts are connected together and reduced. Let’s look at a few examples. “I gotta get outta here.” “I gotta get outta here.” “We’re trying to play this game.” “We’re trying to play this game.” “She doesn’t wanna let you down.” “She doesn’t wanna let you down.” “What are you gonna do?” “What are you gonna do?”
So as you can see, if you try to understand every single word within that phrase while it’s being spoken, you are going to spend a lot of time doing that, and the character will already be saying the next sentence, and then you’ll feel like you’re missing out parts. So instead, try to listen to the character and be with the character, and not focus on trying to understand every single word, but only paying attention to the keywords. Your brain will be able to make up for the missed parts. And even though you won’t really hear every single word, you will understand the main message, which is what really matters. So in a way, you just need to start getting used to it, and the only way to do it is by practice and by training yourself to watch TV and movies without using subtitles.
The third reason, and I bet that this is going to make you really happy, it’s not you and not your brain and not your language, but technology. Now, I’ve learned that from a really cool video that I’m going to share with you in the description below, about why more and more people need to use captions when watching tv, even native speakers.
So what I have learned is that when you watch TV at home or on your phone…
The sound that you’re hearing is compressed and designed in a way that makes it a little less clear. Add to that actors who are trying to sound very, very natural, and by that they also mumble and they don’t project their voice and articulate their sounds. So, the compressed sound along with lack of diction creates a situation where the audio is not really intelligible. It is not clear, not just to your ears, but when native speakers listen to it as well. So you should watch that video, it’s really interesting, it’s a lot more elaborate than what I’m saying here. But it’s a relief, right? So it’s not just you and it’s probably not your English.
So this is a good reminder that even if you need to use subtitles or captions, it doesn’t mean anything about your listening abilities, and this is why you can understand me perfectly fine, but when you watch your favorite Netflix show, it’s a little harder.
So now let’s talk about a few things that you can do to improve your listening skills. And that would serve you not just when watching TV, but also when speaking to people, because that is probably a little bit more important, and there’s more at stake when you’re speaking to other people.
So the first thing, expose yourself to as many different speakers as possible. Listen to different people with different accents so you can get used to hearing different sounds and understanding them and analyzing them. And really train yourself to listen to it without subtitles. Listening to podcasts is a great way to improve your listening skills, so just really expose yourself. And like I said, variety is really important. So you don’t listen to just one sound, just people who use standard American English. And then when you watch TV with a character that has a slightly different dialect, you’re like, “I don’t understand what they’re saying”. No, you want to provide for yourself the best circumstances to succeed.
The second thing is that you need to train your brain not to try and analyze every single word, like I said before, but really try to understand the idea of a sentence or of a chunk. Once you let go of that need to understand every single thing, first of all, you’re gonna enjoy it more, and also you will start understanding more. So look for the key words, the stressed words. The clue is that those words are usually higher in pitch or a little longer. And when you hear those parts that are a little more mumbled, try to make sense of them. Try to use your reason to understand what they mean, okay, even if you don’t understand every single word. And the more you do it, the easier it will be.
Another thing that could definitely help your listening skills is to practice pronunciation, reductions in particular. When you practice pronunciation and when you practice reductions: so that means that when you have function words – all the ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘at’, ‘could’, ‘would’, ‘should’ in the sentence – those sounds, the vowels in those words are reduced to a schwa, which is a very neutral sound – ‘uh’.
Now, I have a bunch of videos about that, and I’m going to link to those videos in the description below. So go ahead and watch it if you need to learn more about it. But if you practice it, and if you practice the reductions, your brain will start understanding it better and recognizing those patterns. So practicing pronunciation is really useful for improving your listening skills.
And the last thing is a really cool exercise that I have taught my students and I think it’s a great way to understand your listening abilities. And that is to turn on the TV, play one line, and then transcribe it. And ideally, you should have the script, it’s really easy to get the script for pretty much anything these days, or you can turn on the captions. And you wanna transcribe it and see what you actually hear. And then you wanna compare it with the captions or the script, and then you will see if it’s the same. And the parts that are not the same are the clue for what is still confusing for you, right? what is still not clear in your mind, what is still hard for you to understand.
So once you understand that, then you would become more aware of it, and the next time you listen to speakers in English, you will know that this is your weakness and you can stay more focused and more aware, and it’s going to be a lot easier for you to understand it. I have another video about how to improve your listening skills, so I’m going to link to that in the description as well.
All right, so I have a question for you: what is your best piece of advice for people who are struggling with understanding characters on TV and movies? I’m sure that a lot of you who are watching this right now, you have already done a lot of work and you’ve practiced it. So if you wanna share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, I would love to keep this conversation going.
In the meantime, have a beautiful, beautiful rest of the day. I hope you enjoyed this video. If you enjoyed it, make sure to like it and to subscribe if you haven’t yet. And I will see you next week in the next video. Bye.
Maybe you’ve tried learning English with popular TV shows before, or you’ve just started a new series. But when you switch on the show, you can’t understand anything, and you can’t figure out why!
I’ve identified three reasons why understanding movies and TV shows are harder than understanding conversations in real life, or videos on YouTube.
- Your brain capacity – Whether it is in real-life interactions or when watching movies and TV shows, our brain is not focused only on processing the language and the words used by the speakers but on many, many other things, such as the intonation and tone of voice the speakers use, their facial expressions, and other things that happen in the background (music, other characters, etc.). That is a LOT of information to take in, and naturally, you won’t be able to focus 100% on the words that are being spoken. However, this happens in our first language too!
- Your listening “record” – There’s no way around it. In order to understand speakers in a second language, you have to listen as much as possible. As you expose yourself more to the spoken language, you’ll become more and more familiar with it and aware of different nuances.
Spoken English is different from written English! Words get different emphasis, some words are reduced and not pronounced fully. In order to understand others better, you need to familiarize yourself with common reductions so that you get to a point where you subconsciously anticipate them in future conversations.
- Technology – The way sound is recorded and edited for film and TV audiences has changed throughout the years so more and more people, including native English speakers, find it harder to understand what characters onscreen are saying. In addition, actors themselves are required to speak more naturally to deliver a more authentic acting. This causes them to sometimes mumble and be unclear, as we are sometimes when we speak. These two facts together have led to more and more people – again, native speakers included – relying on English subtitles to better understand their favorite TV show or movie. You can learn more about the role of technology in understanding actors on TV and film with this interesting video here by Vox.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that many people struggle to understand movies and TV shows, even native speakers! The good thing is that there are still ways to improve your listening so you don’t always need to use subtitles.
Here are a few ways you can improve your listening skills so you can kick the subtitles to the curb:
- Expose yourself to as many different speakers as possible. There are SO MANY different and beautiful accents in English, and it’s important to be able to understand them! Listening to multiple accents allows our hearing to be more flexible and understand a wider variety of speakers, in real life and on TV. Podcasts are an excellent way to get easy access to multiple different accents. My podcast, The InFluency Podcast, is a great place to start 😉.
- Train your brain to not analyze every single word, but the general message. Listen for the key words (the stressed words) and filter out the less important words. This will allow your brain to know what to focus on, and help you pay attention to the most important elements in a sentence. To learn more about how to do that, watch the tutorial: American Intonation – what they don’t teach you in school.
- Practice pronunciation, especially reductions. Reductions are words like “could”, “should”, “would”, or words like “and”, “of”, and “for”. These words commonly get reduced in spoken English, meaning that they are not pronounced as clearly. When you practice your own pronunciation of these reductions and contractions, you will be able to understand much easier when people use these reductions in their own speech.
To learn more about contractions and reductions in English, and practice on your own, check out these episodes: Contractions in English and The Schwa Sound.
- Transcribe what you hear. This is a great exercise that I recommend to my students! Transcribing is an excellent and insightful way to practice your listening. First, turn on the TV and play a scene from a show or movie – but don’t look at the subtitles. Listen to each line, and write down what you actually hear. Once you’ve written down a few lines, turn on the subtitles and compare it with what you wrote. You will be able to see what words you missed, and what areas caused the most confusion for you. It will become much easier for you to identify what you struggle with, and that will allow you to know where you can practice more!
Those are my top tips for improving your listening skills to understand shows better without using subtitles.
Now it’s your turn! What is your best piece of advice for understanding actors or characters on TV and movies?