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Top>Opinion>How to Enjoy Hollywood Movies without Subtitles


Shigenori Wakabayashi

Shigenori Wakabayashi [Profile]

How to Enjoy Hollywood Movies without Subtitles

Shigenori Wakabayashi
Professor of Applied Linguistics, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Many students dream of watching American movies without subtitles. But how can this dream become a reality? To answer this question, let us look at why English speech in movies is difficult to understand, and then consider how to overcome that difficulty.

Reasons for the difficulty in listening to English can be divided into a number of categories: cannot catch pronunciation; can catch words, but do not understand the meanings of sentences; understand meanings of sentences, but do not understand what the speakers want to say, and more. The reason for such a variety of difficulties is that the activity of listening comprises multiple psychological processes. The following processes are generally considered to be performed in sequence when listening to speech: converting sounds into words; connecting the words into sentences; converting the sentences into meanings; and interpreting the meanings of the sentences in light of the context of the conversation or common knowledge in order to understand what a speaker means. In each of these steps, vocabulary and grammatical knowledge must be drawn upon rapidly, correctly, and continuously.

After all, written language and spoken language are different in any language. For example, Arigatou-gozaimasu and Ohayou-gozaimasu—meaning Thank you and Good morning in Japanese—may often actually be pronounced Azaasu and Oyoossu, respectively. Ri, To, and Ma in Arigatou-gozaimasu, and Ha, Go, and Za in Ohayou-gozaimasu disappear in actual speech. In the case of English, Field (2009) lists seven types of pronunciation for the word actually, for example. The shortest is ['æʃli], which does not include [k] or [t]. Are you all right? is pronounced [jəɒ'rɑɪʔ] and Never mind! is [ne'main], both of which are different from their spellings. Sounds actually pronounced are different from letters in spelling. You must know chunks of sounds. In addition, for example, Would you like and Do you like share exactly the same pronunciation in normal fluent speech, [ʤəlaɪk]. In actual conversation, they are distinguished in a listener's mind.

How many words do you have to know to understand the speech in a movie? For reading, if you understand ninety-five percent of the words in a book, you can read it without a dictionary (Laufer, 1989). Assuming that the level of vocabulary required for understanding a movie is the same as it is for reading a standard book, you must know about 10,000 words to understand a movie without a dictionary (Cobb, 2009).

Moreover, English has a different rhythm from Japanese, making it difficult to catch parts that are pronounced weakly. Some believe that you do not have to hear such parts because they have no significant meaning, but I disagree. When you listen to speech in your mother tongue, you build sentences in your head by filling in the parts that you don't hear. In other words, you draw on known patterns to understand. Consequently, speakers need not produce every part of a word audibly because listeners can understand them even without some parts. We need to learn to understand even without catching every word when we listen to foreign languages as well.

Some may also have the experience of catching spoken English words, but then missing the meaning after a certain point during a long period of listening to English. The activity of listening to and understanding English sounds is hard work for those who do not usually use English. Continuing to listen to English requires endurance.

Therefore, in order to enjoy Hollywood movies, you must know chunks of sounds in common phrases, remember the sounds of about 10,000 words and the patterns of many sentences, and acquire endurance. We Japanese usually cannot achieve all of these, given that our mother tongue, Japanese, is so very different from English in sound, vocabulary, and grammar. I believe that very few can understand English movies they watch for the first time without subtitles as well as they can Japanese movies, even those who have studied abroad for many years and can manage in normal daily life using English without difficulty, including me.

Nevertheless, you may want to try. You may still hope to reach this level of auditory comprehension. But what do we need to do in order to understand Hollywood movies without subtitles? First of all, you need to find a movie that you want to enjoy without subtitles. Then, following the method for learning English using movies recommended by Muranoi (2006, p.102), you watch the movie, checking the phrases in it by yourself. Muranoi describes a university student who watches the film Ghost—directed by Jerry Zucker in 1990—and picks up in ten minutes eight phrases such as “I'd never get over that.” Because you would not be able to understand English movies in the same way that you do Japanese movies without knowing such expressions, you must understand and memorize every one of them. When it comes to reading books, you begin to remember unknown words and phrases after seeing them ten times on average (Zahar, Cobb, and Spada, 2001). You would, therefore, automatically remember them simply by reviewing them ten times, even without forcing yourself to memorize them. When practicing watching movies, you might want to use DVDs with subtitles in both English and Japanese, or ones edited for English learners.

If you cannot understand a movie with subtitles, you would never understand it without them. Though there is no harm in trying a movie without subtitles first, I recommend starting with subtitles, checking the lines and narration, and writing down expressions that you are not familiar with. Do this for an entire movie. Then watch the same movie several times again, using your collection of expressions as a reference, reading the subtitles, and reviewing the meanings and sounds. After that, try watching it without subtitles. Now you should be able to understand a Hollywood movie without subtitles, though it may take a lot of time and energy. If you do not understand, review the parts you did not understand again with subtitles, and then watch it without subtitles.

You probably feel that this method seems hard and time-consuming. If, however, you don't come to understand any one movie first, you will end up never understanding a single movie. When you read the same picture book to a child again and again, she may remember all the lines in the book, and speak the whole book from memory as if she were reading it, even if she does not know the letters of the alphabet. In a similar way, you need to master at least one movie first. Otherwise, your dream will end up no more than a pipe dream.

While selecting an interesting movie is most important, you should also be aware that the difficulty of English varies from movie to movie. Movies that even children can watch are also easier for us to hear and understand. If you want to be able to speak in English as well as hear and understand, you might want to select movies with a lot of great dialogue. Try becoming a character in the movie and say the lines in front of a mirror several times. They might come out of your mouth on the spur of the moment. Then you will be speaking English as well as a Hollywood star — occasionally.

Selected References

Field, J. (2009), Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.
Muranoi, Hitoshi (2006), Effective English Teaching and Learning Methods from the Viewpoint of Second Language Acquisition Studies [Dai-ni Gengo Shuutoku Kenkyuu kara Mita Koukateki na Eigo Gakushuu-hou, Shidou-hou]. Taishukan Shoten.

Shigenori Wakabayashi
Professor of Applied Linguistics, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Professor Wakabayashi was born in 1962. After teaching English at high schools, he left the job and studied in the United Kingdom. He received M.A. from The University of Essex, M. Phil. and Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He specializes in generative approaches to second language acquisition, and also works actively in English education. Professor Wakabayashi is a member of the editorial board of Second Language Research, and is the secretary of the Japan Second Language Association.
Professor Wakabayashi's major publications include Generative Approaches to the Acquisition of English by Native Speakers of Japanese (published by Mouton de Gruyter) and "Lexical Learning in Second Language Acquisition: Optionality in the Numeration," Second Language Research, 2009.