Long before we knew that one day we’d be living in France, we were regularly watching films made here. We had a home theater in our house in Atlanta and every week a new DVD would show up in our mailbox that we would save for the weekend. Often these took place in Paris but occasionally we were treated to countryside scenes with fields of sunflowers and lavender, quaint villages with stone houses beside babbling mill streams, or large family gatherings around dining tables piled high with food and drink. No matter the location, these films had something in common, at least in our house: they were all in French of course but we always turned on the subtitles in English. We’re not fans of dubbed films where the words you hear don’t match the lips of the actors who are supposed to be saying them, so subtitles were the only way to comprehend what was going on. So, after living in France for 3 and a half years, that’s all changed—right?
Well, yes and no. During our first year here we continued with subtitles on TV with one big difference; they were in French rather than English. The theory was that we’d hear the words and see them at the same time but because what was written didn’t always match what was spoken, it got to be frustrating enough to stop using them. Besides, Bill read that it’s easy to become dependant on reading the screen rather than concentrating on the dialog. After all, in our day-to-day conversations with our neighbors and friends, they don’t hold up cue cards to explain what they are saying.
Apparently we’re not the only ones who wonder why we can understand what people are saying when they are talking directly to us but not so much what we see on TV or at the movies. I subscribe to several language instruction channels on YouTube and all of them have addressed this issue and draw the same conclusions about films and TV shows:
- The actors speak quickly without hesitation, sometimes with an accent, and perhaps with background noise
- The dialog may include subject-specific terms such as police and medical dramas or science fiction
- The script may use lots of expressions and abbreviations
To illustrate this last point, one YouTube teacher used most of a 15-minute video to explain a 30-second segment of his favorite TV series called Dix Pour Cent. In one part of the scene, an actor is trying to say the equivalent of “I’m sorry, I forgot your birthday” but with abbreviations well-known to native French speakers it would come out in English something like, “Sor, forgot yer BD”. What? No wonder I don’t understand!
So, what’s the answer? All of the YouTubers seem to agree on that as well:
- Practice daily by watching short videos of 5 to 10 minutes each
- Stick with subjects that interest you and watch them more than once
- Don’t get stressed—it’s only a movie
I like that last bit of advice the best.
3 thoughts on “I don’t understand”
We do a mixture of subtitled and not. Police dramas, yes. Le Meilleur Pâtissier, non. Depends what the subject is, I guess.
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Love reading your experiences .We arrive in Bordeaux Feb 20 so it is of great interest to us. Have a great festive season.
Regards David , Denise
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Thanks David and Denise! We enjoy sharing our experiences and especially when they are useful to others.It won’t be long before your comments come from France!
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