When I was living in Vancouver, my flatmate was watching about everything with subtitles, even though everything he was watching was in English, which is his mother tongue. He mainly did that because of a combination of problems: the annoyingly poorly balanced sound tracks in movies (speech too low vs sound effects too loud) and the fact that our house was next to a very busy road. In the end, it was pretty much impossible to understand a film without subtitles, and I had to do it too, although I really don’t like it.
See, a few years ago, I had this talk with a friend who couldn’t watch an English-speaking film without subtitle, not because he couldn’t understand English well (he was pretty good at it actually), but because he couldn’t accept to watch a film and not understand 100% of dialogues. I understand his point, but I sadly think it’s a way too common belief that speech is more important than image in movie.
For my part, I started watching English-speaking films without subtitles in the early 2000’s. Back then, it was about improving my English listening skills. If I wasn’t reading, I was more focused on the speech, and therefore more akin to understand what actors were saying and get used to the language. Long story short, it really helped a lot (1). But as I got better at understanding English, well, there was no point in putting back subtitles anymore.
And I remembered what my Mom was saying about her never watching movies with subtitles. She doesn’t watch film in English, she watches the French-dubbed versions. But she made a very good point at not reading subtitle: “I can’t focus on both the image and the subtitles”. And I think that’s the whole point.
Now, my Mom is not a cinephile. She just enjoys a movie every now and then. But it’s true for everyone. Cinema is mainly a visual media. For years, films could even tell a story without a single line of dialogue, because there wasn’t sound on it yet. So filmmakers used a lot of visual cues to convey various plots and emotions, because it wasn’t possible to break the film pace every five seconds with dialogue screens.
So now, we have countless ways to tell a story visually but still, a lot of people don’t realise it. If it’s not in dialogue, it’s like it’s not explained at all. That’s pretty much why fool-proofed movies tend to over-explain the plot in dialogues even though everything is quite always obvious in context. Just look at how hardly-audible dialogues in Interstellar were perceived by a large part of the audience. Another great example is when Mel Gibson wanted to screen The Passion without subtitles, which would have been a great idea, since the audience most likely to go watch the film already knew the story and how it ends (spoiler: Jesus dies on a cross). But of course, this didn’t happen, because the film would have completely flopped at the box office.
People take for granted that every single bit of dialogue must be understandable, when image and sound design are equally or more important to understand the film. When I see movies that try to be visually clever, instead of using trendy shots, get trashed because they are too contemplative/hardly understandable/pretentious/boring (check the appropriate answer for your case), it really explains why there are much less films like that anymore, and also why I don’t watch that many films anymore. (2)
When you focus too much on dialogues, and therefore on subtitles, it’s the same amount of attention you don’t give to image and sound (4), and so you lose way more information than you think you get by being overly attentive to dialogues. I always feel that when I tell people I don’t watch films with subtitles, they think I’m being pretentious. I’m not. I maybe understand give or take 90% of dialogues in any given film (even in French-speaking films, there are always mumbled or covered lines that are hardly understandable), but I just enjoy and understand the movies better if I’m not distracted by subtitles. Once I even watched a movie in a language I didn’t know at all and I understood the plot.
Of course I wouldn’t recommend to watch an entire movie without subtitle if you don’t understand the language, especially the ones that have really well-crafted dialogues (Tarantino’s films, for example, are enjoyable because of dialogues). But if you understand at least 60% (rule of thumb here), I feel like it’s worth giving it a shot.
So, I hate to admit, but turns out my Mom was right all along.
(1) In the same way, watching Japanese animation with English subtitles has helped my English-reading skills a lot. If you want to learn some language, these are actually very good exercises to consolidate your knowledge. But you need some level of proficiency first.
(2) And still, in the end, they are the films that get to be remembered and studied in schools.
(3) And don’t get me started on multitasking. There is no such thing. It’s actually task switching. And in case of subtitles, you have to move your gaze to the text, so you can’t in any way watch the image and the subtitles at the same time, especially in theatre (we can talk about the 2° field of view for accurate vision later).
(4) Obviously I don’t recommend it. I was just curious about a particular film and couldn’t find the subtitles. I lost a lot of information in the process, but I still enjoyed watching the film.