Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

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Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Apr 14, 2014 7:14 am

After numerous frustrations when trying to understand what was being said in certain films and TV shows, I decided to list all the factors I could think of that might impede a viewer's comprehension. The resulting list has turned out to be surprisingly lengthy. A few of the contributing factors are necessarily beyond the control of the makers, but so many of the others would be avoidable if the makers and actors paid greater attention to how what they were doing affected the comprehensibility of the dialogue they were generating.

These are the factors I have identified, in no particular order:
  1. Mumbling and/or whispering
  2. Speaking very rapidly
  3. Highly emotional speech (e.g. when crying, shouting or ranting)
  4. Use of unfamiliar words, including novel or regional slang, professional jargon and abbreviations
  5. Using dialect unfamiliar to the listener (encompasses unfamiliar vocabulary, grammar, accent and culture-specific referents)
  6. Non-standard or grammatically incoherent constructions
  7. Speaking in an accent that is unfamiliar to the listener
  8. Mispronunciations
  9. Monotonous delivery: little variation in volume, stress or emphasis
  10. Song lyrics are particularly hard to decipher, partly because they often make very little sense to begin with
  11. Uninteresting, excessively complicated or excessively specialized topic of discussion: lack of engagement or subject-matter comprehension encourages the listener's attention to wander, leading to misunderstanding of subsequent utterances (with associated sense of frustration)
  12. Unfamiliar subject matter, especially popular-culture references. When such references are not understood, the wider significance or general context of the utterance that contains it may be lost. Typical examples are references to decades-old TV shows and celebrities, actors and singers
  13. Ambiguous statements or puns, especially if the references are obscure
  14. Speaker's lips are not visible
  15. Speaker's facial expressions and/or body language do not match the informational or emotional content of their utterances.
  16. Conversation contains excessive non sequiturs
  17. Poor quality of recorded/transmitted sound (mobile phones/cellphones are abysmal for this -- mostly affects live broadcasts)
  18. Clipping of frequency range (again, mobile phones are a terrible offender -- mostly affects live broadcasts)
  19. Sound cutting in and out (e.g. due to poor phone reception or satellite link -- mostly affects live broadcasts)
  20. Masking of speech by excessively loud music and/or other background noise
  21. Other sensory overload: fast panning or cutting between short scenes, too much concurrent physical on-screen action, background noise, accompanying music, emotional content and rapid speech overwhelm the viewer's ability to decide what information is most relevant
  22. Excessive difference in speech volume between speakers: listeners find it hard to adjust their expectations of what they are about to hear quickly enough
  23. Except when the listener is conversing with someone in a live setting, no possibility of asking for clarification or repetition of what was said
  24. Deafness of the listener, including difficulty hearing particular frequency ranges
  25. Age-related slowing of signal processing: as most people get older, the rate at which they can interpret what they are hearing decreases, which means that rapid speech is harder for them to keep up with, especially if it is consistently rapid
  26. Incomplete, inaccurate, unavailable, poorly contrasting or badly synchronized subtitles. ('Inaccurate' includes the nasty habit some subtitlers have of substantially rewording sentences. And there ought to be a particularly unpleasant punishment for those decision-makers responsible for plastering subtitles right across the faces of the individuals speaking the lines to which they relate.)
Did I miss anything out?

Do other people also think that indecipherability of film and TV dialogue is a significant problem?
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Apr 16, 2014 5:12 pm

.. in Aus we have been tolerating American mumble for years with stoic forbearance but we have survived .. in looking at your list 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12 & 13 have particular reference to the problems with American TV in particular ..

WoZ who speaks yankee fairly well
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by trolley » Wed Apr 16, 2014 6:47 pm

I am reminded of the time I brought the movie "A Clockwork Orange" home from the rental store. My wife had never seen it. She struggles a bit understanding accents. Between that and the Nadsat that Alex and his droogies were govoreeting she was lost right out of the gate. I spent the entire movie translating for her. After a painfull two and a half hours (I had to keep pausing the movie to explain what was going on) she declared, "What a stupid movie!" and headed off to bed. I rewound the tape and watched it again, in peace (for about the tenth time).
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Apr 16, 2014 8:25 pm

I had to laugh at that one, Trolley. In my house I'm the one who's always having to ask my wife to help me understand some weird Yankee argot or other, or a reference to some stupid American TV show that first aired in 1973.
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Phil White » Wed Apr 16, 2014 11:29 pm

There are also hearing disorders that exacerbate all you have said. I have put up with ("suffered from" is far too strong a term) mild tinnitus pretty well as long as I can remember. One effect is that I sometimes find it difficult to isolate specific sounds from background noise. When it is bad, which is not often, it makes it hard to follow a conversation in a pub or restaurant.

In films, the background music pretty well stuffs me if it runs over dialogue.

But here is a test for you. One line of dialogue in one of my all-time favourite films has always eluded me.

Towards the end of "A bridge too far", Sean Connery mumbles a line:

Soldier: "I'm beginning to think we're actually going to make it, sir."
Connery as General Urquhart: " farble wargle Igor was a Scotsman."

The film is here if you can get it in your region. The line comes at around 2:45:10 during the retreat sequence.

@trolley Yes, another of my favourites. I watched it again a couple of weeks ago. Malcolm McDowell was wonderful as ever. Hard to believe that you could not see it in the UK for 27 years.
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by trolley » Thu Apr 17, 2014 1:02 am

"I thought everyone knew that God was a Scotsman"
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Apr 17, 2014 2:36 am

Agreed. However, what he really meant is "I thought everyone knew Sean Connery was the God of Scotland".

Or possibly "Farble wargle Igor".
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Thu Apr 17, 2014 9:55 am

No, no. Farble Wargle Igor was the Scottish cousin of Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps. Or was it Gussie Fink-Nottle?
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Phil White » Thu Apr 17, 2014 10:30 am

Thanks trolley, That's been bugging me for about 12 years, since I got the DVD. I have spent hours over the past years just listening to that one line. A couple of years ago I even ripped it to an audio file and ran a bunch of filters over it. That's how much it was annoying me.

I can now sleep at nights again, but even though I am sure you are right, I cannot actually hear those words. Perhaps it is the background drizzle of rain on the soundtrack that is bamboozling my ears.
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Bobinwales » Thu Apr 17, 2014 2:22 pm

You are all wrong,if was God he would have been speaking Welsh.

By the way Phil, that clip you gave us is sub-titled! You could have got a lot more sleep if you had only known that.
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Phil White » Thu Apr 17, 2014 2:47 pm

Good god! I never knew you could turn cations on and off on YouTube. And, of course, I could have done that on the DVD. Not that I can read them without stopping the clip, though.
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Apr 17, 2014 4:50 pm

Bob really knows his anions with this stuff.
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Thu Apr 17, 2014 5:29 pm

I'd heard the Welsh were more famous for their electric leaks.
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Thu Apr 17, 2014 5:34 pm

This post appears off-topic because it is Erik bemoaning the fact he can't get a film, tea and biscuits for £1.50 over there in the States.

A commendable rant, though.
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Re: Problems understanding film and TV dialogue

Post by Dunkeld » Fri Dec 13, 2019 10:21 pm

Erik_Kowal wrote:
Mon Apr 14, 2014 7:14 am
After numerous frustrations when trying to understand what was being said in certain films and TV shows, I decided to list all the factors I could think of that might impede a viewer's comprehension. The resulting list has turned out to be surprisingly lengthy. A few of the contributing factors are necessarily beyond the control of the makers, but so many of the others would be avoidable if the makers and actors paid greater attention to how what they were doing affected the comprehensibility of the dialogue they were generating.

These are the factors I have identified, in no particular order:
  1. Mumbling and/or whispering
  2. Speaking very rapidly
  3. Highly emotional speech (e.g. when crying, shouting or ranting)
  4. Use of unfamiliar words, including novel or regional slang, professional jargon and abbreviations
  5. Using dialect unfamiliar to the listener (encompasses unfamiliar vocabulary, grammar, accent and culture-specific referents)
  6. Non-standard or grammatically incoherent constructions
  7. Speaking in an accent that is unfamiliar to the listener
  8. Mispronunciations
  9. Monotonous delivery: little variation in volume, stress or emphasis
  10. Song lyrics are particularly hard to decipher, partly because they often make very little sense to begin with
  11. Uninteresting, excessively complicated or excessively specialized topic of discussion: lack of engagement or subject-matter comprehension encourages the listener's attention to wander, leading to misunderstanding of subsequent utterances (with associated sense of frustration)
  12. Unfamiliar subject matter, especially popular-culture references. When such references are not understood, the wider significance or general context of the utterance that contains it may be lost. Typical examples are references to decades-old TV shows and celebrities, actors and singers
  13. Ambiguous statements or puns, especially if the references are obscure
  14. Speaker's lips are not visible
  15. Speaker's facial expressions and/or body language do not match the informational or emotional content of their utterances.
  16. Conversation contains excessive non sequiturs
  17. Poor quality of recorded/transmitted sound (mobile phones/cellphones are abysmal for this -- mostly affects live broadcasts)
  18. Clipping of frequency range (again, mobile phones are a terrible offender -- mostly affects live broadcasts)
  19. Sound cutting in and out (e.g. due to poor phone reception or satellite link -- mostly affects live broadcasts)
  20. Masking of speech by excessively loud music and/or other background noise
  21. Other sensory overload: fast panning or cutting between short scenes, too much concurrent physical on-screen action, background noise, accompanying music, emotional content and rapid speech overwhelm the viewer's ability to decide what information is most relevant
  22. Excessive difference in speech volume between speakers: listeners find it hard to adjust their expectations of what they are about to hear quickly enough
  23. Except when the listener is conversing with someone in a live setting, no possibility of asking for clarification or repetition of what was said
  24. Deafness of the listener, including difficulty hearing particular frequency ranges
  25. Age-related slowing of signal processing: as most people get older, the rate at which they can interpret what they are hearing decreases, which means that rapid speech is harder for them to keep up with, especially if it is consistently rapid
  26. Incomplete, inaccurate, unavailable, poorly contrasting or badly synchronized subtitles. ('Inaccurate' includes the nasty habit some subtitlers have of substantially rewording sentences. And there ought to be a particularly unpleasant punishment for those decision-makers responsible for plastering subtitles right across the faces of the individuals speaking the lines to which they relate.)
Did I miss anything out?

Do other people also think that indecipherability of film and TV dialogue is a significant problem?
I agree with this list!
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