You’re not unique. Well of course you’re unique. There’s no-one else like you. But when it comes to getting subtitle free, everyone is struggling with the same things. Today, I’m sharing 3 struggles that you have in common with other wannabe subtitle freedom fighters.

What you learned at school isn’t helping

At school, you learned to just listen. And you worked with clear and easy to understand resources like:

  • Your teacher’s voice
  • Simplified dialogues on the tapes that came with your textbook
  • The BBC news on the radio or TV
  • A Mr Bean video tape. Even though he doesn’t really speak much himself.

No matter what resources you used at school, you teacher organised your listening lessons like this:

  • Read some comprehension questions
  • Listen to the tape or CD once
  • Answer the comprehension questions, taking a guess if you weren’t sure
  • Listen again to check
  • The teacher gave you the answers

That’s it. Maybe you had a discussion based on the content of the recording. Or you worked on some of the grammar structures you heard.

This is the typical listening lesson format. It’s changing nowadays, but changing pretty slowly.

So you repeat the same structure when you listen on your own. You search for resources with comprehension questions because they’re supposed to help you understand. If you don’t have them, it’s too difficult. You don’t work with transcripts or subtitles because that’s cheating.

Besides, the only advice you got was just keep practicing and it’ll come. Here’s a TED talk you can go watch. Great, how is that going to help me catch the dialogue in the final season of Girls?

These experiences are pretty universal, unless you had a teacher who was years ahead of their time.

You struggle to catch the same things

No matter where you grew up, you developed your listening skills in the same, not very helpful way. So it’s makes sense that you struggle to catch the same things:

  • Cultural references
  • Connected speech
  • Weak forms or unstressed words

Cultural references

In films and series, it’s totally normal to not catch all the cultural references. You didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country, so you don’t know much about popular culture.

You read a lot, which helps plug the gaps. But often in TV shows, they refer to other TV shows, TV presenters from the past, songs, films, musicals. Not the high culture you tend to find in the classical literary canon.

You don’t know these things when you grow up in another country because they don’t talk about them at school. They’re not serious or sophisticated enough. You learn the “culture” through classical literature and that’s it.

Even I don’t know some American references. For instance, in Gilmore Girls they refer to:

  • Singers from the 50s and 60s
  • TV series from the 50s
  • Lines from old musicals

I don’t know this stuff. I’m too young and I’m not American. It’s not my fault, and it’s not yours either.

Connected speech

The words you already know sound different because of the way they join together in speech. Connected speech happens in TED talks too of course. But it’s more frequent and more “extreme” in casual, conversational speech like movie and TV dialogue.

Some of the worst examples are:

Disappearing sounds

  • h sounds disappear from ‘his’, ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘he’
  • t and d sounds disappear from common words like ‘what’, ‘that’ or ‘and’
  • Diphthongs (2 sounds together) that become monophthongs (1 sound) – this is why the pronoun ‘I’ often sounds like ‘ah’

Joining sounds

  • Consonant + vowel sounds join together:  ‘an egg’ sounds like ‘aNegg’
  • 2 vowels joined by a ‘w’ sound:  ‘two eggs’ sounds like ‘two Weggs’
  • 2 vowels joined by a ‘y’ sound: ‘see eggs’ sounds like ‘see Yeggs’


  • auxiliary verbs: ‘isn’t’, ‘didn’t’, ‘I’m’, ‘she’s’
  • modal verbs: ‘won’t’, ‘can’t’, ‘shouldn’t’, ‘you’ll’ ‘would’ve’
  • Often the negative form is hard to catch because of this

Transforming sounds

  • t+y sounds together sound like ‘tch’. This is why ‘sent you’ sounds like ‘sen chew’
  • d+y sounds together sound like ‘dj’. This is why ‘did you’ sounds like ‘di djew’

Weak forms or unstressed words

In English we emphasise certain words and reduce others. A general rule is that content words are stressed and grammar words are unstressed.

Sometimes we emphasise grammar words for meaning. Sometimes we reduce content words in the “stream of speech” as Richard Cauldwell calls it.

For now, let’s worry about typical weak forms or unstressed words. The vowels in these words become reduced schwa vowels, so they sound like ‘uh’. Or the vowel disappears completely.

Some of the hardest ones to catch are:

  • Auxiliaries : ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘do’, ‘don’t’, ‘have’ etc
  • Prepositions: ‘for’, ‘to’, ‘at’ etc
  • Conjunctions: ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’ etc
  • Pronouns: ‘you’, ‘she’, ‘him’ etc

You don’t know what to do to improve

You’re on your own, just listening. Waiting. Making progress, but talking a long time over it. Just listening is fine. But it won’t get you as far as quickly as doing a bit of work now.

I don’t make people do dictations to torture them. I do it because it works. I do it because you need to diagnose your problems before you can fix them.

If you just listen, you don’t know what you’re missing. You don’t know what your problem is.

It’s probably

  • A cultural reference you didn’t understand
  • A word you know that you misheard due to connected speech
  • A weak form that you couldn’t catch or misheard as something else
  • You may also have heard a word or words you don’t know, but that’s usually a little easier to identify as unknown words stand out

When you’re working on your own, it’s hard to organise your listening so that you do this kind of detailed work. You just want to watch your favourite shows, not sit there repeating the same scene to do dictations or shadowing the actors.

That’s why listening teachers like me exist. And even better than just a teacher, why not work with a whole community of like-minded film lovers, all struggling with the same things .

Fighting for subtitle freedom together

That’s why I created my new group programme, Subtitle Freedom Fighters. Because you’re not the only one struggling to get subtitle free. You’re not unique. Everyone is struggling with the same things.

During the 4-week programme, we’ll watch 4 clips from a spooky film or series together so that you:

  • realise that you’re not the only one who can’t catch movie and series dialogue
  • meet other subtitle freedom fighters and help each other
  • form online friendships and keep working together with your new movie buddies in future
  • watch a scary movie and discover cultural points that make it hard to understand and catch the tricky dialogue thanks to the listening techniques I’ll teach you

Join us for Subtitle Freedom Fighters.

I’ve got 10 spots available and the deadline for enrollment is Friday October 13th at midnight.

Pin It on Pinterest