Movie dialog, subtitles, language complexity

I’d like to make a couple suggestions about using films from my ten years of experience (read: failures):


When I watch a Shakespeare movie, I have to use the subtitles. Although I am a native-English speaker, that English is flying by so fast and it is so rich with meaning that I can’t really get it very well. Subtitles help me appreciate it much more.

Advanced students and some upper-intermediate students, depending on the type of film, may be at a level where they can follow the dialog so well that it would be good practice for them to watch and listen to a film without subtitles.

However for our lower to some advanced-intermediate level students, if they don’t have subtitles they are going to miss too much dialog and have to rely more on the visual action of the film for meaning.

I suggest that we not try to use the showing of a film as a “reading” or as a “listening” exercise. Let’s just think of it as English input which is a mix of both. The listening is augmented by the reading and the reading is augmented by the listening.


Another thing about cartoons or movies that are made for children is that the dialog is almost always made at an adult level. You will notice this when you listen carefully word-by-word to what characters are saying.

Images for children, dialog for adults

We assume because someone like Disney made it that it is going to have a dialog geared for children and that this dialog will be simpler than that for an adult movie, not so. Below I have appended a sample of dialog from Disney’s new children’s movie, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 (2011).

Why is this so? I suspect that movie producers realize that if the mother or father is not going to get some level of entertainment out of it, too, that they will stop taking their children to the movies as the experience would be too boring. But when they put some clever remarks, innuendos and such in the movie they can entertain the adults as well.

One teacher said she used a Charlie Brown film and it looks like she made a good choice. I have also appended a portion of “This Is America, Charlie Brown” (1988)[2] which looks like it might be quite accessible to intermediate-level students.

Notes and references:

[1] 30-second excerpt from Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 (2011) starting at 00:30:00 –

Just follow your heart.

My heart is what keeps getting me in trouble.

What are we doing at the police station?

What’s so secret? Am I some sort of lookout?

No. No.

Do we need disguises?

Are we here to meet our contacts?



Maybe we should have code names.

Mine’s gonna be ”White Fox.” Yeah!

Intermediate-level students may not understand:

Follow your heart

Getting in trouble



Meet our contacts

Code names


[2] 30-second excerpt from “This Is America, Charlie Brown” (1988) starting at 00:15:00 –

I’m freezing.

I think we should collect some more.

On the other hand, maybe we do have enough.

I’m afraid of the wolf, sir.

Forget the wolves, Marcie.

I’m afraid of the Indians, sir.

Forget the Indians, Marcie.

Besides, we haven’t seen any since we landed in this harbor.

I’m afraid of the storms, sir.

Forget the storms, Marcie.

What makes you so brave, sir?

People with big noses are naturally brave.

Intermediate-level students may not understand:




All in all, it seems the Charlie Brown film may be more accessible to intermediate level students.


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