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.


Engineering an Experience! – Think outside the book…way outside!

What are we going to do with our time if we don’t teach grammar? Blow our students’ minds!

Have you ever seen a three-way orgy in an Ikea store? I have. You can too! Ikea 3-way


Scene from "Ikea Heights"
This crazy filmmaker thought it would be great fun to secretly film a melodrama in an Ikea store. With price tags hanging in front of their faces and customers walking behind, they act out living and dying in a fictitious neighborhood called “Ikea Heights”. What an out-of-the-box crazy idea.


If I have a small group, maybe 6-7 students, I will always take them to Ikea at some point during our training.

For us “experience engineers”, perhaps you are one, part of “engineering the experience” is not just to engineer a lesson but to engineer the overall training experience. Some lessons are in the classroom. Some lessons are out…way out! We want to not only have interesting and exciting lessons but also surprising experiences. We want our students to associate English learning to something thoroughly enjoyable, stimulating, amazing — not boring.

To this end we often not only “think outside of the box” but we “teach outside of the classroom”. There’s many things we can do along this line.

You know the boring lesson in English coursebooks where they read some dialog to order the food? Teachers who are “experience engineers” will do crazy things like having lunch together with their students at a buffet restaurant…with a twist. Instead of every student going to get their own food from the buffet counter, the teacher, or even one or two students, will act as “waiters” and take orders from the other students who act as “customers”. The “customers” sit at their tables while the “waiters” take the orders and serve the food. Students take turns waitering so everyone gets a chance. Perhaps the teacher or a student will visit the buffet the day before to make a “menu” that the others will use to order from but this is not necessary. (BTW, if asked, the manager will probably offer a discount for the group.) Wow, a lesson you can eat!

My student, a manager in an American company, trying out the Ikea experience

Ikea is a unique kind of store. They are “experience engineers”, too. They create these realistic rooms or even tiny apartments so you can feel the life of living in an Ikea home. Show your students the “Ikea Heights” film before you go. (Write me if you would like subtitles.) At the store you can act out your own mini-scenarios or role plays. (Orgy scene NOT recommended.)

There are a lot of interesting business strategies employed at Ikea. My English students who are managers love it when I point these things out. Ikea herds customers through a path like a rat maze. They station a cafeteria exactly halfway through the store so that customers will have no excuse to leave before they finish their shopping. They have a very cheap hot dog and ice cream available at the end of the shopping experience to provide a favorable “peak/end” experience.[1] There are lots of business concepts to unravel there.

There is a wealth of business talk to engage your students in discussing marketing, sales, promotion, staffing (few staff), ideas from things like Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy?” and Joseph Pine’s “Experience Economy” and business questions like “This frying pan costs only $1. Now why would a big store like Ikea sell a frying pan below cost?”

That’s not to mention all the discussion of preferences and even games: “What do you like more? This sofa or that sofa? Why?” “Now John, choose a chair you like but don’t tell us. Jane, guess what chair John prefers and tell us why.”

How about simulations? “Jane, you go ahead to the bed department. You are going to be a salesperson. Think of what advantages different beds have and when we come you should try to interest us in buying one of those beds. Give us a good sales pitch!”

Let’s quit complaining about the dull English coursebooks. They’re hopeless. Let’s go outside and turn the world into our coursebook. Let’s quit apologizing to the students for the boring books and take the responsibility and the challenge of being like other teachers who are “experience engineers”, creating lessons that you can see, feel, hear and even taste, lessons that are interesting, engaging and even surprising! Can’t we make experiences so mind-blowing that our students will want to grab their phones and text their buddies about the crazy English lesson they are having, that they will have to tell their parents or spouse about the crazy things they did today?

Don’t you think we can do better? I think we can.

(You “experience engineers” out there, share with us your lessons and ideas!)

Notes and references:

[1] Nobel winner Kahneman’s Peak End Rule not only applies to some of the things Ikea does but to what our lessons should be like:

Teaching with movie subtitles


There is only one reason I use subtitles, to make the movie more accessible for my students. Even upper-intermediate level students will have problems following a movie. Subtitles help increase comprehension tremendously. Perhaps advanced students would do better without them. But even I have to use subtitles when I watch certain movies like those of a Shakespearean story with dense rich beautiful language or a movie like “Wall Street” rich in financial terms.


They are very easy to find. Do an Internet search, for example, on the terms:

“Wall Street” subtitles

Replace “Wall Street” with the name of the movie you are searching for. Aside from the teacher developing materials for students in this way, I suggest the teacher demonstrate to the students how to find these subtitles on their own. I suggest the teacher even give the students an assignment to find the subtitles to their favorite English language movie, be it “Harry Potter” or “Titanic”, whatever, and to copy these subtitles into their smart phone, MP4 or even to reformat the text and print them out on paper. In this way the student will have a copy of the words to their favorite movie. This will mean the student can study the English that is highly interesting to him. I have an American friend who learned Chinese by watching one Chinese movie that he liked over and over and over again.

By the way, you can also find subtitles in almost every other major language in the same way.


They are a text file and you can open them and edit them in any text program. Some subtitles have the extension .txt but some are .srt. In any case, you can examine them with any program for text like Word, Notepad, etc. If it does have an .srt extension then I suggest you change this extension to .txt. The file will still work if you want to use it in a movie but it will be easier for your students to simply click on it and open it with their text programs .

When you open these subtitle files they do look rather messy. There are the words but there are also a lot of numbers. These numbers are time codes or frame codes to help the subtitles appear at the moment they are needed. I suggest that you teach students to ignore them. Or if they are time codes, students can use them as a reference to find the specific subtitle for a specific place in the movie. These codes can be removed by making a macro in Word but it is not a real simple solution.


There are a million things you can do.

My general approach to teaching is to avoid pre-teaching if possible. I believe the dynamics work better if the students’ interest is first piqued, if they are highly curious about something, if something fascinating is happening and now they really want to understand it. So I would try to show a portion of the movie, something really intriguing making your students fascinated and desperate to understand, with or without subtitles, and then “help” satisfy their curiosity by going over the subtitles more slowly and carefully. First we make the students thirsty. Then we satisfy their thirst.

Pre-teaching might be necessary if there is some word that is very central to the meaning of what is going on and if the students would be really clueless without understanding that word. However, if there is a lot of vocabulary your students don’t understand then there are too many uncommon words for the students and it is likely, even if you “teach” it to them, they will not retain them.

Another thing you can do is to have students prepare to act out one scene of a movie. This would involve some memorization. Alternatively, you could have the students develop a script to say the same thing in the movie only in different words and then act this out. You could ask the students to attribute a different character trait to one of the people in the story. “In this scene the villain is very cruel. But what would he say if he was a very nice guy and very polite.” You could show the movie until it builds up to an exciting moment and then let the students write and perform a script or even just ad lib a role play for what happens next.

With the words to the movie available to them, you can have students watch a scene and then write a “letter to the editor” about some issue (“something must be done to improve the education of our children”), write a police report (“this morning at 9:35 AM, I saw a man dressed in a Spider costume help…”, or if your students’ level is low they could write a simple postcard to a friend beginning with, “Dear Mom and Dad, You won’t believe what I saw today!…”

Have fun with movie subtitles and tell us how you use them! I’m sure you have lots of ideas!

>Tapping the power of commercials

>The following is a post of mine to the TESL-L teacher list in May 2006:

A teacher asks, “What makes a commercial more or less useful for classroom use? If you had to choose between two commercials to use in your class, how would you make the choice?”

I think commercials are becoming increasingly sophisticated as advertisers rely more and more on the soft sell approach. No longer can the housewife hold a box of Tide and say, “Cleans clothes whiter!” Now in 60 minutes you often have a drama played out by movie stars where a setting is created, characters introduced, a story develops, tension is added and then the plot twist with some ironic or funny ending. They are actually a mini-movie and sometimes more enjoyable than the TV show or movie that we intended to watch.


In one Budweiser commercial called “Girlfriend” three girls are sitting at a sidewalk café when one nudges the other, points and says something that we don’t hear as the audio is off. As they look on they see the back of the convertible at the stop light with a handsome guy and a girl with long blond hair. Then he reaches over and begins stroking her hair. We can see one of the girls is very upset. The guy answers his mobile phone ring and is saying something.


As the guy is talking on his phone the camera pans over to his passenger, an Afghan dog with beautiful long blonde fur and he pats it on the head.


Watch this commercial here. As you watch it, think about the affect it will have on your students if they have seen half of the commercial and tried to talk with their partners about the other half.

I look for commercials with a plot twist that will at first perplex the students when they try to piece the story together and then surprise them when they see (and hear) it all together.


Directors put a lot of effort in creating a powerful sense of mystery, suspense, curiosity in their commercials. To simply show a commercial straight through crashes through all of that in 30-60 seconds. But you can stretch out the affect, a driving force of their tremendous desire to satisfy that curiosity.

Then this desire powers the students into the English. They search all of their English resources for a way to communicate with their partner to resolve this mystery. Students get fully engaged in these exercises. They even forget it is an English “lesson” yet they are using English.

After partners have tried to figure out the story of the commercial, I have one partner “B” tell the class what “A” told him. Then another partner “A” tells us what “B” told him. This offers the students a chance to tell a story and use reported speech. All students listen intently as they are very curious about the story as well.

To extend the exercise, while the students are telling what their partner told them, you can write it up for all to see. Write it the way they say it with bad grammar and all. Get suggestions on how to improve the grammar, vocabulary or even the story’s facts. Students’ curiosity is still powering their interest into the story writing activity and it won’t be lost over mentioning some grammar or vocabulary issues. The teacher can guide the students to better language but should not correct the actual events of the story at this point.

After this, the students are still not sure if they really have the full idea of the story. Then play the commercial again with the sound. Every eye will be focused intently with a smile growing on their faces.

In the glow of satisfied curiosity, the teacher can go back and finalize the story that was written, perhaps a few facts are missing or better vocabulary can be used or other language points covered.

Of all the exercises I have done with my students, this has always been the most popular and the most requested.