I often ask my American English native speaker friends this question:

When watching a movie in American English, do you turn the subtitles on?

Quite a lot of them say that they always do ("in order to make sure not to miss any details" is the most common justification).

My native language is Russian, and in Russia it is literally unheard of to turn the subtitles on for Russian movies. Everything that is being said is always 100% crystal clear.

Does this phenomenon arise because of how diverse American English can be in its pronunciation and vocabulary in comparison to Russian's?

Addendum: can this phenomenon be due to the fact that the connection between American English sounds and individual letters is much looser than it is for Russian sounds and individual letters?

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    English has completely messed up vowels, so even the native speakers cannot disambiguate them. – Anixx Oct 9 '16 at 10:59
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    "100% crystal clear." Really? :-) youtu.be/lp_xhM0GYbo – bytebuster Oct 9 '16 at 10:59
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    @bytebuster this is a special recording of a fringe dialect, Vologda dialect to be specific, made by linguistic students, not standard Russian. – Anixx Oct 9 '16 at 11:07
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    I keep subtitles turned on and the sound muted. For me, it's about multitasking. I'm usually doing something else at the same time as watching a movie, or whatever, like right now, when I'm using my laptop. An occasional glance at the screen is enough to keep track of the action, but having the sound turned on is too distracting. – Greg Lee Oct 9 '16 at 14:44
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    @Anixx: sorry, that is a completely ridiculous claim. English-speaking children routinely disambiguate vowels. the only time I ever have trouble disambiguation vowels is when talking to a non-native speaker who has not mastered English pronumciation. – mobileink Oct 10 '16 at 18:39

My guess is that this is not a matter of the language, but rather of the sound quality.
Most films come with the original audio in (American) English where the actors speak right during the acting into the microphone placed somewhere in the background at the set. Synchronisations in other languages, however, are recorded in a studio where the synchronisers speak directly into a professional speech microphone. Additionally the speakers focus solely on pronounciation, often making numerous attempts until they reach perfection - as opposed to the actors who mainly need to pay attention to their acting, where crystal-clear speaking is only secondary. The combination of these aspects makes the speech quality in the synchronised audio noticeably better.
You can actually hear the difference if you switch between different language tracks during a film. The speech in the original audio track is always of slightly lower quality than in the synchronised tracks.
It might be interesting to compare the perceived clearness in an originally Russian film with the English synchronisation - I wouldn't be surprised if the tables were turned then.

If it was not about the speech quality of the movie audio, but about the language itself, the apparent understanding difficulty should not be restricted to watching films but extend to everyday communication in American English, i.e. A.E. speakers would generally have more difficulty flawlessly understanding their native language than Russian speakers do. I don't think that this is the case.

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    No. In Russian there are films recorded using both technologies, in those which recorded during play the sound even seems better (it reflects all sounds in the action like glasses put on the table etc). There is no difference in intelligibility. It is shocking that some films may be unintelligible to a native speaker whatever the quality of recording. – Anixx Oct 9 '16 at 14:55
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    @David Garner this is fascinating! After tens of years of learning English, I am still unable to understand news and movies, not to say music and I thought it was my specific problem. But if even the native speakers do need subtitles... I have no words. I cannot imagine a Russian movie with however special vocabulary or invented words or bad sound to need subtitles. – Anixx Oct 9 '16 at 20:00
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    @Anixx, I must stress that doesn't apply to all native speakers. – David Garner Oct 9 '16 at 20:05
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    @David Garner even if to some, it is very fascinating. Never heard and cannot even imagine similar practice in Russian. Is it the reason why the English speakers defend their non-phonetic weird spelling, because this weird spelling allows disambiguate words that you cannot disambiguate in speech? – Anixx Oct 9 '16 at 20:16
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    @Anixx, show me a language where changing one vowel in a word can't result in another word. If that weren't so, the language would only need one vowel. – David Garner Oct 11 '16 at 10:45

your America friends are having fun with you. Nobody does this, unless they have hearing problems, the soundtrack is muddy, or they're in a noisy environment like a bar. native speakers of American English are just people, no different than native speakers of any lsnguage.

as for spelling, it is complete irrelevant. native speakers never need guidance from written language to disambiguate, in any language.

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    Nah, I have friends who do it, and I do it sometimes. It's certainly not necessary to understand what's being said, but I usually do it if I'm watching something on Netflix. – brass tacks Oct 10 '16 at 21:04
  • @sumelic: sure, but I dare say they don't do it because they have trouble disambiguating vowels! – mobileink Oct 10 '16 at 21:47
  • @sumelic: on the other hand there may be something there there. people who do not really need to do this, do it. what does it all mean?! it's not impossible that we are seeing some kind of basic shift in communication strategies. – mobileink Oct 10 '16 at 21:50

I don't think this is due to any linguistic phenomena, just a cultural thing.

I sometimes turn on the subtitles if I'm watching something on my computer using Netflix, but not if I'm watching on the TV or on Youtube. I believe I picked up this habit from one of my friends; her family often turns the subtitles on so that they can pay more attention to other things while watching the TV.

In any case, nobody has subtitles when speaking to other people in real life or when listening to the radio, and American English speakers certainly do both of these things often without any trouble.

Subtitle's aren't really needed at all for disambiguating homophones, or even near homophones. Native speakers don't usually have any difficulty distinguishing different vowel sounds such as fit-feet, here-hair, bat-bet. I know these can be tough for non-native speakers, but to native speakers the differences are generally quite clear (barring drastic accent differences). The areas that I think are most likely to cause confusion or difficulty for native speakers listening to American English speech are vowel reduction and word division. Russian also has vowel reduction, and I believe word division is ambiguous in at least some cases in every spoken natural language.

  • "so that they can pay more attention to other things while watching the TV." - this is very strange because in all my understanding, it is the subtitles that need attention rather than voice. – Anixx Oct 12 '16 at 2:18
  • @Anixx, Yeah, not sure how I'd explain how it helps. For example, you can talk more to other people while the TV's on. Also, subtitles are on the screen for longer than the words are being spoken. – brass tacks Oct 12 '16 at 2:20

I believe it to be a matter of phonology. Regional dialects, accents and variations are very different in the English language. I think this problem occurs when one language covers different cultural regions (e.g. French and Spanish). I happen to notice the same complications in Arabic.

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