Why we all need subtitles now

Why we all need subtitles now

It’s not you — the dialogue in TV and movies has gotten harder to hear.

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Have you ever been watching a show or movie, and then a character delivers a line so unintelligible you have to scramble to find the remote and rewind? For me, this moment came during the climax of the Pete Davidson film “The King of Staten Island,” where his most important line was impossible to understand.

I had to rewind three times — and eventually put subtitles on — to finally pick up what he was saying.

This experience isn’t unique — gather enough people together and you can generally separate them into two categories: People who use subtitles, and people who don’t. And according to a not-so-scientific YouTube poll we ran on our Community tab, the latter category is an endangered species — 57% of you said you always use subtitles, while just 12% of you said you generally don’t.

But why do so many of us feel that we need subtitles to understand the dialogue in the things we watch?

The answer to that question is complex – and we get straight to the bottom of it in this explainer, with the help of dialogue editor Austin Olivia Kendrick.

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43 Responses

  1. YouTube user says:

    I swear this is so important. I’m so glad Vox is covering such trivial yet important issues. There are quite a lot of times I have to go back and replay the video because I honestly can’t understand what is being said. Subtitles are even more important when you are in a crowd. Kudos to Vox.

  2. antipants says:

    I’m an ESL teacher and my students are sometimes embarrassed to admit they watch movies with subtitles on. I tell them that I do it too and they feel better about it. Thanks for making this.

    • yokeleng leng says:

      In Chinese language shows, it is the norm to use subtitles since the beginning of time. So as a Chinese speaker I don’t find anything out of the ordinary to use subtitles. When Parasite made it big in America, the director said something along the lines of “if you overcome the five inch barrier of subtitles, you will discover a whole new world”. Basically he means that Americans should accept reading subtitles to expose themselves to foreign cinema. So imagine if non English speakers are afraid of subtitles, would your Hollywood movies make it big in the whole world?

    • regimiro says:

      @Juan Valencia What does EFL stand for?

    • Juan Valencia says:

      As a fellow EFL Teacher, I have also seen how many EFL learners think native English speakers don’t use/need subtitles at all and when you tell them they use them too (quite a lot, in fact) they are shocked or just don’t belive you.

    • Claudio Klaus says:

      And then you get those people who think that your English is not good because you watch movies with subtitles, or because you don’t understand some dialogs. FML

    • ninin says:

      I guess I know the occupation of the type of person to have the youtube name Antipants now

  3. Julie Golick says:

    True fact: I used to work as a subtitle editor for major hollywood studios, and even we sometimes had trouble figuring out what was being said in the dialogue… and we (usually) had access to the scripts!

    • Julie Golick says:

      @Claire Broadway I’m no longer in that line of work. The company I worked for was called “Deluxe Digital Studios.” They’re still around, and I imagine they’re still hiring.

    • Julie Golick says:

      @ArashiKageTaro The company was called “Deluxe Digital Studios.” I worked for them about ten years ago, but I’m fairly certain they’re still around. They’re a big international company, so you could probably still find work with them, if you were so inclined.

    • Claire Broadway says:

      @Julie Golick How do you get a job doing this? Will you hire me. lol

    • ArashiKageTaro says:

      How do you get into this line of work?!

    • Julie Golick says:

      @Kael Thunderhoof Usually not, no. And, again, different studios had different policies for what to do when the audio differed from the script. Which is one of the reasons that sometimes in an otherwise well-subtitled show / movie, you might see discrepancies. The subtitling studio might have been contractually obligated to go with what was in the script.

  4. Rhoon says:

    What I love about subtitles (when they aren’t auto-generated), is that they generally capture those far off conversations or background TV shows that you aren’t meant to hear clearly, which always feels kind of sneaky, in a good way.

    • KingOverdose 💉💉 says:

      i do the same thing in EVERY video game i play. its strange – i only use film/tv subtitles when i *need* them, but in games it is the very first thing i turn on.
      i love how you described it feeling ‘sneaky’, it lets me hear things the game dev put in but few people hear

    • Frogchair says:


      Most the time it’s kinda useless, but sometimes you can grab really good pieces of context or just get cool easter egg type tid bits!

    • D K says:

      Yeah! It also helps hear things like “ominous clicking” and other effects I just wouldn’t hear.
      Good subtitles also will tell me who is talking which given how half of Hollywood is similar looking vaugely attractive white people helps me tell characters apart.

      It’s kind of funny when the subtitle writer mixes up who’s talking tho lol

  5. BigSky Rasta says:

    I think it’s contagious. I started watching in subtitles and then everyone who I would watch tv with hated them. Now everyone that hated it now uses them.

  6. illuminatustm says:

    As a non-native speaker that likes to listen to the original audio, this makes me feel better because I thought it’s just me

    • no says:

      @Ultimate Gattai i mean the older generation at their youth

    • Ultimate Gattai says:

      @no idk about that, I’m native English and there are some old people that are impossible to understand because they’re so quiet, or they slur/mumble their words.

      Although some younger people do that too and it drives me nuts, I feel like I purposely speak better because I struggle to hear others. I’ve had both native and non-native say my English is very clear and easy to understand compared to other people around us.

    • no says:

      @Mariano Romero I believe younger generations do not talk as clearly as older ones do.

    • M McMann says:

      As a native speaker, I feel better also. Lol. I thought I was getting old.

    • András Fogarasi says:

      Being a native speaker is irrelevant when it comes to interpreting language. Fluency is what counts. So starting your sentence with “as a non-native speaker” creates the implication that non-native English speakers are incapable of speaking fluently, which is somewhat insulting to the group of non-native speakers who definitely are capable of speaking fluently.

      I myself am a non-native fluent English speaker. And I face the same issue! So I guess fluency is irrelevant too.

  7. egg with 5000 subs says:

    I like that the consumer is solely responsible to compensate for the shoddy choices made by the director. It is not naturalistic to walk around unable to understand a good percentage of the conversations you are actively participating in, unless you are deaf or HOH. It is naturalistic to struggle to overhear everything if you are listening in to someone else’s conversation. Those are some bizarre priorities, to spend so much time, energy, and money to create an immersive experience, and then ignore the dialogue in such a way that it pulls the viewer out of that immersion

  8. JohnnyBoy81 says:

    I’ve been living in the US 30 years. As someone who emigrated as a child, I thought my English still wasn’t fluent because I could not understand every single word being spoken on modern movies and it turns out, even native English speakers struggle to understand them!

  9. Michael Marucci says:

    I’m a record producer/mixer, I work in music as opposed to audio post for tv/film, but this was still very relatable as getting a vocal(s) to sit in a mix can sometimes be tricky. A lot of my time goes into comping and editing to get my clients performance most of the way there and then I rely on various processing to finish it, but the funny part is… after a long day of work, I almost need subtitles for my own consumption, because I spent so much time utilizing my trained ears that when I’m upstairs watching something, I don’t want to have to try to hear something, I’m not mixing or producing anymore, I’m done for the day. Just give me subtitles or blast the dialogue right at my face.

    • Mandisa W says:

      It’s a struggle because so few performers or producers (TV/film & music) seem to understand the audio process anymore, even at a basic level. They just assume poor quality input can always be polished up in the edit.

      I’ve also come to believe that there really aren’t as many well-trained arrangers & engineers anymore – some of the stuff I’ve heard is just plain mixed badly.

    • Richard Leo says:

      this is my EXACT situation lol. glad i’m not alone.

    • Michael Marucci says:

      @sunnyari yeah, my brother was a chef and you’d always see him eating the easiest and “lamest” food after a split 16. Lol

    • sunnyari says:

      this makes sense. kinda reminds me of how some chefs will just get home after a day’s work and make the simplest dish humanly possible. you don’t want to be in “work mode” in your own home

    • Alyosha Mikhaylov says:


  10. Alex Gould says:

    I have auditory processing disorder and need to use subtitles to follow along. If I can’t, I miss stuff and get disinterested. The biggest problem is the number of channels without subtitles, and that the streaming service I use (Prime Video) regularly has films with no subtitles whatsoever. I have no idea how it’s still acceptable to have no subtitles. It’s like building a public building with no ramps for wheelchair users. You’re cutting off part of your audience, and making it feel like we don’t matter. Rant over; thanks for listening and please leave a tip in the bucket at the door.

    • TrilobitesRTasty says:

      May I ask a question? Have you found any “third party” software or hardware tools to translate audio dialog into text? I use MSWord 365 at work to translate .MP3 audio files to a transcript, but it’s only okay. 🙂

    • Unicorn Onthecob says:

      It all comes down to money unfortunately

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