Get Your Ear In – In Praise of Subtitles

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The UK is in the grips of subtitled crime mania, and has been for a few years now. Although I have yet to hear of anyone really learning much vocabulary from watching subtitled drama, it can help you get your ear in, and give you the odd word or catchphrase.

In conversation about The Bridge, a friend mentioned that she could hear the difference between when the characters were speaking Danish and when they were speaking Swedish. THAT, my friends, is developing an ear, because she had never learned either language, but was actively listening to the dialogue.


If you listen well to your subtitled tv/films you don’t know what favours you might be doing for yourself, it’s not Duolingo, so no fanfare when you have listened correctly, but you certainly get little rewards. No matter what you watch with subs, you will start to hear words that are often used, and some of those words you will hear again, frequently, when you visit other countries or eavesdrop on people visiting yours.

For example, this is not much, but in Swedish dramas I have heard precis said a lot. I also heard someone say it on the train from Stanstead, and like a lot of those filler, or carrier words and phrases (there’s probably a real name for them, but bear with), it could be very useful. After all, if someone has understood you when you are waving your money and pointing and mispronouncing everything, then being able to say “exactly!” could come in very handy indeed.

And it is encouraging. Getting a bit of an ear helps you get excited about learning more, and anything that can motivate you with the harder slog of getting on with it is a good thing.

But back to what I just called ‘carrier (etc)’ words. Obviously Duolingo and any other language learning course is hoping to get you some useful words as soon as possible, and it is great to know your hes and shes and breads and waters, but what of words that you, personally, use all the time, and what of the things the locals say?

One of the first things you need to know is your pleases and thank yous, these are going to help when all else is difficult and uphill both ways. Also good, for the traveler in the raw, is the word for bathroom. You may well be happy to point and mime for most of your holiday needs, but if you are anything like me, you will sometimes need to go to the toilet while you are out, and you won’t fancy miming that, no matter how outgoing you are. Basically, this is your capsule glossary. Please, thank you, and toilet. Everything else is gravy.

How exciting it is, though, after a season of Il Giovane Montalbano (regular aged Montalbano is too slow for me, even ‘the young’ is a bit on the slow side, but, being newer, has a bit more pace to it, and, happily, a VERY handsome actor playing the lead) to go to Sicily and find that people really do say ‘va bene’ ALL of the time?

Here, I can’t show you a clip, but for some reason there is a fair bit of Il Giovane full length on youtube.


And you can say it as well! It means loads of things, OK but also, like et bien in French, va bene also means ‘well then’ and is meaningless in literal translation, but can be used as a way of saying “OK, we have put that issue behind us, let us now start on a new, fresher hell of misunderstandings!” which is handy.

Va bene, I have waffled enough for now. There are situations and dare I say CERTAIN PEOPLE (I am looking at you, Parisians!) where nothing less than perfect will do, but in an imperfect world where a bit of trying goes a long way, fire up your subtitled films, so that you can join in with the chorus with those that will have you and mutter fils de pute under your breath for those that won’t. (This last, courtesy of several seasons of Engrenages, mysteriously renamed Spiral for UK viewing. IDK either.)

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