I am a native English speaker who has scant practice with listening to spoken German except via Internet radio and DVDs from Amazon.de. I have noticed that some shows at the same intellectual level and presumably using similar technical production facilities are much more difficult to understand than others.

My primary examples are Verliebt in Berlin and Das Büro. Neither has subtitles for the hearing-impaired, both make no intellectual demands on the audience, and the sound and video quality of each would seem similar. Yet Verliebt in Berlin is almost always directly intelligible (unless there is a vocabulary problem), but there are numerous scenes in Das Büro that even after looping cannot be deciphered (by me, at least), even when I have a clear sense of what is happening, or what the joke is.

I doubt that this is a matter of dialect, since the actors and writers probably come from all over, so what might be the key difference? Has anyone else noticed this disparity in German television or films?

  • I'm not familiar with these shows, but you have to remember that there are sometimes phrases that even native speakers can't understand. Some people just don't speak so clearly. – Astrum Jun 6 '14 at 23:50
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    Is it different in English? – c.p. Jun 6 '14 at 23:58
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    I worked for a stint as a German audio transcriber, and I can confirm that some individuals simply enunciate less than others. Something I also learned while working with voice-to-text is that if you can't make out a phrase the first time around, looping it can at times only further lead you astray as you begin to set up a kind of mental block by overstraining yourself. This issue came up quite often, and every once in a while I had to leave the audio byte and come back to it, whereby 'fresh' ears sometimes cleared things up. – Milchgesicht Jun 7 '14 at 3:32
  • Milchgesicht, your looping comment seems spot on! It has never seemed to help, no matter how I strained. I am eager to try the fresh-ears approach. – rjv Jun 7 '14 at 7:10
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    "Das Büro" is dubbed (original US English), right? Maybe they did a poor job, quality-wise. Also, comedy is often spoken faster than romance. This question is hard to answer without samples; can you link some audio fragments (legally)? – Raphael Jun 7 '14 at 9:18

There can be many reasons for this (NB: I am not familiar with either show). I wouldn't rule out regional dialects (or speech variants or patterns, subtle as they may seem), or just the city the series are set in. It can make a huge difference, even for native speakers (I live in Austria, which is a very small market. If and when a TV show is exported to Germany, which happens occasionally, it is very often subtitled. Go figure.)

Even when the sound quality appears to be similar, ambient noise etc. can make a difference, too. Finally, some people can simply be understood better than others, so a lot will depend on the actors involved, their voice training etc.

I for one have few problems with American TV shows, but British ones, especially when not exactly using Received Pronunciation (which is what I learned in school, all those years ago) can be a huge problem. As c.p. observed, a very similar problem exists in English television.

  • For me it's the other way round: I've less trouble with British shows, even if they use dialect or colloquial speech; but some American speakers (esp. black ones) are really hard to understand for me. – dirkt Jun 7 '14 at 5:45
  • It all depends on what you're used to, I suppose. Still, comparing, say, "NCIS" to "Coronation Street" (to take a random example), there's a huge difference in ease of understanding for me. I'll understand most of it, but I have to make an effort, which is not the case with most American shows. Some are better than others, of course, especially older ones (I mention "Yes Minister" as another random example.) – Ingmar Jun 7 '14 at 7:45

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