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Language Learning in the Movies Posted by on Apr 27, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Fluency Confusion

This one is a pet peeve of mine.

Now, I admit it’s only a pet peeve because language learning is something I do, and I don’t like seeing things I do misrepresented in the movies. But really, who hasn’t felt that way? I’m sure lawyers are constantly rolling their eyes at the way trial proceedings are portrayed, police officers and soldiers must find it absurd how most people use weapons in the movies, and, of course, never watch Indiana Jones with an actual archaeologist. They even get movie making wrong in the movies! Wag the Dog is a 1997 film about the government hiring Hollywood producers to concoct a fake war on the news, and the parts where they actually film these fake war scenes are completely inaccurate, to a laughable degree. I mean, how hard is that to get right? You’re making a movie about making a movie!

But back to language learning. Generally, English-speaking foreigners in the movies are portrayed one of two ways. Either they have a superheroic ability to speak dictionary-perfect English—they just have a strong accent so we know they’re foreign—or they speak a bizarre pidgin, an English native speaker’s approximation of beginner’s English, which is basically normal English but with a bunch of nonsensical mistakes thrown in the mix.

I can think of three specific offenders off the top of my head. That’s how much it bothers me—I can’t forget them!

The first is Carol Reed’s otherwise magnificent 1949 noir The Third Man. In the film, detective Holly Martins is poking around postwar Vienna after hearing that a close friend, played by Orson Welles, has apparently been murdered in the street. Early on, the reluctant gumshoe questions various witnesses to the crime, including an old Viennese porter.

Martins: Was he still alive?
Porter (thick accent): He couldn’t have been alive. Not with his head…in the way it was.
Martins: I was told that he did not die at once.
Porter: Er war gleich tot. Er war gleich tot, gleich tot. Moment. Fraulein Schmidt? Bitte, wie sagt man auf Englisch: “er war gleich tot”? (Fraulein Schmidt, how do you say, “er war gleich tot”?)
Fraulein Schmidt: He was quite dead.
Porter: Ah ja, quite dead. He was quite dead.

This exchange inspired the comic above. You’re telling me this old Viennese porter knows without hesitation how to correctly use the past perfect unreal conditional (“couldn’t have been…”) but not how to say “quite dead”? Unmöglich!

Another Hollywood absurdity is the character with the perfect grasp of both English and an obscure local language, despite not being a native, and translates flawlessly for the benefit of the protagonist. In 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the eponymous hero has an Iranian compatriot named Kaji, who conveniently speaks perfect Tibetan. When it comes time to employ it, he’s so good that he doesn’t even need to pause before translating—in fact, he starts speaking over the Tibetan, so that we, the audience, don’t have to wait around for the local to finish his sentence. How thoughtful, if implausible.

The final linguistic reprobate on my list is Modern Family, the ABC comedy sitcom about a…well, a modern LA family. One such modern family member is Gloria, played by Sofía Vergara, a sexy young Colombian wife of the family patriarch. Of course, her English is perfect until, for the purposes of a joke, it’s suddenly not. One particularly galling running gag is her apparent inability to remember the English word for “helicopter,” which she humorously calls the “ggda-ggda-ggda-ggda” (helicopter noise). Had any of the show’s writers bothered to look up the word “helicopter” in a Spanish-English dictionary, they would have discovered that it translates to…“helicóptero.” Not exactly the most difficult word to remember, Gloria.

There is, however, one movie I can think of that does a fabulous job realistically portraying a language learner: the 2003 British rom-com Love, Actually. In one of the film’s many subplots, Colin Firth plays Jamie, a fellow who’s trying to woo the Portuguese Aurélia, who doesn’t speak a word of English. Our man bones up on his Portuguese and pays a surprise visit to the restaurant where she works. Charmingly, the English subtitles approximate his broken Portuguese:

Jamie: Beautiful Aurélia, I’ve come here with a view to asking you…to marriage me.

Her response, of course (in English):

Aurélia: That will be nice. Yes is being my answer.

It just goes to show that portraying the imperfection of language learning is much more interesting and endearing than showing James Bond, for example, speak every language without error. But I also wouldn’t mind if a bit more thought and research went into how languages are spoken imperfectly, if for no other reason than it bothers me, and I’m trying to enjoy the movie over here!

What about you? What language errors have you noticed on the silver screen or boob tube? How is your native language represented?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Florestan:

    As a Frenchman I can assure that I figured out future perfect, which is quite similar to French futur antérieur, much earlier than the word for “serveur”. The latter must have taken me a couple of years more to learn. No kidding. As you say, when it looks exactly like in one’s mother tongue (helicopter, helicóptero, hélicoptère und so weiter), it comes easily.

    • Malachi:

      @Florestan No kidding! I would’ve thought it would be more difficult. “Waiter” is one of the words you usually learn in the beginning, in a class for example, when you’re learning all the vocab words related to a restaurant, or an airport, or a house. More complicated grammar comes later – that’s why I wrote it that way.

      But good to know, thanks!

  2. Susan:


    Interesting blog! As usual 😉

    Made me think of another ‘stupidity’ in movies: the character is from a certain country but speaks the wrong language as their mother tongue! Happens, for instance, in ‘Austin Powers, Goldmember’: where the Dutch character speaks German (!).

    Looking forward to your next comic!


    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Susan That’s pretty stupid.

      Glad you like the comic!

  3. LovingLanguages:

    As a German, I have the impeccable joy to choose between
    a) often cringe-worthy misrepresentation of Germans in the American original (e.g. in How I Met Your Mother) – always making me wonder if the producers etc are simply unwilling or amazingly unable to find German speakers in Hollywood, or as with the mentioned scene I’m just typically German and thus lacking humor –

    b) German dubs with mistranslations of quite normal English (e.g. early Simpsons episodes) or literal translations of puns (e.g. another Simpsons scene, featuring a pun with the double meaning of b.i.t.c.h. (not sure if I’m allowed to say it here), the translators chose to use the translated swear wordv only)

    or c) watching German productions (mainly TV) hoping there will be no scene featuring the main characters trying to talk English (or any other language than German). That often is just horrible to watch. However, most German productions seem able to cast speakers of foreign languages in minor roles if the “not understandable foreign speaker ” aspect is a major part of their role.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @LovingLanguages I always wondered how it was possible that the Simpsons was so popular in other countries since so many of the jokes are puns or simply untranslatable. After I learned Italian I watched a lot of Simpsons with my wife – knowing the episodes practically by heart in English, I could identify what they were TRYING to say, but the words made no sense in Italian.

  4. kristina:

    Jane the virgin is a textbook example of such incoherence. From grandma not speaking a word of English but understanding perfectly, to horrible Czech pronunciation and unrealistic depiction of Central Europe. It stays funny though 🙂

  5. HarryR:

    In The Last of the Moroccans, there’s a scene where a rapid, passionate (to stop a woman being burnt alive) speech is translated to French in real time by an English office for the benefit of a local Indian chief.

    While historically plausible that the officer and chief may well have spoken French it’s unlikely either studied at the Sorbonne or could do or follow RT translation of flowery speech.

    • HarryR:

      @HarryR Hmm that should be Last of the Mohicans. Curse you autocorrect/predictive text!

      • Malachi Rempen:

        @HarryR I was going to say, the Last of the Moroccans sounds some kind of a hilarious spoof.

  6. Maru:

    They used to do this in old cartoons all the time.

    “We must escape the immanent collapse of this shambling building! follow me to safety my friends, rápidamente!”

    It’s like, seriously? You never learned the word for “quickly”? Guess they skipped that day in class.

  7. Person:

    In the opening scenes of the otherwise sublime The Insider, a Hezbollah (Lebanese organisation) militant starts bizarrely shouting at the main character…in Egyptian Arabic. And the interpreter supposedly conveying English to Arabic speaks something I’m not even sure is a language at all.

    In Syriana, the Arab prince speaks English with a perfect British accent; while his Arabic is just silly.

    In Un Prophète, the protagonist apparently learns to speak perfect Corsican in a matter of months through eavesdropping on conversations in Corsican; without actually practicing it and keeping it a secret from everyone. But he messes up the Corsican word for “lawyer”, even though it’s pretty much the same as in French.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Person We should all get jobs as language consultants in Hollywood! Then we can have rooftop polyglot parties!

      • Hannah Peek:

        @Malachi Rempen YES! I’m so agreed Malachi. That would be incredibly fun! Hollywood should hire us all to laugh at how they portrey languages, and when we’re done, laughing to tell them how to fix it.

  8. Eugene:

    Russian is almost never right in Hollywood or British movies. Even if they get real Russian actors, they use full names between mafia brothers. “Dmitry, what are you doing?” Noone uses this kind of name for friend. Only short names are used, i.e. “Deema” istead of “Dmitry”. Moreover, using only the full name has its niche, the formal conversation requires the patronym, e.g. “Dmitry Vladimirovich”, where “Vladimir-” part is the name of Dmitry’s father. “Dmitry” — that’s how you call a consuting person whey you buy a microwave, because he has his name and surname on his bage.

    In short: using full name in Russian sounds like person uses title — “sir James, give me my money!”

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Eugene No way! I had no idea, that’s fantastic. See? Little details like this. Surely they can find SOMEONE who speaks Russian to correct it. How hard is that?

  9. Gijsbert:

    My language, Dutch, is often used as an obscure language. So, suddenly the character is able to speak it, a few times is Friends for example. They always do it wrong. So wrong that Dutch speakers have no idea what is going on. I also don’t like the mixing with accents. English with a Dutch accent is different from English with a German on, and we can tell. A native Chinese speakers sounds different from a Japanese speaker.

  10. Helen:

    All this is very frustrating for language learners. I’m a Brit living in France and my problem is with subtitles for English or American films and French dubbed over English on TV. There are mistakes in written subtitles which are unbelievable and that even Google Translate wouldn’t make, for example numbers, dates, ages… surely a glance at the script would do! I could try to ignore them but being a retired teacher I can’t keep my eyes off those mistakes! In addition not all films are in the original version and we have to deal with a strange French voice instead of the actor we all know so well…

  11. Cheryl B:

    “That Last of the Moroccans” had me laughing. I must visit again, if you’re always this funny.
    As to substance…I agree with much here but disagree with some. “Gloria speech, for instance…well put.
    But Poirot’s “n’est-ce pas?” is a bit different.
    That phrase is just so useful, so frequentlt used, he naturally reverts to his native language. I use it sometimes, eith some listeners, and I barely speak French!
    Or, local observation; here in San Antonio, TX, many people speak Spanish. But many of those people are 3rd or 4th generation, and their 1st language is English.
    Nonetheless, it’s very coomon to hear a ling sentence in perfect Texan-accented English, followed by “pero,” then more English. In this hot sandal-appropriate climate, everybody uses or at least understands, “,where are my chanclas?”
    Or, in an equivalent to Poirot’s favorite phrase, to end a declaration with “¿Verdad?”

  12. Morgane D:

    It’s a bit different but as a native French speaker, I really hate it when characters pretend to be fluent in French and 1) can’t even make simple sentences properly 2) have an accent so thick you don’t get what they say and you can tell they never practised the language more than 10 minutes in their life.
    I understand they won’t put too much effort in that if they just have to say one sentence in a movie but some characters in series make it a big deal saying they’re FLUENT and show off a lot with their supposed language skills… while still sounding like gibberish. At least give them a couple of sessions with a language coach!
    That’s why I really like series such as The Americans where the actors who play the Russians are really native-like Russian speakers and the ones who are supposed to be and still have an accent have a good excuse for that (they haven’t spoken Russian for years).

    I also like when characters who are not supposed to be English-speakers speak in their native language with people from their country, it’s much more realistic than them speaking English together with a strong foreign accent.
    I mean, I would get it if for making things simpler, we see the non-English speakers speaking English and we pretend they’re actually speaking in their native language… But why with a strong accent then???

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Morgane D I completely agree. In the pilot for the otherwise great The Man in the High Castle, which supposes that Germany had won the second world war and split America with Japan, there’s a scene where two high-ranking German officers speak to one another in English. What?? You’re telling me that even though the Germans won the freakin’ war, they still speak to each other in English?!

  13. Marit:

    Personally, my biggest pet-peeve is the “let’s pretend we all speak [some language] while we’re really just speaking English”-thing. Especially when they start off by saying a sentence or two in the other language and then switch to English. This changing of language mid conversation for no apparent reason, always feels very awkward to me.

  14. svk:

    Once (I think it was) Chicago Hope had a Sri Lankan nurse speaking Telugu. I stopped watching the show. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

  15. Shatarupa Banerjee:

    Linguistic-racial stereotyping has always been Hollywood’s favorite mode of depicting ‘authenticity’. The depiction of ‘Indian English’ is no exception. From the exaggerated version of Apu in The Simpsons to the relatively toned-down-but-nevertheless-forced version of Rajesh Koothrapali in The Big Bang Theory, it’s all Hollywood’s idea of what it means to sound ‘Indian.’
    Ofcourse, what they badly need to be told, is that given that we have hundreds of languages, and almost unquantifiable diversity, there is NO such thing as an ‘Indian’ accent….including the ridiculously ill-researched caricature that Hollywood seems to be in love with.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Shatarupa Banerjee Can you think of any films (outside Bollywood) in which an Indian accent was properly portrayed?

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