The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages


Sometimes people put foreign languages in movies. Aside from this being treasonously un-American, they hardly ever do it right.

Here are some of the most distracting attempts:

Foreigners Are Like Lassie

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

Everyone knows the scene where Lassie barks at her family, and the family responds: "What is it girl? Timmy's fallen down the well again?" Well, first of all, Timmy never actually fell down a well. Just down mine shafts, off cliffs and into rivers, lakes and quicksand. Don't you feel dumb now.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

Fun discrimination fact: Every dog that played Lassie was male, due to male collies having a "better, fuller coat." Also, none of them were black. Just saying.

For our purposes, the key point is that apparently Lassie's owners' intelligence is even more remarkable than Lassie's because they can understand dog language. Of course, they don't actually speak dog language back to Lassie because that would be beneath them, and Lassie needs to remember her place.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

Beneath the oppressive feet of the patriarchy.

OK maybe Lassie shouldn't be expected to be able to speak English with her dog vocal cords. But what about the Chinese? Studies indicate that Chinese people may be capable of learning to make basic English sounds. But you wouldn't know it when they show up in movies. Take the Amazing Yen from the Ocean's Eleven movies.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

The one in the Mao hat.

He doesn't speak a word of English. Oh, he's understanding it perfectly. He just chooses to speak Mandarin, because it's a funny sounding language. Of course, Danny Ocean's entire crew understands everything he says perfectly despite never indicating that they can speak a word of it. I realize they're smart crooks, but every single one fluent in Mandarin Chinese? Really?

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

Even Scott Caan?

Star Wars does the exact same thing for a number of characters: Chewbacca, R2D2, Lando's weird little copilot.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

That guy.

They roar or beep or mumble gibberish and their English-speaking companions understand perfectly and speak English back to them. Han Solo in particular seems to understand every alien language out there, including Wookie-talk, Greedo-talk and Jabba-talk, which seems a little out of character since he doesn't seem like the type to listen to Rosetta Stone while flying around the galaxy. But fuck if he's going to talk to them in their own language. He's a space American and you're going to listen to him in space English or go home.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

This may be how aliens see Han.

Speaking In English With Accents


To avoid making people read subtitles, foreign-speaking characters are often played by actors speaking English with foreign accents (usually the accent of the language they're supposed to be speaking, but we're not picky, as long as it's foreign). English so you can understand, with the accent so you know they're actually supposed to be speaking foreign to each other.

The most memorably failed example of this is probably The Hunt for Red October starring Sean Connery. My brother and I called him Captain "Rabius." You know. Because he sounded like he had rabies. You know, like there was foam in his mouth.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

We were 11 and 14, OK.

While that convention can sometimes works for real languages, it's usually a mess in outer space.

Take this scene from Babylon 5. You can tell both of those aliens are the same race because of their hair, but why does one of them talk like Dracula while one of them seems to be American? Are they actually speaking English in this scene or are they supposedly speaking Dracula? Is the whole alien race supposed to speak in Dracula accents? Is the American one a race traitor? Or is one guy from that planet's Transylvania and the other guy from that planet's America? I can't watch Babylon 5 too long without passing out from rolling my eyes too much but I don't think they ever really explain any of this.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

The episode where it turns out aliens kidnapped Jack the Ripper
has caused more self-facepalm injuries than that common housefly.

Not only can screwing up fake accents make your show hilariously lame, you can even accidentally offend a whole race of people. In the Star Wars prequels, the Trade Federation creatures talk with what appear to be a racist's interpretation of a Chinese accent, which actually turns out to be a white actor's honest interpretation of a Thai accent. Add the fact that the Trade Federation is greedy and cowardly, a common old school stereotype of "Orientals," and you've got a recipe for offending a whole bunch of people you weren't even thinking about.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

May not be actual quotes from movie.

Universal Translators

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

Star Trek and other similar shows get away with not inventing a new alien language every episode with the "universal translator" trick. They put a device in the show's universe that automatically translates alien languages so all the listeners understand it in their language.

Fine, so the aliens in this clip are speaking Ferengi or whatever, and the Enterprise crew hears them in English. And sure, we'll go along with their mouth shapes perfectly matching the English words, even though it should look like a badly dubbed kung fu flick.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

Like the kind Michael Winslow used to imitate to entertain millions of young children and other easily amused people.

But when Worf is trying to teach his crewmates Klingon terms, how does he let the translator know not to translate them to English? Does he have to put verbal HTML tags around them? Take this exchange for instance ...

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

RIKER: Something wrong, Mister Worf?
WORF: I am experiencing nIb'poH. The feeling I have done this before.

Why does the translator not turn "nib'poH" into "deja vu"? Does it have a slightly different nuance in Klingon? If so, you'd think at least 10 percent of words coming through the universal translator would stay garbled in alien, but almost every alien race the Enterprise meets can talk fluently with the crew with nary an untranslatable word or awkward expression. It's up to Data, the android who was made by and raised with humans, to humorously misunderstand simple expressions.


Data's hilarious misunderstandings of Picard's orders were a central part of the show.

Everyone Really Speaks English (Just Like Real Life)


Since explaining universal translators can be such a headache, some scriptwriters just have everyone actually speak English. In the Stargate TV series, most of the aliens they visit via Stargate speak English. They are often humans, but usually humans that were sent out to those planets thousands of years ago before English was invented. Even odder, the TV series directly continues the plot line from the Stargate movie where the Earth team's attempts to figure out the extraterrestrials' language (ancient Egyptian, sort of) is a pretty big deal. In some episodes, the aliens continue to speak alien Egyptianese occasionally, and then sometimes suddenly switch to English, for no apparent reason. (Well, no story-related reason. Obviously feeding actors fake Egyptian lines for an hour-long episode is tiring!)

The Highlander TV series really takes the cake here though.

Duncan awakens a 2000-year-old Egyptian mummy whose first words are, "Does Rome still rule the world?" In English.

I realize the Highlander TV series is not where you go for historical accuracy, or any kind of accuracy whatsoever, but this is still a bit much.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

But is where you go for tantalizing but unfulfilled promises of nudity.

Have Actors Speak The Foreign Language Whether They Can Or Not

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

We do this all the time. Pretty much every time you've seen an American actor pretend to speak Spanish or Chinese.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

And sometimes when you've seen them pretend to speak English.

Americans don't usually notice. They accept that this super-spy or brilliant scholar is speaking flawlessly to the natives with their own language even though half the time, it's so badly spoken that the international version of that movie needs subtitles when it goes to that country.

To imagine what this looks like to them, think of Arnold Schwarzenegger. We had a thickly accented Austrian guy forced on us playing American soldiers, American cops, an American running man, an American killer robot and an educated genius who can speak 12 languages (all of them in a thick Austrian accent I guess), over and over again. Finally we got tired of it and put him into political office so he would stop.

The 5 Stupidest Ways Movies Deal With Foreign Languages

Arnold Schwarzenegger being pregnant is more believable than Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking 12 languages.

Keep that image in mind when you consider how American audiences raved about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while Chinese audiences winced as they watched Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, Cantonese speakers, stumble through their Mandarin lines. To non-Chinese speakers, the dialogue comes across as nuanced and flowing, while to a Chinese speaker, it is like watching Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice come out of a Chinese martial artist.


Good, now you can't enjoy that scene anymore either.

With all the hassle of representing foreign languages in movies, it seems like the only real solution is to stop having foreigners in movies. I'm personally looking forward to a refreshing epic retelling of how the Americans beat the Americans in World War II.

For more from Christina, check out 4 Nobel Prize Winners Who Were Clearly Insane and The 6 Worst Parts of Being Chinese (Not In The Stereotypes).

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