tropes_cWe all have to learn at least one language in our life, even it is just our native one. You would think, therefore, that maybe people who create television shows and films might have at least some concept of what goes into learning a language.

Sadly, it appears that foreign language acquisition is a huge mystery to them, because they almost always get it wrong, in little ways as well as big. Some of these reasons are just to make a point or simplify the story telling, but some of them are just wrong no matter how you justify them.

A trope is a “common or overused theme or device”. Here are eight of the most common language tropes seen in TV and films. How many do you recognize?

1) Forgetting Words

This is used to emphasize a particular word or moment in a scene. The foreigner, who has been speaking the language very well, using most of the proper tenses and words, suddenly finds himself unable to remember the proper one for a moment. He prefaces this with “how do you say?”, then proceeds to give the proper word.

For example, our enamoured non-English speaker might be trying to express his feelings for another. “I am so happy with you. I think I.. how do you say? .. love you.”

To a language learner, this is really unlikely to happen, since most of the time, the words they are forgetting are the most basic of words. They never ask how to say “xylophone” or “brontosaurus”. Malachi Rempen, in his comic strip “Itchy Feet”, has one of the characters frustrated after seeing this done on a television show, remarking “Yeah, right. Pierre knows the future perfect, but not the word for ‘waiter’? Whoever made this never had to learn a new language.”

2) Mixing Idioms

Idioms are tricky to use properly in any language, since even native speakers may not understand or repeat them properly. In English, I have heard “for all intensive purposes” used instead of “for all intents and purposes” and “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less”. Arguments are then made for the mistaken version being correct, which can make it even more confusing.

For a non-native speaker of any language, idioms can make you sound more fluent or like an idiot, depending on if you say them correctly or not. For this reason, messed up idioms are often used to get laughs.

There are two examples for this one that I really enjoy. The first is from the American crime show NCIS. The character of Ziva David is Israeli, and she often mangles her English idioms. In one, she and her partner Tony are discussing how to get information from a suspect.

Ziva: I’ve learned from Gibbs that in certain cases you can attract far more bees with honey.
Tony: Flies.
Ziva: What do flies have to do with honey?
Tony: Flies don’t like vinegar.
Ziva: Vinegar?
Tony: It’s complicated.

Ziva is attempting to say “You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar”, meaning “being kind is more helpful than being mean”, and Tony is trying to correct her, but he just makes it worse.

The other example is from the American science fiction series Babylon 5, in which the Ambassador of an alien species, Londo, is talking with his assistant, Vir, about his frustrations, and he tries to express it with an “Earth” idiom.

Londo: But this – this, this, this is like being nibbled to death by… what are those Earth creatures called? Feathers, long bill, webbed feet… go ‘quack’…
Vir: Cats.
Londo: Cats. Being nibbled to death by cats.

He of course means “Nibbled to death by ducks”, which means “subject to constant petty annoyances”. If only they could properly identify Earth animals!

3) Instant Learning

This is one of the more insulting tropes used. We know that learning a language just to the point of basic communication takes a lot of time and study. While there are a few very talented polyglots that have been able to pick languages up very quickly by intensive listening and talking, it is not a common occurrence.

But the media would have you believe that you can pick up a completely new language simply by listening to others speak it for a few hours or days. And not just to the point of using basic words and concepts, but also mastering proper tenses and even speaking with words they could not have possibly heard.

The worse case I have seen this done is in the film The 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas as an Arab courtier who joins a party of Vikings. Despite having no knowledge of Old Norse, after listening to the Vikings for a few hours or days (the filming of this scene makes the actual time unknown), he is fully conversant, and doesn’t make a mistake while never asking what new words mean.

This was done to speed up the plot, since having him blunder the whole time because he doesn’t understand them would have been more realistic but completely taking away from the action of the film.

4) Total Recall

Wouldn’t you just love to become fluent in a language, stop using it for months or even years, yet still have instant perfect skills in it the moment you need it?

This is what often happens in television shows like Covert Affairs or films featuring James Bond. A spy has just been assigned a new mission in a foreign country, like Japan, and someone asks him or her “How is your Japanese?”. Our spy instantly replies back in perfect Japanese something particularly witty. We later see our hero conversing in the language with native speakers, fooling all of them.

It is rather insulting to learners who constantly struggle to keep several language “alive” in their heads, often by having to perform some task, however small, in each language daily. They would love it if they could learn a language then have it at the tip of their tongues months or even years later, with no usage in between.

There is some comfort that even after one of the characters compliments the spy on their language usage, there will be a real world speaker of it in the audience letting us know that his pronunciation was actually quite terrible.

5) Swearing

Sometimes, a show can get around the censors who check for swearing by using another language to do the dirty work. I’ve mainly seen this used in science-fiction, when a future society or foreign race uses different words for obscenities.

Examples of these are the use of “frell” and “yotz” in the space series Farscape, “frak” in Battlestar Galactica, and “smeg” in Red Dwarf.

Probably the most elaborate example of using another language for obscenities can be found in the short-lived television series Firefly and its big screen counterpart Serenity, which take place in a future in which planets have been terra-formed to make them habitable by humans and a combination of English and Chinese is used as the common language. The Chinese side is mainly revealed when someone needs to yell obscenities.

The swearing itself isn’t really made of “dirty” Chinese, but rather vibrant curses made in Chinese, like “Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn!” meaning “Holy testicle Tuesday!”.

6) Everyone Speaks – Foreigners

What happens when our hero travels to another country and doesn’t speak the language?

Well, unless this is a show or film about people overcoming the language barrier, most likely they will inexplicably run into mainly people who speak their language. There is always a reason which is instantly given and accepted like “I studied in your country” or “I learned your language from watching films from your country”. The first of those is even more unlikely (the hero meets a person who not only speaks their language but actually studied in their country), while the second, though possible, sounds suspiciously like the “instant learning” excuse.

This might be somewhat plausible when speaking English in a large city abroad, but it becomes less probable for other languages in more remote areas of the world.

7) Everyone Speaks – Aliens

What happens when our hero is not travelling just to other countries but to other planets, inhabited by aliens who have never even heard of Earth?

Somehow, through plot device, it is explained, like perhaps some Earthlings did visit once before, and every alien then mastered the language and kept it alive long after the visitor was gone.

Or maybe our traveller has some wonderful gadget which is capable of instantly translating any language into any other language, even those it has never encountered before, like a magical Google Translate, only useful.

For more details on this particular trope, check out my article in Parrot Time magazine “Speaking with Aliens”.

The other aspect of this one is if someone goes back in time and finds that not only is everyone speaking their language, but it is the modern form, even using current slang and idioms.

8) Translated Rhyming

This last one is very subtle, and most of the time, we wouldn’t even really think about it … unless you are someone who has done translating or had to mentally change from one language to another.

The person of a story has uncovered an ancient document with a clue they are searching for. The clue is written in the form of a rhyme, and our hero can read it aloud properly. Then he or she announces that they can translate it, and does so by repeating the rhyme in their modern language.

Problem? Well, the translated version also rhymes perfectly, even with the proper cadence. This is either a major coincidence on a cosmic level or else our hero is one hell of a translator, being able to instantly reform the modern version into perfect poetry!

That’s a Wrap

We really can’t expect writers to know all about language learning and usage, and some of these are deliberately done for the sake of time, plot, or laughs. Still, it would be nice to once in a while have someone get it right.

How many of these have you seen in your own shows or films? Have I, how do you say, forgotten, any?

  • I felt identified by many of the situations you describe here. Do you mind if I translate this post into Spanish and put it in one of my blogs? Of course I’d acknowledge your authorship and would link this page (and would let you know when it’s up). 😉