More and more, we’re seeing languages besides English prominently featured in blockbuster films. But does bilingualism have a positive impact, or reinforce age-old stereotypes? How does the use of language in movies change the way we think about people?
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 20% of the American population speaks a language other than English at home. That’s one in every five people — one in every five characters you see on screen. And yet, for many years, this diversity has not been accurately represented in blockbuster films.
Placing bilingualism in a positive light
The Goonies has one of the earliest and most memorable bilingual scenes, when Mouth fools Rosalita, the recently hired maid, by purposefully translating English badly to her. While it’s admirable that they chose to make Mouth knowledgeable in Spanish, it’s undeniable that Rosalita was made to look inferior. While being a realistic representation of cultural demographics, the gesture of representation still falls short by affording Rosalita the “ignorant maid” stereotype.
When Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides introduced us to Penelope Cruz’s character, she was the first character to speak Spanish in the franchise, despite the films being set in the Americas. Even so, she was from Spain, and not a native Spanish-speaker from the Caribbean.
We seem to value Spanish as long as it isn’t the same accent that Rosalita uses in The Goonies – or the accent Consuela uses in Family Guy (I won’t even go into all the ways that Consuela reduces Family Guy to shamelessly racist). And even when Spanish is given a Latin American voice, such as with Sofia Vergara’s character in Modern Family, it dangerously toes the line of the stereotypically “exotic” by being attributed to a fiery and sexualized personality.
Watching Logan in theaters for the first time, I realized just how heartwarming it was to hear Sir Patrick Stewart speak Spanish to Dafne Keen’s character, Laura. Xavier is a pillar of the now robust structure of superhero films, and to have him so openly display his knowledge of Spanish seemed wonderfully natural — and almost expected by the story. For once, script writers made the choice to display the reality of many people living in between Mexico and America, and to showcase it as a positive quality.
But beyond that, it was the use of Spanish by Laura herself that felt like an evolution of the bilingualism we’re used to seeing on screen.
Making bilingualism more inclusive
Not that it’s unusual to have multiple languages in films. Spy and action movies have almost always flaunted the use of French, Italian, German or Russian, often with a heavily accented English. These European languages, however, are almost always associated with a specific type of character: French or Italian for the well-spoken, possibly sensual character — and German or Russian for the villains. Despite the clear bias in representation, it should be noted that usually the speakers of all these languages are shown in positions of power or of high intellect, in some way.
While these roles already reveal the stereotypes associated with certain countries, what’s most telling is the way in which the languages are used by the main character.
The use of European languages by the main character is usually a sign of talent and good education. To know Italian or German is to be a character with agency. The same is rarely afforded to Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic or any African language. Even in anti-terrorism movies, which often feature experts in Middle-East crisis, the heroes almost never actually speak Arabic on screen.
In Inception, there’s a scene where Leonardo DiCaprio runs through Mombasa to escape his pursuers. Despite clearly being familiar with the area, he seems unable to communicate with a restaurant owner, or recognize the word “Mzungu,” a Swahili term that refers to white people — a word any regular visitor to Kenya would most certainly be familiar with.
The fact is, we still have an unconsciously colonial mentality when it comes to depicting languages on screen.
Moving away from lazy approaches
So are we finally moving away from the colonial mindset? Logan was certainly a step in the right direction. While Dafne Keen herself is a Spanish actress, the Spanish she used in the film was much more neutral, and more believably Mexican. Even when switching between English and Spanish, her speech was far from the stereotype of the foreigner that intersperses Si’s and Dios Mio’s in between sentences in English.
With Laura, both Spanish and English felt natural, and her use of both felt appropriate within the context she was in. Logan took it one step further by not even subtitling the Spanish dialogue at all.
Television, as usual, has been braver in moving towards a more progressive stance. With CeCe from New Girl speaking Hindi, and shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage featuring Spanish, Mandarin and Japanese very openly — and not only spoken by villains or bystanders, but by the main character as well — television is becoming a more realistic place. Sense8 also does a good job of exposing viewers to cultural diversity, although it takes a different approach at language, with characters only switching away from English when their worlds overlap.
Jane the Virgin’s open approach to language, without reducing the entire show to English with accents, or simply interspersing English with words in Spanish, does a wonderful job at setting a realistic precedent for how bilingual families function (although different family members sometimes had accents from opposite parts of the continent, but we’ll take what we can get).
Better yet than mix-and-matching languages, the use of subtitles in film shows a promising future. With sequences of Assassin’s Creed entirely in Spanish with subtitles, and the sudden rise in scenes set in China in major films, audiences are becoming more used to reading subtitles — just like non-English-speaking audiences across the world.
All in all, we start to have the vision of a world that is more culturally rich and realistic than the one we’ve been sold up to now.
As studios are gaining confidence that their audiences are capable of understanding a story that involves more than one language, we begin to glimpse a future with more diversity.
With the upcoming Black Panther film, we may have a chance of seeing and hearing more of Xhosa, the language spoken briefly by T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War. Xhosa has been chosen as the Wakandan language, presumably to be used more often in the MCU, as we explore Black Panther’s backstory in Wakanda.
Mandarin is also becoming a regular, and slowly moving into a positive light as Hollywood caters to Chinese audiences, but it also inadvertently starts making us more accustomed to the Mandarin that is spoken in our own cities. Arrival, in particular, showcases the use of Mandarin as the solution to the film’s entire problem — and itself is a movie about languages, and the importance of open communication across borders. It’s also worth noting that Amy Adams’ character in Arrival is known for being a Farsi translator; although again, the language is tied to terrorism, and we don’t ever actually her speak it.
Jupiter Ascending, while being a disappointing film for altogether different reasons, is one of the rare occasions in which Russian is used in a family environment with no sinister context at all.
It goes beyond the explicit use of language, too. Diego Luna’s decision to keep his Mexican accent in Rogue One was very well received by Mexican-American audiences, who finally saw themselves represented by a Star Wars hero. The inclusion of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus’ accents also brought a different dimension to the movie, and elevated diversity from “exotic” or “sinister”, to normal.
The effect of language on our cultural perception
And what about Arabic? I remember watching Kingsman after living in the Middle East for a few months. After being in close contact with friends who spoke Arabic, I found that I suddenly understood what the “terrorists” on screen were saying during the opening sequence. But most people have never heard Arabic outside of movies or news — and when they hear it there, it’s inevitably tied to a dangerous situation. Even the Islamic call to prayer, a daily occurrence in many countries across the world, takes on a sinister association. And when that’s all people can tie Arabic to, how can we expect them to not be terrified when they hear it on planes? How can we expect them to understand that it’s a language spoken by millions of people, from birthday parties to classrooms?
With a rise in hate-speech directed towards languages other than English, it’s important for filmmakers to think of what role they can have in this worldwide discussion. In the same way that French is considered a rich language, or British an elegant accent, we should work towards normalizing Mexican, Cuban, Syrian, and Iranian accents, opening ourselves to a variety of languages in film, as well as on the street.
Why does it matter? Because Jane the Virgin is still appealing to audiences that don’t speak a word of Spanish, and Black Panther has an excited audience that may know nothing about Africa. Because young Arab children should hear their language in movie theaters in contexts other than that of bombs and war. And because when your favorite young Wolverine-like hero is Mexican, it becomes harder to tell someone in the street to shut up and go back to their country.