Characters With Language Barriers in Films
In my article, Characters Who Don’t Speak in Movies, I discussed how characters with no dialogue can represent many groups of real life people. What seems like a cinematic handicap can actually be a creative challenge for the actor portraying that character to find unique ways to contribute to the story. Some of the most iconic characters in film have not said a word or have spoken late in the film when it comes as a cathartic surprise to the audience.
There are other characters, though, who can speak, but they are restricted by language in one way or another. They are either disconnected by speech issues, come from a land foreign to the other characters, are a different species (terrestrial or extraterrestrial), a young child just beginning to learn language, or can’t read written language. The ability to communicate is taken for granted until that ability is challenged by these limitations. However, part of the story usually deals with figuring out a way to close this disconnect by teaching one or both sides how to communicate with the other. By then, though, the connection has already been established non-verbally, proving that language, while a useful tool, is not necessary to developing a bond.
*Note: Spoilers ahead.
Stutters and pronunciation issues can make language a challenge. People who suffer from impediments usually struggle to communicate or to be heard clearly. Sometimes this has a comedic effect. Sometimes it’s played sympathetically. In either case, the character must battle their limitations in order to be heard.
The King’s Speech (2010) is the perfect example of a character who has to struggle with a speech impediment. King George VI was a real ruler who developed a stammer brought about by childhood abuse. Incidentally, he reluctantly inherits the throne at the time not when radio broadcasts are being incorporated into royal duties but also on the cusp of a second World War when his country needs someone to calm their fears and rally their patriotism. His issue is not in an incompetency to lead his country but to verbalize his thoughts and actions and to give a voice to his country. The more intimidating the situation, the more severe his stammer becomes. So, to be thrown into an extremely high pressure situation after his older brother suddenly abdicates his royal duties makes for a potentially disastrous situation.
This movie definitely explores the psychology behind language impairments. This is something that is acquired, not developed in the womb. In the same way, it can be overcome to an extent. It is also something that requires calm and confidence to conquer. Watching a character have to do this in the most extreme circumstances is what made this film and Colin Firth as its lead so inspiring to watch.
One language barrier that we have mostly all dealt with in real life is trying to communicate with somebody when you don’t know each other’s language. It could be someone asking for help at the store or looking for directions in an unfamiliar location. Some words can sound familiar while others are nothing like your own. How we form sentences, use sound, and pronounce words can also block messages from getting through. In movies, miscommunication is usually presented comically with characters mishearing words, misinterpreting body language, and getting frustrated by repetition that becomes no clearer no matter how many times it’s spoken. However, that doesn’t have to mean that characters cannot interact on another level.
In the movie Love, Actually (2003), Colin Firth plays Jamie, a writer escaping from his girlfriend’s infidelity with his brother to his cottage in France. There, he meets Aurélia, a Portuguese housekeeper who cannot speak English any more than he can speak Portuguese. The two speak to each other in their native languages, despite not being able to understand each other, and a connection develops. The subtitles tell the audience what the other is saying, usually in a comical sense. When Jamie goes home to England, he spends weeks learning Portuguese so that he can propose to Aurélia. When he does, he learns that she has been learning English at the same time. This link in communication affirms what they already know to be true, that they have fallen in love without having a conventional conversation.
Just like coming from another country, sometimes communication is tricky when trying to interact with a non-human. Not only is language stripped away but also basic human behavior. This is true of characters who try to interact with animals but even more so with extraterrestrials. Some movie aliens thankfully know English, or through movie magic, the audience can understand the aliens through subtitles or imagery, such as flashbacks. The characters on screen don’t always have this advantage, and part of making contact includes figuring out a way to communicate.
Stephen Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) presents a gentle version of this interaction. When Elliott first meets E.T., his new friend only makes grunts and groans. Luckily, he picks up on English fast, but before that, Elliott exposes him to his language simply by speaking to him as if he can already understand him. There is an entire sequence where Elliott shows E.T. some of the objects in his room. None of them are crucial to understanding the world, but they are instrumental in helping him to understand Elliott’s world. An added advantage is the emotional link up that the two characters make where they begin to feel each other’s emotions. Elliott is able to use this information to respond to these feeling as appropriate. This is one of the main reasons why we use language to communicate. Their advantage helps the two to develop their connection long before E.T. begins to speak English.
Still Learning a Native Language
We are not born speaking. We are (usually) only born with the ability to eventually speak. It’s hard to imagine thought without words, but we have all done it as infants. As we begin to speak words, first one at a time, then in pairs, then forming full sentences, our vocabulary grows as well as expands our ability to grasp more complex thoughts. That’s not to say that non-verbal people don’t possess emotional or intellectual depth, but children are constantly building on their language as they grow. As a result, they can mix up words, might not be able to convey new experiences, and may misinterpret situations.
Room (2015) is a very extreme example of this confusion with language. Young Jack has never been outside in his life or interacted with anyone other than his mom. So, when he is introduced to the world, it is as alien and overwhelming as outer space. He is very intelligent but ignorant to so many customs, objects, and ideas. There were also different rules when they were in their room, some of which disappear once they escape and some that did not apply until they step into the real world.
The people around him have a hard time explaining the world and our culture to him, and he is often left confused and sometimes frustrated by it. It’s interesting to see how much of the world we take with a grain of salt while he questions everything and asks questions that do not have an answer. Kids in general already do this, especially with sensitive topics like death, violence, and emotion, but they have been exposed to so much more than Jack and have an easier time accepting the world as it is rather than as the condensed version that he experienced for the first five years of his life.
A character can seem completely competent in having mastered their native language as well as anybody else. Then, you set a book in front of them, and their expression goes blank. Knowing how to read and write is not crucial for survival, but it is crucial for communicating in today’s world, especially in this present day. Even non-writers are constantly texting, emailing, and posting on social media. So, to not be able to read or write presents a communication barrier that is much more difficult to master, especially as a character ages.
There is also a mysteriousness to this type of character where the audience is left to ponder why they never learned how to read. Is it because of a rough childhood, a learning disability, or a lack of desire to learn? Everybody reads and writes at different levels, but simply mastering the basic concepts of putting a sentence together is enough to get anyone through the task. If you can’t even do that, it can feel like a physical handicap.
The Reader (2008) illustrates the shame that can come with not being able to read and how that shame can be so strong that a person will do anything to keep from being exposed. Hanna is a character who loves books and loves to be read to, but it becomes apparent later in the film that she doesn’t know how to read or write. So, when she is accused of Nazi war crimes and is pinpointed as the author of a report which points to the prison guards’ guilt, she falsely admits to it, condemning herself to life imprisonment, just as she previously left her job as a tram conductor when they wanted to promote her to working in the office. Her shame is interesting in how much value she puts on a skill that she has never possessed. When she does learn to read through following along with recordings of books being read to her by the protagonist, Michael, it connects her to this world that was always coveted but restricted by her inability to ask for help in learning. This gives literal meaning to the power of words.
What are your favorite examples of language barriers in films? How do/would you communicate with others in these situations? Leave your answers in the comments below.