Language Barrier
Characters can't communicate because they don't share a language


(permanent link) added: 2012-11-29 15:38:53 sponsor: XFllo (last reply: 2013-01-11 11:51:15)

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Imagine you happen to be somewhere where you don't understand the locals, and the locals don't understand you. Nobody can pull off You No Take Candle. There are no interpretors. You may try speaking very loudly and ve--ry-- slooowww--ly your own language, hoping that somebody would eventually understand you. Then you try international words or some basic phrases of the other language, but sadly nothing beyond Poirot Speak. Then El Spanish O, which is trying to make your native tongue sound like el language-o of the other person-o, is a frequent thing to do, but not very helpful either.

Generally, people will try very hard to convey at least some meaning. What the characters say in this situation may sound as Gratuitous Foreign Language but if the language is more complicated, it can be Bilingual Bonus for some viewers.

Non-verbal communication, Hand Signals and Body Language will be employed as well. The characters will try to show their meaning with their face or hands, pointing to objects around them or drawing simple things.

This situation can be very stressful and its consequences may vary in fiction as well as in Real Life. It's frustrating for anybody, but especially to those eloquent in their native tongue. The situation may be entirely friendly if slightly awkward, neutral or truly hostile with tragic ends. The characters may try desperately to communicate, and eventually they may succeed. Or they might get an interpreter, or perhaps they will actually learn the language or they will develop a new one. However, sometimes the situation stays unresolved.

Compare/contrast with Aliens Speaking English, Universal Translator, the Omniglot and Bilingual Dialogue.

Truth in Television. See also the list of other Language Tropes.

Examples:

Comic Books
  • Persepolis: When Marjane moved to Austria, she could speak passable French. However, her roommate Lucia spoke only German. They got along amicably anyway, teaching each other French and German, and eventually considered each other sisters.

Film -- Animated

Film -- Live Action
  • Chicago: Katalin Helinski is a young Hungarian woman accused of murdering her husband, but nobody listens to her pleas. She's the only one among the prisoners who's innocent, but the only one who's executed.
  • Love Actually: An English-speaking man and a Portuguese-speaking woman experience language barrier mixed with mutual attraction. It's mostly Played for Laughs until the Crowning Moment of Heartwarming at the end when he returns to her home town after studying Portuguese so he can propose in her native language. She says yes in English.
  • Twilight Zone: The Movie, segment "Time Out". An American bigot is sent back in time to Nazi Germany during World War II. He is approached by Nazi SS officers, who start questioning him...in German. He doesn't speak German, and they don't understand English. He rapidly gets deeper and deeper in trouble and finally runs away from them. He's later caught, considered to be a Jew and sent to a death camp.
  • In Erik the Viking, the character named Slavemaster on Halfdan the Black's ship speaks only in Japanese. As he whips the oarsmen, he criticizes them at length for their flawed understanding of his culture, a message (presented in subtitles) clearly aimed at the viewing audience, as one of the slaves comments, "I wish I could understand what he's saying".
  • Enemy Mine: A Human and a Drac are trapped alone together on an isolated planet in the middle of a war between the two species. They manage to forge a friendship out of necessity, despite a complete lack of any common language.
  • In the film Boy Meets Girl set in New York's Little Italy, the two main characters fall in Love at First Sight thanks to Cupid and don't realize they have a language barrier (English and Italian) till their second date.
  • One of the scenes cut from the US release of Way of the Dragon involved Bruce Lee's character having this difficulty in an airport restaurant. Bruce is unable to read the menu and the waitress can't understand him so Bruce just points to several items on the menu. He ends up getting several bowls of soup which get devoured quickly.
  • Stargate has the Tau'ri stargate team unable to communicate with the Abydonians due to them speaking a derivative of Ancient Egyptian, which, we know how it's written but not how it's pronounced. Daniel Jackson is quickly able to learn the language after discovering a wall of hieroglyphics and having Sha'uri walk him through the pronunciation.

Jokes
  • Two Americans are in a bar when a Funny Foreigner comes up to them. "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" he asks. "Uh, what?" the first American says. The foreigner tries, "Habla usted castellano?" "Try English," the second American says. "Parlez-vous francais?" The first American shakes his head, and the foreigner gives up and walks away. American #2 says to his drinking buddy, "You know, we ought to think about trying to learn a foreign language." "Why? He spoke three languages and it didn't do him any good."

Literature
  • Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre: Mr Rochester's little French ward Adele and her nurse Sophie only speak French when Jane arrives at Thornfield. It's stated that they both felt lonely while Mr Rochester, who was the only one who could speak French and interpret for them, was absent. They are both very happy when a French-speaking governess appears.
  • Charlotte Brontė's Villette: Lucy Snowe, a young English woman, is having a hard time in Villette, not speaking French and nobody around who would understand English. She even suffers a long depression over her language barrier and lack of friends and acquaintances.
  • In L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz, Jack Pumpkinhead takes it into his head that he and the Scarecrow have this problem, resulting into a farcical, during which the Scarecrow offers him a seat, and Jack solemnly explains that since he doesn't understand him, the Scarecrow has to use gestures or some such instead. When the Scarecrow pushes him into the seat, Jack complains.
  • The Andalite Chronicles has Chapman try to talk in English to Sub-Visser who doesn't understand him. They get around the problem by miming.
  • Played With in Escape Attempt, where the sufficiently advanced Earthlings land on an alien planet, discover what appears to be a region-wide natural disaster, and try to help the native Human Aliens. Said natives, however, reject their help, which they first blame on the language barrier, but when they pick up the language, it turns out that this is just that kind of a Crapsack World and the natives are used to it. Another interesting tidbit is that not only the local language is alien but even the intonations are weird to Terrans, e.g. the commanding tone sounds more like whiny wailing to Terrans. Still, when Saul (a time-traveling Soviet officer) takes over an interrogation of a native, the latter learns the Terran intonations very quickly, thanks to Saul's unambiguous body language.

Live Action Television
  • The X-Files: Some languages were treated as Black Speech, most notably German, Japanese and Russian in the sense of post-World War II and post-Cold War paranoia. When somebody spoke foreign language, the Agents Mulder and Scully were sometimes able to understand as Scully speaks German and is "rusty" in some other, while Mulder claims he had French at high school. The foreign languages were sometimes subtitled for the audience's benefit, but at times viewers were left as clueless as were the characters.
    • "Little Green Men": Mulder travels to Puerto Rico to a carefully watched observatory and he meets there Jorge who is very scared and obviously had a weird encounter. Mulder tries desperately to calm him down and question him, but he only manages to produce some broken basic sentences and one hilarious El Spanish O. Finally, Jorge grabs Mulder’s pen and draws on the wall something that looks like a head of an alien with big eyes.
    • "Nisei": Mulder catches and arrests a Japanese spy who is a part of The Conspiracy. It's not clear whether he could speak English, but he was only yelling at Mulder in Japanese. Mulder also doesn't understand his notes which frustrates him. Sadly, at the moment there was nobody at the Bureau who would interpret and the evil spy is set free based on fake claim that he's a diplomat.
    • "Tunguska"/"Terma": Mulder specifically takes Krycek to Russia to avert this trope. He's also lucky to meet people who know some English.
    • "Amor Fati, Part I": Subverted when Scully looks all confused and lost among the natives in Ivory Coast, but she's lucky that an interpreter willing to help occurs.
  • It happened in M*A*S*H several times, especially when one of the doctors went away to help some Koreans and somehow they managed to get lost.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: In the famous episode "Darmok", the crew encounters friendly aliens who communicate solely in metaphors and cultural references. The perfect -- at least so far perfect -- Universal Translator fails. Captain Picard and the alien captain try to communicate, but sadly, they do not achieve much and the alien captain dies when they try to bring the two of them together by facing a shared dangerous situation.
  • Dexter:
    • Sergeant Doakes, currently off duty, is lost in the Everglades forest. He meets some dangerous smugglers who have a secret cottage nearby. When they understand that he's a police, they take him hostage and decide to kill him. This is an example of how international words and Poirot Speak can make the situation go From Bad to Worse.
    • Detective Debra Morgan, being a Detective and later a Lieutenant at Miami Metro PD, doesn't understands Spanish, although Florida is full of Cuban immigrants. She swears she will take Spanish classes after one particularly painful questioning of a witness. It was a bit strange that it didn't occur to her to use her Cell Phone and call one of her colleagues as many of them are of Hispanic origin.
  • Friends: In the one where Phoebe dates a foreign diplomat, Phoebe and him happen to insult their interpretor who then leaves the scene with Monica. The date ends up in the coffee place when they sing and play the guitar together, but Phoebe doesn't look too pleased.
  • The Twilight Zone:
    • Classic episodes
      • "Probe 7 - Over And Out". Two space travelers from different races, a man and a woman, are stranded on a planet. After they meet, they have to learn how to communicate with each other.
      • "Two". Two soldiers who survived an apocalyptic war, a man and a woman, are wandering in a deserted city. After they meet, they have to have to learn how to communicate with each other...hey, wait a minute! It looks like Rod Serling decided to do some plot recycling.
    • The New Twilight Zone episode "Wordplay". A man starts hearing wrong words in other people's speech. The number of wrong words increases until all the man can hear is them. The episode ends with him starting to learn the "wrong word" version of English so he can understand everyone else.
  • Monty Python used the situation in their famous My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels sketch. A Hungarian comes to a tobacconist's and wants to buy a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. He has a phrasebook, but unfortunately it contains trickster translation and he says insulting and non-sense phrases. The poor tobacconist has to guess what he wants from his gestures and from the context. In addition, he must try very hard not to feel offended.
  • Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye: Downplayed when Sue's room-mate decides to learn some sign language and to mix with Sue's deaf friends. She understands quite well but she's also slightlz confused and doesn't catch everything, which makes her uneasy. Later when Sue's deaf friend the prosecutor joins the hearing agents, this communication failure and uneasiness is mirrored because Sue doesn't manage to interpret everything.
  • One episode of Murdoch Mysteries features a man who suffers from aphasia and who can only answer yes or no with ringing of a bell. He's actually faking it.
  • In Coupling, Jeff falls for an Israeli girl, who, fortunately for him, doesn't speak a word of English, and therefore, doesn't understand his embarrassing and somewhat offensive babble when he first meets her. He manages to calm down by the time her translator arrives, and they hit it off, but on a second meeting, without the translator present, their attempts to set up a date go horribly awry.
  • In Doctor Who, normally the TARDIS translates everything everyone says. However, if the Doctor is not around and unconscious, this apparently stops working. This appears in "The Christmas Invasion", where the Doctor has just regenerated and is unconscious, causing Rose to be unable to understand the invading Sycorax. This is resolved when the Doctor returns and the translation resumes.

Theatre
  • Musical Chicago: The film was based on the play, so obviously it follows the same plot: An innocent Hungarian woman is executed as she wasn't able to testify about her husband's murder. She was accused of it and found guilty.

Video Game
  • In the first part of Onimusha Demon Siege, Samanosuke and Michelle in the 2004 France are on the same side, but since Samanosuke speaks Edo period Japanese and Michelle French, they can't uderstand each other, hence Michell treat him like a possible menace. Luckily, the local Exposition Fairy Ako cast a spell that allow them to understand each other just well.
  • World of Warcraft has a language barrier that prevents Alliance and Horde players from communicating in-game.

Webcomics
  • Gunnerkrigg Court. Gamma speaks Polish and only knows a few words of English, and she's a student at the predominantly-English Court. She has a Psychic Link with Zimmy, so the two of them can communicate (even though Zimmy doesn't know Polish). Zimmy acts as Gamma's (not always accurate) translator.

Web Original
  • Red vs. Blue's: Red Team has Lopez the robot, who only speaks (bad) Spanish due to Sarge not discharging built-up static before installing his speech chip. None of the other team members speak Spanish.

Western Animation
  • Animaniacs: Squit of the Goodfeathers had this problem once in "West Side Pigeons". Since he didn't understand the Godpigeon's gibberish (and Bobby or Pesto weren't around to translate), Squit completely misinterprets the Godpigeon, thinking his love interest Carloota is in trouble.

Real Life
  • People with various types of aphasia who essentially lose their language and ability to communicate well.


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