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Cunning Linguist
"Wow, Ty-K0... our blasters and force abilities were no match for these ancient runes - and you translated them so fast! Yes, mastery of language is truly the greatest weapon! Here, take this huge pile of credits and rare artifacts!"
Bounty Hunter, Penny Arcade (referencing Tycho's character choice in Star Wars: The Old Republic)

The Squad or the Command Roster don't always have the luxury of operating in countries or planets where everyone conveniently speaks English, so it falls to the Cunning Linguist to be the interpreter with the locals, decode enemy transmissions, help them pass themselves off as enemy soldiers, and help interrogate captured POW's.

In The Squad, the Cunning Linguist is often a white collar officer who has been "just transferred" into the squad, rubs everyone the wrong way, and worse, is completely and hopelessly lost in an actual battlefield. In the Command Roster, they fit in better. Subplots involving the Linguist usually have them grow a spine. Other times the linguist was always a part of the squad, but has been hiding their talents out of fear their friends will think the linguist is like their enemy, or unapproachably intellectual.

May overlap with other squad archetypes. If their skill with languages is overplayed, they may become an Omniglot. It is also not uncommon for this character to be a Gentleman and a Scholar. Compare The Smart Guy.

A common subversion of this trope is to land the Cunning Linguist in a situation where he/she doesn't speak the language—often a ridiculously common one, like Spanish or French. Such people tend to have worked in intelligence, where the language skills required are generally more exotic. Another is to simply depict them as being bad at a given language they claim to speak well. See Informed Ability.

Can easily overlap with the Communications Officer.

This trope is named for the cunning most linguists display throughout a given movie, always saving the squad's collective asses with only their quick wit and quicker language skills, and is not at all a pun on the word "cunnilingus" (that we took from James Bond).

Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Subverted with Rock from Black Lagoon. His being a Japanese salaryman guarantees that he alone knows both English and Japanese. This led to a Narm moment when the head of a Russian mafia pretends to speak broken English so that he can translate a negotiation.
    • This is actually a result of the way the Japanese audio track worked out. In-universe, English is the primary language of Roanapur, but the voices are all in Japanese. Then, in the final arc of Second Barrage, when Revy, Rock, Balalaika and her team actually go to Japan. There, their seiyuus begin speaking (naturally broken) English whenever they are in conversation with Japanese-speaking characters, but vocalize in Japanese voices again when conversing amongst themselves. The English Dub matches events in-universe much better as a result, although now the Japanese characters have new English voice actors when conversing amongst themselves (and in some instances, when speaking directly to character who actually speak English, i.e. Chaka to Revy). One wonders why they didn't just preserve the Japanese characters' Japanese audio through the entire arc.
  • Lutecia of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha was revealed in StrikerS Sound Stage X to be very adept at reading and translating Ancient Belka when Vivio needed some help doing research on the Mariage. She had since been used in ViVid as the go-to person for Ancient Belka texts. Jail Scaglietti was the one who taught her the skill.
  • Inverted in A Certain Magical Index. It seems everyone but the main character is a polyglot (and the fact that the main character isn't makes him look like an idiot). It gets a bit absurd when we have to have a British middle school student translate Russian into Japanese for him.

    Comicbooks 
  • Doug Ramsey from New Mutants was this trope taken to its most extreme example. A studybuddy of Kitty Pryde's, he turned out to have the mutant power to understand any language he encounters, in print, spoken, or otherwise transmitted.
    • This included computer code, and there were hints that Doug would have been the greatest hacker in the world bar none, if it weren't for that whole dying thing.
    • Now that he's been resurrected... sorta... it's shown that his powers extend to social cues, and he can perfectly interpret the relationships between people based on subtle gestures. He can also read body language, so he's handy in a fight.
    • He should become even more broken if the writers ever realize that his powers should include perfect understanding of the languages of magic.
      • Actually, the rather earlynote  Asgard arc of New Mutants showed how Doug had to read Enchantress's books of magic for Illyana, so it's been done. Note how reading spells is not the same as being able to cast them.
      • In the fan work "Copycat" by dogbertcarroll on fanfiction.net, he explicitly can't understand the nuances of interuniversal teleportation sensory data (which includes Illyana and an OC relative of Mimic identifying universes by things like "blue ranch flavor"). So that Doug Ramsey can't understand some magic. —Will Dent
  • In the Hägar the Horrible comic, Lucky Eddie fills this role when necessary.
  • As part of his training, Batman also became something of a linguistic expert, and is fluent in several languages including English, Spanish, French, Russian, German, Japanese and Chinese, and can read and understand (to varying degrees of proficiency) others.
  • Besides English, X-23 has been confirmed to be fluent in French and Japanese, and it's implied that she may speak a number of other languages as well.

    Films 
  • U-571 has sailor Bill Wentz, he's perfectly fluent in German and helps get the crew aboard the titular sub to help steal the enigma machine. He wants to keep his skill a secret though for fear of alienating his friends.
    Wentz: "Mister Tyler, please... don't tell the other guys I'm half German. They'll hate me."
  • Saving Private Ryan has Timothy Upham who is the naive kid, dispatched from the officer pool to help find private Ryan. Spends the movie getting his hands dirty and learning to be a soldier, manages to end the movie a Badass sitting out the climactic battle because of a Heroic BSOD.
    • Hilariously, Upham's German is in fact terrible, despite the claim of the character that his accent is "clean, with just a touch of Bavarian".
    • His French isn't much better, particularly his grammar.
  • Eva Longoria plays one in The Sentinel. This is mostly an Informed Ability, and the one attempt for her to demonstrate her skills is unimpressive.
  • There are at least two examples of scholar-linguists that are not out of their element: The translator in The Bridge on the River Kwai, who is said to have taught South-East Asian languages in Oxford(?) before the war seems at ease in the jungle, and seems to be more at home there than the other commandos. And there is T.E. Lawrence, who learned Arabic during archaeological digs in the Levant before the Great War, and apparently went native to some extent.
  • Milo Thatch of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, to the point where he's the only one who can translate Atlantian text to actual Atlantians.
  • Stargate, which came before the series, had Daniel Jackson fit this trope to near perfection. He is a non-military scientist stuck together with a team of commandoes, and he annoys the other members of the squad. (Mostly because he trapped them on an alien planet...) His linguist skills do come in handy, though.
  • Star Wars has C-3PO, a protocol droid fluent in more than six million forms of communication, who ends up using these abilities once or twice a movie — not counting his conversations with Artoo or Chewbacca, who everybody else seem to understand as well.
  • In The Dirty Dozen, one of the reasons that Joeseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) was picked for the squad was that he was fluent in German.
  • Galaxy Quest lampshades this trope with Gwen Demarco, whose entire job is to repeat everything somebody says to the ship's computer.
    • And repeat what the computer says in response, also with appropriate lampshading.
    • This reaches a point where the Thermians actually designed the ship's computer to listen only to her.
  • Mouth plays this role in The Goonies. When they find an old Treasure Map annotated in Spanish, Mouth is there to provide a Conveniently Precise Translation.
  • X-Men:
    • In X-Men: First Class, Erik is fluent in German, English, French and Spanish. This is consistent with the comics, where he has been shown speaking French, and knowing Spanish isn't much of a stretch for someone like him.
    • Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past is fluent in Vietnamese, French, and possibly other languages as well.
  • Uhura in the Star Trek reboot, though she isn't really able to put her skills into action on screen. Not true of the original timeline Uhura, who has a bad time with a Klingon dictionary in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
    • It’s showcased a little more in Into Darkness, when they’re hunting down “John Harrison”.
    “You brought me along because I speak Klingon. So let me speak Klingon."
  • James Bond shows signs of this, inasmuch as he's a one man squad, when dealing with Russian spies, French money launderers and Middle Eastern arms dealers. Moneypenny in Tomorrow Never Dies even drops the trope name when he is "brushing up on his Danish" though also using it with the innuendo intact.
    • You Only Live Twice establishes he excelled at Oriental languages in Spy School, when he refuses the Japanese phrasebook Moneypenny offers him because he doesn't need it.
      • Subverted, however, in Tomorrow Never Dies, when Bond is completely bamboozled by Wai Lin's keyboard. (It's meant as a joke, by the way; Chinese computers [or Mainland China ones at least] either use Pinyin or Wubi [a system of four-digit codes to stand for characters] for word imput and processing)
  • Hilariously subverted in Eurotrip, where Scotty acts like one, but most certainly isn't. His botching of German is the reason for him going to Europe in the first place, and when he and his friends are broke and attempt to catch a ride to Berlin from a German truck driver, Scotty acts as the group's translator and as it turns out, he misunderstands the driver who states he's actually escaping Berlin, where he sexually assaulted a horse and stabbed a woman
    • Scotty at least puts a qualifier in the sentence before he starts talking to the driver: "I speak bad German."
  • Sharon is fluent in Italian in the 1990 version of Captain America, the only explanation for this ability being that she spent a summer in Italy once.
  • In Zulu, Adendorff gives cultural advice.
  • In Inglourious Basterds, Hans Landa shows fluent command of his native German, plus French, English, and it is implied, Italian good enough to spot accent issues in other non-native speakers. Helps that Christoph Waltz, who plays him, is in reality fluent in French, German and English.
    • Subverted with The Squad's translator, who nearly gets them in trouble with his accent. And ends up getting himself and several other members of the squad killed, anyway because though he has the spoken language down, he committed a big mistake when it came to hand gestures.
  • In Django Unchained, Dr. King Schultz speaks English, German, and French. Not surprising since, as mentioned above, Christoph Waltz, who plays him, speaks all three languages.
  • Sofie Fatale in Kill Bill serves as this to the Crazy 88, being fluent in Japanese, French and English. As with the above example, her actress Julie Dreyfus speaks all three in real life, and spent many years as a gaijin tarento in Japan, even teaching French on NHK's educational channel.
  • In Cradle 2 the Grave, DMX's character Fait is a jewel thief who ends up having to team up with Jet Li's character Su. When asked who he is, Su gives his credentials. Fait's arms dealer friend Archie takes the ID and figures out that Su is a Taiwanese Intelligence operative. When Fait asks Archie if he reads Chinese. Archie replies that he doesn't but knows "cop" in every language.

    Literature 
  • In the young adult series by John Bellairs, recurring character Proferssor Childermass often helps shed light on the current mystery with his extensive knowledge of languages, from French, Spanish and German to Latin and Greek. He prides his knowledge of languages extremely, and at the end of the book Eyes Of The Killer Robot, he is very put out by the fact that he did not recognize Arabic writing on a sword, thinking instead that it was only decorative engraving.
  • Played With in the Discworld novel Jingo when the protagonists enter Klatch. While it is useful that some of them do speak Klatchian, and there is a Shout-Out to Lawrence of Arabia, in one scene the somewhat racist Sgt. Colon, who doesn't speak Klatchian, is able to temporarily fit in, both because he has tanned skin and because his own language, "Morporkian", has become the local lingua franca. It also helped that his (accidental) cover story was as a resident of a Klatchian town whose residents were a byword for stupidity: the locals believed him to be from Ur (also the name of a real city of ancient Mesopotamia) because that's what he said when they asked him.
  • Also in Discworld, Rincewind displays an amazing facility for languages (especially given his ineptitude at anything other than fleeing). Apparently he can scream for help in many languages, and just plain scream in many more. (Explained and shown to be important, as "Aarrrgggh" translates to many things including: "Your wife is a big hippo", and more vitally: "Yes, more boiling oil!")
    • Of course, his linguistic abilities were established even earlier on, in The Colour of Magic, causing him to become the Discworld's first tour guide after meeting Twoflower. He's not the first to try to take advantage of Twoflower's willingness to part with gold, only the most successful because of his language skills.
  • Besides having a gift for self-serving cowardice equal to that of Rincewind, Harry Flashman's rise through the ranks of the British army is aided by his equally amazing facility with languages, giving him an advantage over many other officers who had no knowledge of the languages of the peoples they were conquering.
    • He's apparently also something of a Cunning Linguist in the other sense; on one occasion a dissolute Sikh queen prefaced an engagement with him by ordering 'Rai and The Python' to stand ready as her second course; once she was done with Flashman she gasped to her attendants instructions to stand these two gentlemen down for the night, and tell them not to bother coming in too early tomorrow either.
    • Flashman's mad polyglot skills let him down in Royal Flash, though, where he has to impersonate someone who speaks several languages including Danish, which is obscure and difficult enough that his hasty briefing in it can't see him through a short interview with a native Danish speaker.
  • In another World War II example, the Alternate History novel Variant Bis features a one-shot Cunning Linguist character, who was indeed a capable linguist, being able to translate even local slang of the enemy on the fly, but he was stuffed into the uniform straight from his university chair, so he was absolutely terrible as an officer.
  • And there's Joseph Porta in the Sven Hassel books. He and the other members of the 27th Panzer Regiment often find themselves behind Soviet lines deliberately or otherwise, and there's usually a scene where they unexpectedly bump into an enemy soldier and Porta's quick-thinking response is what gets them out (it's mentioned several times that Porta's Russian is actually quite atrocious, but as the Soviet army of WW2 had a vast number of ethnic minorities who couldn't speak Russian either he didn't stand out).
  • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Traitor General, Mkvenner reveals he speaks Old Gothic — better than Gaunt can, even. Hidden Depths rather than a justifying skill.
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel, Portal Through Time, the Scooby Gang takes a temporal trip to save Past Slayers from being killed out of history. Too many dead and the whole world changes. Fortunately, they only go to time periods where English is spoken (the Civil War) or Giles can speak the local dialect.
  • Barchuk in the Conqueror books fills this role at first, being a Mongol who speaks fluent Chinese; he also teaches the language to Temuge, allowing him to play the same role. Ho Sa, a Chin soldier who speaks decent Mongolian, may also qualify.
  • Bellis in China Miéville's The Scar fills this role on the ship, complete with being both cunning and unapproachable.
  • In Keith Laumer's Retief stories, the hero, Jame Retief, is often the only one who bothers to learn the native language on whatever world they're visiting, leading him to be the designated translator. This sometimes results in a variation of One Dialogue, Two Conversations in which he's carrying on two entirely different conversations with different sides who don't understand what the other side is saying.
  • Ransom, the protagonist of The Space Trilogy, is a Philologist. It's an extremely good thing, because he wouldn't have been able to learn the alien language otherwise.
  • Aleksandr Griboyedov, the main character of The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar, knows 16 languages, which really helps with his diplomatic career among other things.
  • The titular Greek Interpreter in the Sherlock Holmes story is a part of no squad, but he worms vital info out of a hostage without the hostage's captors being any the wiser - the key is likely that he uses written Greek to smuggle tidbits out during the conversation.
  • The eponymous Harry Dresden of The Dresden Files occasionally relies on Lash, a mental reflection of the fallen angel Lasciel, as a sentient translation device.
  • Anne Mason wrote two YA novels about Kira Warden, a skilled linguistics cadet on a space station. She is so often absent on trips to gain experience with other cultures that she misses out on a lot of basic education, and her agemates in other disciplines assume that she's incompetent. They learn better.
  • The Dan Brown novel Digital Fortress has David Becker, a linguistics professor. He uses his skills to track down Tankado's ring in Spain. At one point he calls the same escort service twice in a row, once posing as a Spanish local and the second time posing as a German tourist.
  • In the web-novel Domina we have yet to encounter a language Lizzy can't speak. English, Japanese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Yiddish (or possibly Hebrew), Icelandic, Irish...normally she's a bit stupid, but she is an absolute genius with language. Might cross over into Omniglot.
    Kelly: You can read Gaelic?
    Lizzy: It's not really that difficult. The alphabet is mostly the same, just different shapes.
    Alex: That can be said of every language, Miss Greene.
    Lizzy: And now you know why I'm so good with them.
  • In The Sparrow, Emilio Sandoz is sent on the Jesuit mission to Alpha Centauri, to a large degree, because of his skill acquiring new languages. His methods are studied for use in computerized language learning programs
  • Jace Wayland from The Mortal Instruments.

    Live-Action TV 
  • MacGyver, of course. He is proficient to a greater or lesser extent in Russian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and American Sign Language, and knows how to use International maritime signal flags and Morse code.
  • Though originally an archaeologist, Daniel Jackson in Stargate SG-1 often served this purpose—so it was a good thing he had lots of other talents, considering how common Aliens Speaking English were. Rather realistically, he was an expert on cultures, which is a skill commonly in possession of real-life military translators—and archaeologists, at least within their areas of expertise. He spoke twenty-seven languages with varying degrees of fluency, affect accents, and could also read the non-English alphabets used by the Aliens Speaking English. When he encountered aliens who didn't speak English, the fact that Sufficiently Advanced Aliens effectively founded most of Earth's culture and languages also helped him communicate with them.
    • Daniel Jackson did have a PhD in archaeology and primarily described himself as such, but his knowledge of languages and culture wasn't incidental. He also had PhDs in linguistics and anthropology (the holistic study of human cultures).
    • His knowledge of German he claimed to have comprised mostly of the word "Vater" (father) and even that was hard to understand. Though he wasn't actually speaking German, just pretending to be German.
      • Despite what he may believe, apparently his Russian isn't that good either, considering that one member of the Russian army opted to keep the conversation in English after hearing one sentence from him.
    • This role was later taken by his Suspiciously Similar Substitute, Jonas Quinn, after he left the show, though only for a season, then he was brought back.
  • Hoshi Sato in Star Trek: Enterprise was a language expert brought in for the times when the still-being-perfected Universal Translator couldn't do its thing. (And Hoshi started as kind of a wimp, being somewhat afraid of space travel itself, as the second part of the trope dictates.)
  • Linda Park is multilingual in real life.
  • The Arab translator Tariq in the short-lived Iraq War TV Series, Over There
  • Meesh from Generation Kill is apparently this, but is so lackadaisical about it that his translations are consistently questioned.
  • Buffyverse:
    • Giles, Wesley and Lorne know not only human languages, but a whole whack of demon ones as well. Of course, they generally use their skill in deciphering texts, not actually speaking it.
    • In one episode of Buffy, we learn that Spike speaks Fyarl.
      • It is also implied that Spike understands Luganda.
      • And shown that he can read Latin (which actually makes some sense given his growing up in Victorian England, where he might have actually been expected to study it as a human).
    • Gunn later gets a demon language upgrade as part of his Wolfram Lawyer Status. Of course, like with all Buffyverse magic, it came with a horrible price. Including golf skills (as business deals tend to be made on the links) and a "whole mess of Gilbert & Sullivan" "for elocution" which he started singing at random times, seemingly without noticing it.
    • Angel himself doesn't speak any demon languages, but he speaks at least eleven human languages.
    • As part of her Character Development to The Smart Guy, Dawn has learned at least Turkish and Sumerian between Seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy.
    • Glory can speak any demon or human language.
  • Harris in Sharpe speaks fluent Spanish - handy, considering the characters spend most of the series in Spain.
    • He is also fluent in French (also important as they fight French), Latin and Greek. But he's still a competent soldier though.
  • In Shogun, the story of an English pilot stranded in Japan, there are a few cunning linguists. Most of them are seen as villainous by the (Protestant) hero, being Jesuit monks. However, one, the Lady Mariko, is gifted with languages, being able to speak Japanese, Portuguese, and Latin fluently. She translates for Blackthorne (the pilot) and teaches him enough Japanese to get along by the book's end.
    • Blackthorne himself is a subversion: His native language is English, but he's fluent enough in Dutch to serve on a Dutch ship and fluent enough in Portuguese to learn another language through it. The subversion is that he initially doesn't know a word of Japanese (not to speak of cultural misunderstandings), rendering him unable to fill the Cunning Linguist's role as an interpreter for his crew. Whereas most Cunning Linguists go from mild-mannered to badass, he does it the other way around.
  • Band of Brothers has both David Webster and Joseph Liebgott as the cunning linguist, this case being translators for Easy Company. This skill becomes a tragic burden towards the end, when a linguist must tell a group of holocaust survivors they cannot leave their death camp.
    • Though strangely enough there's an episode towards the end where Webster insists on shouting in English at a German shopkeeper. In the next episode he speaks it fluently again. This might've been because he was flying off the handle at the townspeople for claiming no knowledge of the nearby concentration camp.
      • Webster speaking in English was actually on purpose, as the writers felt the scene would have been much less effective with subtitles. In the scene he seems to understand what the man is saying, he just replies to him in English.
  • There's a funny bit in Barney Miller where Wojciehowicz briefly interprets for two elderly Polish men, caught dueling with swords in the park until they're able to pull themselves together. Naturally, Wojo's a beat behind and continues translating even after they begin speaking English.
  • Michael Westen in Burn Notice is fluent in Arabic, Russian, Persian, and Czech, has recently learned French and German, and even speaks a bit of Urdu. However, even though he grew up in Miami, he doesn't speak a lick of Spanish.
    • This comes up in an episode where he pretends to be a Moscow Centre operative sent to re-establish ties with a pro-Russian sympathizer in a Latin American country. He speaks Russian with a local officer, who responds but then asks to switch to Spanish, as his Russian is rusty. Michael is clearly panicking for a second before offering to switch to English instead.
    • By Season 7, Michael does pick up Spanish. The circumstances are...abnormal.
  • Same old story in The Closer: Brenda Leigh Johnson, who had apparently spent her early career working for the CIA in Central Europe:
    I speak German, Russian, and am fully conversant in Czech, and I have to move to the one city where half of the people are from Latin America?
  • It's surprising how little this trope is put to work in Quantum Leap, given that protagonist Sam Beckett is an expert in everything under the sun (the man even knows kung-fu), and sidekick Al flat-out declares that Sam speaks many languages (including, staggeringly, hieroglyphic Egyptian). In spite of all that, vanishingly few episodes called on Sam to speak anything other than English.
    • Apparently, time travel within one's own lifetime and NATIONALITY is possible.
      • In "The Leap Home (Part 2)" he goes to Vietnam, although he is an American soldier and doesn't have to speak Vietnamese
    • One episode has him leaping into a man married to a Japanese woman. In one scene, he surprises himself when he's able to converse with her in fluent Japanese, prompting the abovementioned revelation from Al about his fluency in many languages.
  • Ramsey in Threshold. His linguistic skills don't get much use, as the series stays in the US.
    • In one episode, he identifies where a pilot grew up by his exact accent. He later notes that when they asked about the flight, the pilot slipped back into his regional dialect, indicating that he was hiding something.
  • Horatio Hornblower is shown to be fluent in French in the television movies, and in the earlier films acts as a translator for The Captain, who only is shown to speak English. He later learns Spanish as well (he was in a Spanish prison, so he had plenty of time and opportunity and little else to do.)
    • Before he learns Spanish, we get an interesting play on the trope when a Spanish officer and Captain Pellew are having a meeting, and Hornblower has to act as interpreter. Since Hornblower doesn't know Spanish, the Spanish officer speaks French instead for the sake of communication.
    • As for how he ended up in a Spanish prison, Hornblower tried to slip past a Spanish fleet he stumbled across in the fog by passing himself and his ship off as a French courier. He is informed that his French was actually very convincing; he only failed in his ruse because one of the Spanish officers personally knew the actual French officer who had been in command before the English captured his ship.
    • The trope was more or less averted in the novels, where Hornblower can understand French, but his ability to speak it convincingly is hindered by him being completely tone deaf.
  • Max Eilerson from Crusade is good with not only most Earth languages but both knowing and deciphering most alien languages, which is part of why he landed his job with the archaeological company IPX.
    • A scene in an episode even shows his thought process as he's attempting to decipher an alien ship Captain's Log. Once he's got the basic concepts down, the rest of the translation is pretty easy, although it's implied that he uses sophisticated IPX software to do the gruntwork.
  • In Farscape, Sikozu's species can't have Translator Microbes implanted, but they pick up languages very easily, to the point where Sikozu learns English mostly from Crichton pointing to things in the cargo bay and naming them, in addition to a few minutes of attempted conversation. When Moya's crew reaches Earth sans Crichton, her actual knowledge of English (as opposed to the others' reliance on Translator Microbes and halting attempts to learn the language) proves useful.
  • Caroline in 2 Broke Girls has been depicted as speaking fluent Japanese and passable Arabic, French and Hebrew. This may be justified by her wealthy upbringing and her Wharton MBA. Subverted in the third season when she has trouble understanding her French boyfriend and his wife's argument. When Max calls her on it, Caroline says she speaks enough French to impress Americans. This may apply to other languages, as well.
  • Law & Order: Ed Green, who spoke fluent Spanish as well as a decent amount of French and Russian.
  • Strong Medicine: Andy mentions being fluent in at least 6 languages and is heard speaking two of them (French and Tagalog) with patients who don't speak English. She explains by having grown up with a father in the Army—frequent moves to other countries made it necessary to learn the languages in order to keep up.
  • JAG: Mac, as she speaks English, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Farsi, German, Arabic, and reads Hebrew.
    • Nowhere near the degree of Mac, Meg Austin is fluent in Spanish, as befitting a well-educated Texan.
    • Subverted on it's spin-off, NCIS. Ziva can speak nine languages (ten if you count the language of love...which she does), but that's not the reason she was brought on the team. And since she has Mossad training, she is more than capable of holding her own in the field. In fact, she starts out the series a little overzealous with the battle skills.
  • SeaQuest DSV has Communications Officer Lt. Timothy O'Neill, who both is fluent in most existing Earth languages and occasionally helps figure out ancient ones, though even he has his limits.
    Bridger: Can you read it?
    O'Neill: Can I read Temecuan? I'm not that dull.
  • In Smallville, Chloe (while under the influence of an alien parasite) invoked this trope to insult a language expert.
  • Warehouse 13 has Agent Myka Bering, who appears to be able to read or speak every single language on the planet (at minimum, French, Russian, Japanese and Latin, and at least some Arabic, Chinese and Portuguese. And English). It's become something of a running gag.
    Myka: That's Portuguese for, um, "Push the button."
    (Her assembled teammates turn to stare at her)
    Myka: Really? This is still a surprise to you?

    Videogames 
  • One of the more painful elements of Twilight:2000 is that, at some point, you need to speak every possible language. Not having a team member with the ability to speak, say, Tajiki, can make beating a mission impossible. Language is strictly a product of nationality. There's little to no rhyme or reason to when each language might be useful. The result? A strangely Pan-Eurasian team of Cunning Linguists.
  • Shad fills this particular role in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Though everyone in the game (presumably) speaks and reads the current dialect of the Hylian language, Shad is apparently the only person in the kingdom who reads and understands Sky Writing, the written language of the ancient race called the Oocca, and is therefore the only NPC who can help Link with that necessary portion of his quest.
  • Recruiting HK-47 in Knights of the Old Republic is necessary if you want a peaceful resolution on Tatooine because he is the only person on the planet who can translate into the Tusken tongue. His homicidal tendencies are just an added bonus.
    • The Player Character also has shades of this. Carth comments that the amount of galactic languages you speak is pretty rare for a raw recruit, but should come in handy being stranded on the rear end of the Outer Rim. He's right.
    • A great example of this is when confronting Sasha ot Sulem, a stowaway on the Ebon Hawk, who's apparently only speaks an ancient dialect of Mandalorian. The player character goes from utterly confused to being semi-fluent and capable of holding a conversation in a manner of minutes.
    • Later revealed to be because the player character is actually the brainwashed Darth Revan, who was a skilled Omniglot and capable of learning languages incredibly fast... when not using the Dark Side to simply rip them out of people's heads, of course.
  • Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider games, by dint of being an Adventurer Archaeologist, is fluent in/can read and understand several languages including ancient ones such as Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Tomb Raider Legend has her speaking Japanese, and the films have her speaking Mandarin, Cambodian and a Siberian dialect.
  • Mike Thorton in Alpha Protocol, which is one of the main reasons he got employed by the agency in the first place. According to at least one of his backgrounds (field agent), Mike speaks fluent Farsi, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Mandarin (Chinese) and Japanese in addition to English, and visits multiple places in the game where he puts those skills to good use. Translation Convention kicks into gear whenever you do, though.
  • In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, your character being a Dragonborn can learn to speak the language of the Dragons, which allows him/her to use powerful language-related abilities. Non-Dragonborn can also learn to speak the language, but do so with greater difficulty. The Dragons themselves seem to know both the Dragon language and the basic language of Tamriel fluently.
    • However, while the Dragonborn can instantly learn new Words of Power and use the Thu'um, they actually do not gain a full understanding of the Dragon-Language itself. Alduin mocks and berates them for having the audacity to call themselves "Dov" when they don't understand their language, while Arngeir only realises the Dragonborn's lack of fluency when they had to ask what was being said during their initiation ceremony.
    • Back in Morrowind, the Nerevarine always knows Aldmeri (an extinct ancestor language to several modern languages), and is capable of using a book written in both Aldmeri and the (at that point untranslatable by scholarship) Dwemer language as a translation tool for Dwemeri — even if the Nerevarine is as dumb as a brick and complete focuses on combat skills.
  • Nathan Drake of Uncharted fame. He is fluent in English, Spanish, Latin and Indonesian, and has some ability in Arabic and Tibetan.
  • Cammy Meele of Ace Attorney Investigations speaks several languages, and is the only member of her flight crew who knows Borginian. The latter piece of information helps prove she's the murderer, as she immediately opens a Borginian crate of cloths to wipe up the victim's blood, rather than the nearby crate of bedsheets.
  • Maggie Robbins in The Dig is an Intrepid Reporter and "good at languages," verging on Omniglot status. She's especially good at learning languages, which comes in handy on an alien planet. Thanks to an alien library/teaching machine, she learns enough of the local language to communicate with one of the aliens after only a few hours. It's implied that the government knew the astronauts would end up meeting aliens, and chose Maggie specifically for her language skills.

    Webcomics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Despite rarely even speaking his first language, Ferb from Phineas and Ferb can speak Martian and Dolphin, which has helped in some of the boys' activities. He can also speak "British English" better than his American stepbrother, though apparently he's been away from England for too long to be entirely fluent.
    • It also appears that he can speak Japanese in "Summer Belongs to You".
    • And he's somewhat fluent in French, as he recognized a remarkably obscure 'term of endearment' in Run Way Runaway:
    Candace: Just remember, Gaston said I will always be his cou de crayon.
    Ferb: You do realize that's French for 'pencil neck'?
  • The Teen Titans have a polyglot in Raven, who in Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo claims to be able to read "English, German, Latin, Romanian, Ancient Sumerian, and Sanskrit"...but not Japanese.
    • A potential example would be Starfire, whose species can instantaneously learn any spoken language via simple lip contact making out with a speaker of the desired language.
      • In the comics she learned English (and probably Romany) by tackling and kissing Dick Grayson...the beginning of what is still an on-again, off-again romance. The episode "Go" revealed she learned it the same way in the cartoon.
      • In the comics, where she also has this power, she admits it only requires any physical contact, but she prefers to do it "the fun way".
  • Batman, in Justice League Unlimited.
    Batman: Who are you working for?
    Kasnian Thief: (in Kasnian) You can't understand a word I'm saying and I wouldn't tell you anything if I could.
    Batman: (in Kasnian) I can...and you will.
  • For someone who frequently acts like Dumb Muscle, Nathan Explosion is quite good at speaking French. Albeit with an extremely gravelly voice. Pickles also seems competent in the language.
  • Sergeant Slaughter's hobby of learning ancient Greek became very practical after both the Joes and Cobra travel back in time to the Greek civilization.
  • The Secret Saturdays: Drew Saturday can speak 37 different languages.

    Real Life 
  • Easier than it sounds in some parts of the world. There are a number of European languages, but with a few exceptions (notably Finnish and English) they all belong to a small handful of language families; French, Spanish and Italian are all descended from Latin, for example. If you're fluent in one language from a particular family, achieving a passable familiarity with one or two of the others is relatively easy.
    • English is descended from Old German, but mixed with enough French words and Latinate grammar to make English and German mutually unintelligible.
    • While Finnish is closely related to Estonian and less closely to Hungarian, often getting put into a "Finno-Ugric" or "Uralic" group. A better example of an isolate language spoken in Europe is Basque (which likely is just an orphan of a pre-Indo-European, native family).
  • The US Army has an entire MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and a university-level school devoted to foreign languages. In practice, however, finding the best linguists generally means recruiting native speakers. The military also employs huge numbers of contracted civilian linguists. Unless you are in a SOF (Special Operations Force) element, these linguists will be unarmed and fit the trope perfectly.
  • Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been taught local phrases to help "win hearts and minds".
  • A similar incident is talked about in the book Chasing Ghosts, by Paul Rieckhoff. The author, a vet of the current Iraq War, tells a short story of how his grandfather was born in Germany and immigrated to America in the 1930s. Fluent in German, he was drafted immediately when World War II broke out ... and was sent to fight against the Japanese. This example is not as ridiculous as it sounds, though: the Germans were masters of spycraft and infiltration, so sending a soldier with potentially conflicted loyalties to a different theater was a good idea. They did the same thing with Japanese-Americans who volunteered in the armed forces to escape the American concentration camps; the famous 442nd Infantry Regiment served with distinction in Europe and was called the "Purple Heart Regiment" for its high number of combat injuries (its most famous veteran, Sen. Daniel Inouye, lost his arm in the Italian campaign).
    • There is also the case that a large number of army linguists in Iraq and Afghanistan today do not know Arabic (Iraq), Pashto, or Dari (Afghanistan). There is some logic to that, since no one expected to be in either place for very long (oops), and never know where they will get sent next. For decades, the most desirable language for military linguists was Russian, for obvious reasons. The personnel policies never changed due to, dare say it, bureaucratic numbers games.
      • Of course, given that not all of the people fighting in those countries are from those countries, it might be handy to have linguists for other languages present (for instance, they have found at least a few of the insurgents in Afghanistan to be Chinese, mostly of the ethnic Uyghur minority). Whether or not that's why those linguists are in those countries, or if they're seeing much use for such circumstances, is another thing entirely.
      • Also many Taliban members are Urdu speakers from Pakistan.
  • On an individual level, few can compete with Israel's first ambassador to the United Nations and third foreign minister, Abba Eban. A South African of English and Dutch Jewish descent raised in the UK, Eban spoke no fewer than ten languages according to The Other Wiki. He knew Arabic—Arabic!—well enough to produce a good translation of at least one classic of modern Arabic literature into Hebrew, spoke English better than anyone Henry Kissinger had ever seen, and is reported to have had an impressive command of Hebrew, as well.
    • All Israelis past, say, elementary school speak English well enough to get by. You don’t have to ask people whether or not they speak English in Israel, which some find to be a neat perk.
    • Hebrew and Arabic are fairly closely related languages to begin with and Israel itself has a large Arab and Arabic-speaking minority (in addition to more obvious complicated relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors). A large number of Israelis, especially those in military, intelligence, or diplomatic services, speak excellent Arabic, albeit often with a fairly distinctive accent.
  • Members of small nations tend to be Cunning Linguists. Since nobody will learn their language anyway as it is likely to be all too insignificant, they are adept on learning foreign languages. Every Finn is likely to understand not only Finnish, but also Estonian (which is close enough to Finnish to be understood), Swedish and English. Many also speak Russian, German, French and/or Japanese.
    • It is possible to learn four foreign languages in Finnish comprehensive schools and fifth in high school.
      • If you study to become a Lutheran priest in Finland, you have to learn Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Making you fluent enough to understand not only those languages, but also Arabic and all Romance languages to some extent.
    • Of course, even larger European nations tend to put more of a focus on learning foreign languages. An average student in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany, for example, is taught English from grade 3 to 12/13, Latin or French from grade 6, then has an option to learn Spanish, Italian, or whatever his school offers, from grade 8, and might have an option to take up Latin or French (if he doesn't have it already) in grades 11 and 12.
      • The biggest aversion to this, of course, is the UK. As most other countries in the world tend to learn even at least a very basic amount of English - as a "common language" to get by - and since there are so many other languages in the world, all of which Brits would have to learn dependant on where they wanted to go, most Brits only learn one or maybe two major European languages (and with varying degrees of success, at that). The first phrase a lot of British schoolkids learn in another language is "Do you speak English?" (Or more laughably, "Sorry, I do not speak <language>"). Also most other nations dislike hearing the peculiar way that Brits tend to mangle foreign languages, and would prefer them to simply speak English. The major problem was that until relatively recently, British schoolchildren didn't even start to learn a second language until the age of eleven, which neurologists now believe is after the optimal period in the brain's development for learning them. This was finally addressed around the turn of the millennium, and hopefully this should bear fruit in the next decade.
  • Many tennis players are knowledgeable in multiple languages due to regularly traveling around the globe, especially those who were born in a non-Anglo country and hence had to learn how to speak at least passable English to be able to give mainstream press interviews. The most famous example of this is Roger Federer who's proficient in English, French, Swiss German, and plain German and won a great deal of respect from international media and fans by regularly speaking to foreign crowds in their native tongue. Another good example is Novak Djokovic who's fluent in Serbian, English, and Italian and can also speak passable French and German.
  • The Pope tends, in modern times, to be this ("Catholic" means "universal", after all, and the papacy is one of the few truly international office in the world) : Italian is required (since the Pope is the bishop of Rome and Vatican employees are mostly Italians) and so are pretty much Latin (official language of the Catholic Church) and French (language of the Vatican diplomacy) and English will probably become more and more indispensable as *the* international language ; other European languages (German for Pius XII and Benedict XVI, Polish and Russian for John Paul II, etc) are a plus. Averted in the case of Pius X (coming from a poor Italian family he only knew Italian and Latin) and the current Pope Francis (he only knows Spanish and Italian and only use the later in public appearances, a far cry from his two immediate predecessors).


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