Sometimes, when a role in a film or TV show requires a character to speak in a certain language, and there are no suitable actors available that are fluent in it, one takes the actors available and have them learn their lines by rote. This creates a unusual situation where the actors who do this do not truly understand what their own characters are saying. Can sound very grating to viewers who are fluent in the language the actor is attempting to speak, as they are guaranteed to mispronounce and have problems with intonation.
It's either this or As Long as It Sounds Foreign
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Anime and Manga
- The DVD Commentary for the English dub of Princess Tutu says that Chris Patton had memorize Fakir's German spell in Akt 8 off of a recording one of the staff (that luckily knew German) prepared for him. Takahiro Sakurai likely had to do something similar.
- When Yuko Miyamura was hired to voice the German-Japanese Asuka Langley Soryu in Neon Genesis Evangelion, she taught herself a little German. Unfortunately she didn't know that Asuka wasn't going to speak more than a scene's worth of German in the anime.
- In the second Rebuild of Evangelion, Kaji and Mari speak English. Mari does OK, but Kaji's accent is practically unintelligible without subtitles.
- Ohno's conversations with her American friends in the anime version of Genshiken.
- Simon from Durarara!! has a conversation with a pair of Russian tourists in Russian and later one with Izaya. It is painfully obvious that none of their voice actors has any familiarity with Russian. Simon's speech is at least somewhat understandable, but Izaya's doesn't even register as Russian.
- Revy from Black Lagoon is a New Yorker. Bet you can't tell.
- Russian there is no better. At least they get a grammar right.
- Similarly to the Durarara!! example, Last Exile: Fam, the Silver Wing feature a lot of Russian-speaking characters. They do a fair job, but their accents are still very grating. Except Viola, whose seiyuu is a native Russian.
- When Billy Crystal toured his standup routine in Russia, he began with a live 5+ minute segment in Russian, in which he is otherwise ignorant.
- The otherwise quite entertaining Korean drama Joint Security Area suffers from this; the UN investigator unraveling the mystery at the DMZ is a Korean actress who obviously learned her English lines phonetically.
- When Japanese actor Eiji Okada played the male lead in Hiroshima Mon Amour, his role required him to deliver a lot of lines in French. He did not know this language, so he was given tapes with his lines recorded and memorized them. His actual delivery is quite convincing, with the words flowing well and his accent not overly thick.
- Happened in Mambo Kings as well. The trivia section at IMDB claims that "Antonio Banderas couldn't speak English when this movie was filmed, and thus performed all his lines phonetically. Armand Assante couldn't speak Spanish, and thus performed all his lines phonetically."
- Happened in the French movie Wasabi: the female lead is Japanese, and didn't speak a word of French, so she had to memorise all her lines.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was in Mandarin, but many of its leads were Cantonese speakers. This is one of the reasons that it was received much more favorably internationally, by audiences who were oblivious to accent problems and had to read the subtitles.
- Christopher Lambert did this with his role in Highlander. He actually did speak a few words of English at the time, but nowhere near the level of fluency Connor MacLeod displays.
- Doug Jones (who played the part of the faun in Pan's Labyrinth) was the only American on the set and the only one who didn't speak Spanish. He had to memorize his own lines in Spanish and also Ivana Baquero's (Ofelia's) lines so he knew when to speak his next line. Unfortunately, the servos in the Pan suit that made the facial expressions and ears move were so loud, he couldn't hear her speak, and his accent wasn't good enough anyway; they later had a native speaker re-dub his lines.
- Of course, this would have to be the case anyway (masks makes people unintelligible more or less).
- Peter Lorre initially spoke very little English, so his lines in his early films were learned phonetically.
- Several actors in Syriana had to do this: George Clooney does not speak either Farsi or Arabic, but had to converse in both, and Alexander Siddig, whose character Prince Nasir speaks Arabic almost exclusively for the first half of the film, speaks no Arabic whatsoever- he is of Sudanese extraction but grew up in London.
- Takashi Miike's spaghetti-western tribute Sukiyaki Western Django is cast entirely with Japanese actors speaking English lines, many of whom appear to be speaking phonetically. It's made worse by the fact that some are even trying to affect cowboy drawls. Subtitles are fairly necessary.
- Jan Vlasák's character (the Dutch businessman) in Hostel speaks English almost exclusively throughout the film, yet he had to memorise his lines since he doesn't speak a word of English. The German businessman who tortures Jay Hernandez is played by a Czech actor, while Hernandez (who is Mexican-American) pleads for his life in fluent German. Vlasák is Czech as well, making his English lines even more impressive as he speaks them in a perfect Dutch accent.)
- Averted in the Robin Williams movie Moscow on the Hudson. Williams actually spent 3-6 months learning conversational Russian.
- When violent protests forced Indian director Deepa Meptha to shoot her film Water in Sri Lanka, the main character, who was only eight years old, ended up being played by a local girl who had to learn all her lines phonetically. Stunningly well.
- Although he does speak English more or less fluently, most of the (English speaking) films Jackie Chan makes feature him speaking much more naturally and easily than he himself can. One outtake for one of the Rush Hour films features him making fun of Chris Tucker for being unable to pronounce his 3 words of Chinese after having made fun of Chan's English.
- The sequel has Chris Tucker's character constantly try to speak Chinese, only to keep saying things to the effect of My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels.
- In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the man playing the Indian village shaman didn't speak a word of English. He delivered his lines by mimicking Steven Spielberg, who was prompting him off-camera. Spielberg also did hand actions while speaking the lines, which is why the shaman moves his hands across his forehead and such. The actress playing Willie Scott also had to learn the entire song at the beginning in Mandarin.
- Most or all of the actors in Incubus, a horror movie in Esperanto starring William Shatner.
- The 2002 motion picture Chicago featured a Hungarian inmate unable to speak anything but Hungarian. The role however was played by a Russian actress, Ekaterina Chtchelkanova, who most likely learned the lines phonetically. To a fluent Hungarian speaker the speech is muddled to the point of gibberish.
- In the first Charlies Angels movie the angels speak in a "secret language" that is actually badly mangled Finnish. They had to subtitle the dialogue even in the Finnish edit of the film.
- Gong Li learned her lines phonetically for Memoirs of a Geisha.
- When filming Blackadder Back and Forth, Stephen Fry wasn't able to learn his Roman centurion's Latin lines by rote and had to read them off an "idiot board". That's right, Stephen Fry is not fluent in Latin - sorry to ruin your expectations.
- In Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, only John Barrowman and a tiny handful of his costars spoke English. All the other actors are from Bulgaria (where the movie was filmed) and had to memorize their lines.
- Viggo Mortensen has, by rote, spoken Russian, Japanese, the Sioux dialect Lakota, and Sindarin, although nobody is quite certain of the phonology of the last one as it's one of the languages created by J. R. R. Tolkien.
- Some of the early Hal Roach talkies starring Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase, etc. were filmed in multiple foreign language versions for the European market. Often, the secondary characters would be replaced with native speakers, but the stars would learn their parts phonetically. Improvement of dubbing and subtitling techniques eventually made this cumbersome process obsolete.
- Ron Perlman memorized all of his lines for his part in the French movie The City of Lost Children (La Cité des enfants perdus).
- Mark Wahlberg's few words of mangled Hebrew in Date Night make it clear that there's no way he could have actually understood his character's Israeli girlfriend.
- Legendary Danish monster movie Reptilicus was originally done entirely with Danish actors speaking English phonetically. The producer didn't believe they were incomprehensible until he played it for some Americans. He then had it redubbed with native English speakers.
- Even though he had already lived a decade in the US, Arnold Schwarzenegger still spoke with a thick Austrian accent when he did Conan the Barbarian, which is the main reason Conan speaks so little in the film. He was originally supposed to be the narrator of the film as well, but when his poor English made that implausible, the narration was handed over to Mako instead.
- In the movie of The Kite Runner, some of the adult actors had to learn their lines in Farsi (also known as Dari). It's not painfully obvious because child actors who played young Amir and Hassan were native speakers, and they are the only characters really in the first half of the movie.
- The Interpreter avoided this by making up a language (Ku) and a country (Matobo).
- Michael Caine had to speak a few lines of French in The Quiet American where he played a journalist that had been living in French Indochina (Vietnam) for years when the movie begins. His French is horrible - his first line "Pyle est mort" (Pyle is dead) is near intelligible.
- In Limitless, Bradley Cooper's character becomes an Omniglot after taking special pills. While Cooper speaks fluent French in real life, his Mandarin Chinese, during a scene where he speaks to a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in the final scene, leaves much to be desired.
- The second Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie has Angelina Jolie speak horribly-mangled Mandarin to a family living on a boathouse in Hong Kong. This is made worse by the fact that the conversational dialect in Hong Kong is Cantonese though some speak Mandarin.
- In the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still 2008, Keanu Reeves' Klaatu speaks to an elderly man (who is really an alien disguised in human form) in Mandarin Chinese. It's a valiant effort, but still pretty bad.
- Russell Wong had to learn his lines in Mandarin for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor phonetically, because even though he is ethnic Chinese, he was born and raised in the States.
- Averted with his brother Michael, who regularly shows up in Hong Kong movies. Rather than force him to speak Cantonese fluently, they mostly let him speak American English.
- James Hong struggles through most of his Mandarin lines as a Triad mob boss in Safe, maybe because he was born in America, moved to Hong Kong for his early education, and moved back when he was ten.
- In an example combined with Same Language Dub, Gert Frobe played Goldfinger while speaking phonetically, as he was a German who didn't know English (though he spoke too slowly, and the footage had to sped up for the dubbing).
- The Pink Panther featured the Italian-language song "Meglio Stasera". It was performed by American singer-actress Fran Jeffries, who learned the lyrics phonetically.
Live Action TV
- James Kyson Lee is Korean-American and does not actually speak Japanese. He did extensive work with dialect coaches to get a convincing accent on both the Japanese and English dialogue. One of the episode commentaries includes him observing that now he sounds fluent, but the only Japanese phrases he knows are ones that will never come up in conversation.
- Straight-up inverted by Masi Oka (Hiro), who speaks Japanese better than the scriptwriters did. Now they just write all of Hiro's dialogue in English, and Masi translates it (while inserting a few jokes of his own).
- The American/Canadian cast had to do this to learn how to say their Mandarin profanities. The words still come out mangled, but this makes sense for loanwords used by non-native speaking characters. (In the commentary, Nathan Fillion recounts the problem that the language tapes were a calm dictation, while they were trying to apply while acting with emotion, and something would get lost in the process.)
- The announcers for the Fruity Oaty Bars commercial from The Movie painstakingly practiced the pronunciation of the product's English name, but it's as mangled as the Mandarin.
- Daniel Dae Kim was raised in America and spoke almost no Korean prior to being cast in a role that required him to speak it almost exclusively. Ironically, his wife, who is fluent in English, is played by the Korean actress Yunjin Kim, who speaks English as a second language with a real Korean accent. She helped Daniel Dae Kim learn Korean for the role, while her character helps his character learn English in the show.
- Naveen Andrews does not actually speak Arabic, but Sayid does in flashbacks.
- Mark Pellegrino, as Jacob, does a quite average job at speaking Korean to Jin and Sun in the Season 5 finale. Despite this, Jin and Sun reflect that his Korean is 'excellent'
- Monty Python's Flying Circus produced two 45-minute episodes for German TV. The fact that the shows even included improv suggests that at least some of them really did speak some German.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- The writers translated an entire scene in one episode to (mostly) correct Swedish. They planned on dubbing over the scene with native speakers, but Abraham Benrubi and Emma Caulfield learned their lines and read them without any coaching. Whedon decided to leave their performance intact, though Swedish speakers would swear that they're speaking gibberish.
- Then again, to a modern Swedish speaker the language spoken in Scandinavia back then would sound like gibberish, and many actually thought that that was what it was.
- One episode of Scrubs had a patient say, "I lived in Kyoto for about five years" in Japanese. She clearly didn't spend those five years learning the language...
- On one episode of Dollhouse, Echo was briefly given an imprint of a Russian girl. The unaired pilot had her speaking Spanish. Eliza Dushku's attempt at Russian was better than expected, but she fumbled with pronunciation and inflection.
- Daniel Jackson from Stargate SG-1 is said to be fluent in 23 languages and is shown speaking English, Ancient Egyptian, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and German (not to mention the made-up languages) in the show. Presumably, Michael Shanks is not fluent in all of these languages. Additionally, any of the actors playing Goa'uld who speak Ancient Egyptian or other older languages feature this trope as well.
- Well, considering that, in the show, Goa'uld is a completely made-up language, it would stand to reason that nobody would be fluent in it. Then again, the main actors (except for Christopher Judge) seem to have trouble even saying "Goa'uld" correctly without mangling it into "Gould", even Michael Shanks, who is playing a supposed linguist. This is brought up later where an official report actually spelled it as "Gould", forcing SG-1 to correct it.
- Many English speakers already have trouble pronouncing certain dipthongs — in this case, "Goa'uld" with its three consecutive vowel sounds (a "tripthong?") just does not roll off the tongue very easily. The variant pronunciations on the show probably accurately reflect the way many speakers shorten/simplify such difficult words as a matter of course in real life.
- Aside from this, most of the words in the Goa'uld language aren't actually that hard to pronounce for English-speakers. A few, like "chaapa'ai" (Goa'uld for "stargate") are more difficult and are thus barely used. Then you have gems like "Tacluchnatagamuntoron", which was spoken only once for the duration of the whole show (and the devices in question weren't mentioned or used after that).
- Yoko Shimada knew very little English when cast as Mariko in the 1980's miniseries, Shogun and relied heavily on acting coaches to learn her lines. Filming took so long that by the end of filming she was much more fluent and able to do her lines with little trouble. Ironic since she was playing a translator.
- Japanese director Takashi Miike's Masters of Horror contribution, "Imprint", was filmed in English for American television, yet he only cast one American. The rest of the Japanese cast learned their lines phonetically, with the exception of the female lead, who was already fluent.
- Ross Martin co-starred in two television series, The Wild Wild West and Mr. Lucky, as characters who were fluent in languages other than English. Fortunately, Martin himself was fluent in six such languages and therefore managed to avert this trope (for the most part) in both shows.
- There's nobody alive who would believe you if you said Koda Kumi wasn't taught the English translation of her song "Real Emotion" (from the Final Fantasy X-2 soundtrack) by being locked in a room with a dictionary and a tutor. English-fluent Jade from Sweetbox was eventually given the song.
- The French-Canadian singer Celine Dion learned to sing her first batch of English-language songs this way.
- Ritchie Valens' La Bamba.
- Opera - many opera singers learn their music phonetically, as most opera is in French, German, or Italian; even if they speak one of the languages, knowing three is rare.
- Stephen Colbert did this in his song "He's Singing In Korean".
- The Beatles did this when they were required to do German versions of two of their songs (the producer not realising that they did not speak German).
- Agnetha and Anni-Frid spoke no English when they began singing with ABBA, and had to learn the lyrics this way.
- Supposedly, the Dutch band Shocking Blue learned the English lyrics of "Venus" that way.
- Kaho Shimada, who played Eponine in the Tokyo production of Les Misérables, didn't speak any English when she was asked to sing for the Complete Symphonic Recording (which is, of course, in English). She learned all of her songs phonetically, and overall sounded great, even managing a bit of a lower-class English accent in the process.
- Over the last few years, there have been several actors from non-German-language productions of Tanz Der Vampire recreating their roles in Germany; most, if not all of them, have had to learn their roles phonetically.
- Nearly happened in Metal Gear Solid 3 — Akio Ohtsuka was more than willing to do all the Russian dialogue in rote-learned Russian but the supporting cast revolted.
- The Playstation 3 reboot of Siren at least seems that the token Japanese Herovillain's English is simply being read off a script, and the speaker doesn't understand a word of it. Or if he does, he must have one hell of a speech impediment.
- An awful, awful attempt at speaking Russian was made by Boris in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines.
- World of Warcraft has had varying results when it comes to portraying the indigenous languages. The worst case is arguably the blood elves, whose voice actors pronounce every word of their language with a very clear American accent.
- For Assassins Creed II, the non-Italian voice actors were coached by native Italians so this could be avoided.
- They do, however, have every Italian in the game use the same dialect, which was not the case during that time period. We can chalk this up to the Animus 2.0, though.
- In general, the Chinese characters in Fallout 3 pronounce and inflect their lines too badly to be intelligible to the typical Chinese-speaking player.
- Then there's the 18th-century samurai in the "Mothership Zeta" DLC. You can't understand him at all, even if you happen to know the language. Unfortunately, the subtitles are transliterations of his words, which means you can't even put them through a Japanese-English translator. Then again, a modern Japanese person would have a hard time understanding someone from 18th-century speaking their period language.
- In Grand Theft Auto IV, there are a few scenes where Niko has to speak his native language. (Let's just leave it at that.) Fans from the Balkans complained that he sounded like an American faking a weird English/Italian/Russian accent. On the other hand, they managed to get actual Russians to play some of the Russian roles (like Dimitri) and, obviously, they performed well.
- In Indiana Jones And The Emperors Tomb, Indy's attempt at speaking Chinese is pretty miserable and, quite glaringly, some of the characters who are meant to be ethnic Chinese in the game get quite a lot of the pinyin tones wrong.
- Family Guy featured an episode with ten or so Thai women escaping from various places in Quagmire's garage while Quagmire shouts at them in Thai; Seth MacFarlane (Quagmire's voice actor) was taught phrases in Thai by one of the writers (Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, who speaks it fluently and provided the voices for every one of the girls). This is pointed out in the commentary, which goes on to say that it's almost certainly self-deprecating humor.
- Clarence Nash, original voice actor for Donald Duck used phonetic scripts in order to dub the character in any language needed so that the character's Speech Impediment would be internationally known.
- Tara Strong, who as a youth, performed in Yiddish theatre without any fluency in the language, by learning her lines phonetically. This caused some confusion when the old ladies there tried to tell her (in Yiddish!) how much they loved her.
- Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one of Napoleon's marshals, became king of Sweden (and later Norway) but never learned Swedish except for a few random words. His speeches were always written phonetically, but apparently no one understood them anyway.
- As a weird subversion of sorts, King Gustav III of Sweden was shot and cried out "I have been shot!"... in French! That's because Gustav III lived in a time when all nobles in all of Europe spoke French with each other. Also, he hated making those speeches, and he surrounded himself with bilingual Swedes.
- Like Bernadotte was put in charge of Sweden, Napoleon put his younger brother Louis Napoleon on the Dutch throne. Louis Napoleon was unexpectedly compassionate with his subjects, genuinely trying to take care of his land (which eventually cost him the job as Napoleon did not exactly like softies). Although he did not learn any Dutch (no uniform Dutch language existed at the time), when severe floods hit the Netherlands once again, he went to inspect the damage and victims himself, and tried to instill hope by uttering a few words of Dutch he had memorised, saying he was the king of Holland. He did not exactly succeed though; reportedly, what he said was "Iek ben konijn van 'Olland", which translates to "I am the rabbit of Holland".
- George I of Great Britain, the first British ruler from the German House of Hanover, was similarly ridiculed for not speaking the local vernacular, though actual documents suggest he did eventually learn the language by the end of his reign. It certainly gives new meaning to King's English, though.
- William the Conqueror, on the other hand, tried to learn
English Anglo-Saxon and failed.
- Likewise, Richard Lionheart never learned to speak English; not that he had much need, since he only spent a couple of years of his life in the country he supposedly ruled - he was much better a general than a king.
- None of the kings of England for over 300 years, from the Conquest to the seizure of the throne by Henry IV in 1399, spoke English as their first language or at court. Most of them didn't speak it at all. French was the language of the English court as well as the rest of England's government and legal system.
- European monarchs throughout history, in fact, have often not spoken the language of the common people they ruled. As Bill Bryson notes, the common people didn't expect to speak like their monarchs any more than they expected to live or dress like them...
- Pope Benedict XVI is known in Poland for occasionally blessing the pilgrims in Polish. The texts of blessings are written for him phonetically in German. Still, it's nice of him.
- Lots of Jewish kids do this at their Bar/Bat-Mitzvahs for their Torah portion (which is not only written Hebrew without vowels, but has to be sung in a specific way based on symbols that are also not present in the text itself).
- Muslims often do this too, as obligatory prayers must be done entirely in Classical Arabic. This results in non-Arabs doing rote memorization. Also, there are stories about lost pilgrims in Mecca trying to get some help by reciting few phrases they remember from the Qur'an. Their pronunciations are passable, but their vocabulary... Hilarity Ensues.
- Apparently Barack Obama made an ad in Spanish even though he doesn't speak that language, just with a good ear and a little help from his assistants.
- Somewhat surprising since his improvised accent in a speech in Puerto Rico (in English, mind, with the accent placed on Spanish words) ranged from hilariously over the top to not even trying.
- It's normal for infomercials to be aired in a different language to the one it was filmed in; typically they use a dub in the new language over the original video using a native speaker. Vince Offer (who is Israeli) was presumably so confident (or arrogant) about his ability as the next Billy Mays that he attempted to sell ShamWow cloths in a language he can't even speak.
- Some people may have only a basic knowledge of a foreign language, but when drunk they inexplicably step it up to a much higher fluency, with surprising success. This is likely due to increased confidence and reduced inhibitions, and, in turn, an increased willingness to make educated guesses at phrases that may otherwise be uncertain in sobriety.
- That and the fact that the speaker is more relaxed. It's actually how a lot of soldiers in foreign countries actually learn the language in the first place, a sheet, or three, to the wind.
- Similar to the papal example above, John F. Kennedy did practice his famous Ich bin ein Berliner! with the help of a note where this sentence was written down phonetically◊.
- Pakistan's National Anthem is not in Urdu or English (the official languages of the country) but in Farsi. At the time of adoption, most educated Pakistanis were fluent in it (somewhat like how many educated Westeners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries could speak French). Today.......not so much. So most Pakistanis learn it phonetically.
- Averted in Singapore. The national anthem is in Malay, the language of their northern neighbor from which they seceded, while most Singaporeans speak English and other languages. Most students simply observe a respectful silence when it is played.
- Not so. As a Singaporean, I grew up singing the anthem despite knowing very little Bahasa. I can still sing it now, despite having left school for more than fifteen years.