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Language Barrier
At least uncomfortable smiles are cross-cultural.

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 interpreters. 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 like 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 faces 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, Omniglot, Language of Love and Bilingual Dialogue. Supertrope to Hiding Behind the Language Barrier.

Truth in Television.

See also the list of other Language Tropes.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime and Manga  
  • In A Certain Magical Index:
    • Touma and Index win a trip to Italy. Touma gets separated from Index and ends up needing Orsola Aquinas' help because he can't understand Italian.
    • Later, Touma tries really hard to learn other languages besides Japanese to avoid this problem, but doesn't make much progress.
    • The character Cendrillon only speaks French, so usually only Mikoto can understand her.
    • Toyed with in a scene where Mikoto meets the New Light magic cabal. They start out speaking in Japanese for her benefit, but when they briefly switch to English, it turns out Mikoto speaks fluent English as well, so they continue in that language.
  • In Dog Days, while the people in the land of Flonyard speak Japanese, their written language does not look like any Earth language at all. This leads to hilarity since Cinque can't read anything, like the fine print on the portal that brought him to the land, and when he goes into the girl's bath by mistake. In the second season, he's learned enough to read and write the language.
  • In The Familiar of Zero, Saito, a Japanese boy, is summoned to Halkeginia. He and the other characters are unable to understand each other until Louise accidentally casts a translation spell. Presumably, the other people from Earth who ended up here in the past had similar situations. Later, Tabitha teaches Saito how to read their language. On the flipside, when the group finds ruins marked in Japanese, Saito is the only one who can read them.
  • In The Circumstances Leading To Waltraute's Marriage, Asgard's written language is different from Midgard's. Waltraute's horse learns this to his dismay when he tries to communicate with Jack by writing on the ground with his hoof.
  • In BECK, bi-national siblings Ryusuke and Maho are bilingual, but most of the other characters - including main character Koyuki - speak only Japanese, and a few incidental characters speak only English. Koyuki's utter failure to understand a word of English despite singing in it is played for not-comedy when he runs into some of Maho's American friends, who callously make fun of him to his face, and he has no idea.

     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.

     Fan Fiction  

     Film - Animated  
  • Pocahontas: It appears it will be the case when the titular character meets John Smith as we get to hear her speak in her native tongue, but a magic swirling of leaves breaks down the barrier in seconds, making it a case of Indians Speaking English and Language of Love.
  • In Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo, none of the Titans, except Starfire, can speak or read Japanese, which poses a slight problem when they go to Japan. When Beast Boy tries to flirt with some Japanese girls, they call him an Otaku, but he doesn't understand what that means and just assumes they are calling him cute. Later, he assumes that a girl is sweet-talking him, while she's really saying stuff like, "Prepare to Die!" and is completely caught off guard when she tries to kill him.

     Film - Live Action  
  • Chicago: A young Hungarian woman is 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. She doesn't speak English except "not guilty" and nobody bothered to get her a translator.
  • 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 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.
  • Titanic:
    • Jack and Rose are trying to escape the rapidly flooding ship when they run into a man who yells at them in a language they can't understand and then runs into a hallway. Jack and Rose try to warn him not to go that way, but he can't understand them and gets swept away by a rush of water when he opens a door.
    • One family fails to escape the ship because they can't read the English signs that were clearly pointing the ways toward the exits.
  • In Machete Kills, the assassin El Chameleon doesn't know Spanish, despite his codename. At one point, he tries to ask an old Mexican man for directions, but the man cannot understand him. Frustrated, El Chameleon kills him.

     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 français?" 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 Brontë'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. However, Sophie is later unfriendly and doesn't appreciate Jane's attempts to talk to her.
  • Charlotte Brontë'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 in a farcical routine, during which the Scarecrow offers him a seat, and Jack solemnly explains that since he [Jack] 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.
  • Frequently among the pan-European inmates of Auschwitz in Primo Levi's memoir If This Is a Man.
  • My Ántonia: When the Shimerdas came to Nebraska, they could use only several very basic (and not entirely correct) English expressions. Mr Shimerda asks Jim to teach his Antonia English and promises to give him his nice gun as a present once Jim grows up. Jim narrates about their language lessons and mentions how Czech language sounded to him when the Shimerdas talked to each other and he didn't understand. Mr Shimerda has a hard time in Nebraska and misses his home, but he cheers up a bit when he befriends two Ukrainian men (as Slavic languages are mutually comprehensible, if speakers try hard enough).
  • In A. Merrit's Lost World novels The Moon Pool and The Face In The Abyss, the heroes avert the trope by conversing with the Lost World natives in languages of the surrounding land (Aymara in the latter novel set in the Andes, "Polynesian" dialect of Ponape in the former). They get outside the realm of reality when they can express themselves as good as in their native tongue.

     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 others, 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": Defied. Mulder specifically takes his nemesis and Chew Toy Krycek to Russia to have an interpreter. 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 on Mash 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 cellphone 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 ethnic groups, 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's Flying Circus 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 slightly 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.
  • Naturally, this happens all the time on The Amazing Race when teams try to interact with locals.
  • 'Allo 'Allo!:
    • The British airmen Carstairs and Fairfax don't speak French, and Michelle is the only one in the Resistance who speaks English. People from Café René who hide them don't understand them a single word.
    • Averted with other characters who presumably speak their national languages (French, German, Italian) all the time, but understand each other just fine.
    • British agent Crabtree who poses as a French policeman speaks horrible "French" and speaks nearly entirely in malapropisms. What he means is usually confusing, but there is always someone who gets it and translates it to others.
  • LOST: Sun and Jin were Korean and knew no English, so they couldn't communicate with other survivors. Sun was sociable and secretly learnt the language. Jin became fluent in season 5.

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

     Video Games  
  • 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 speaks French, they can't understand each other, hence Michelle treats him like a possible menace. Luckily, the local Exposition Fairy Ako casts a spell that allows them to understand each other.
  • World of Warcraft has a language barrier that prevents Alliance and Horde players from communicating in-game.
  • ICO has the two protagonists speaking in different languages (both Conlangs), and unable to understand one another. They communicate mostly through gestures and wordless calls. Ico's speech is subtitled for the player's benefit, but Yorda's is written in strange pictograms, so it's unintelligible. The New Game+ allows you to understand Yorda's speech as well.

    Visual Novels 
  • Analogue: A Hate Story features a variant: Everyone aboard the Mugunghwa can speak Korean, including the Pale Bride. However, the Pale Bride can only write in hangul (an alphabet exclusive to the Korean language), which becomes a huge problem because everyone else aboard the ship, including her adopted family, can only write in hanja (Korean language using Chinese characters). As a result, the Pale Bride is dismissed as illiterate. It's also the same reason her family calls her the "Pale Bride", because they can't read her real name, Hyun-ae, because it's written in hangul; all they have to go off of is the decorative inscription in hanja on her cryogenic sleep capsule, which reads as "Pale Bride".

     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.
  • In one Harbourmaster storyline, "Pulp", Zefonith successfully clones with (almost) all his memories a frozen corpse of a twentieth-century American mountain climber ... who doesn't speak Standard. And Zefonith doesn't speak English.
  • In The Wretched Ones, Charlie and his sister, Kazuko, start a fight in Japanese while playing a multiplayer video game with Yayne, who does not speak the language. However, she is somehow able to recognize the word 'Motherfucker' from one of Kazuko's lines.
    • At the same time, while Charlie is playing the game, John is talking to his brother on the phone in French. He does this so that Charlie would not understand that he is talking about him behind his back.

     Web Original  
  • Red vs. Blue:
    • 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. Only Donut took four years of high school Spanish, and Grif's sister seems to have some amount of Spanish education. However, Lopez is quick to shut both of them up when they try to speak Spanish to him, or at least plead others do so while Donut says stock phrases to him. Lopez understands everyone else just fine and speaking Spanish TO Lopez doesn't accomplish anything.
    • The aliens speak in "honks" and "blargs", making them unintelligible to humans, but can understand the humans just fine.
  • The Autobiography of Jane Eyre: It appears that Susanna Maria Ramirez Gonzalez, a maid at Mr Rochester's house, doesn't speak very good English. Subverted in "Q&A 2" when Jane finds out she speaks perfect English, but prefers to speak only Spanish in front of Grace Poole because Grace is too intense and Susanna is Genre Savvy enough to know she shouldn't get involved in the weird stuff that might be happening in the house.

     Western Animation  
  • Animaniacs: Squit of the Goodfeathers had this problem once in "West Side Pigeons". Since he doesn't understand the Godpigeon's gibberish (and Bobby and Pesto weren't around to translate), Squit completely misinterprets the Godpigeon, thinking his love interest, Carloota, is in trouble.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "Simpson Safari", Homer enrages a hippo and the Simpsons must flee on a raft going down a river and thus lose their tour guide Kitenge. In the jungle, they encounter two ominous sounding tribesmen and Homer tries to hit them with a spear. However, they were actually saying very nice things, at least according to the subtitles.
    • In "The Real Housewives of Fat Tony", Fat Tony marries Selma. He tricks her, though, because she doesn't speak Italian and the wedding is officiated in Italian. Selma was asked to be Tony's mistress, not his wife.

     Real Life  
  • People with various types of aphasia essentially lose their language and ability to communicate well.
  • Chris Jericho has said that when he wrestled in Japan earlier in his career, he did not bother to learn Japanese. He survived because some of the Japanese wrestlers knew English.
  • From 1066 to the 1300s, England was ruled by monarchs who primarily spoke Norman and later French. Henry IV was the first to address his subjects in English (which, at that point, was very different from the English spoken by the subjects of William I), at his coronation, and it was the rebirth of English national identity during the Hundred Years War that prompted the later Plantagenets to adopt the language in an effort to appeal to their subjects.

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