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Cunning Linguist

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"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).

Not to Be Confused with The Power of Language, though these characters will often comment on that trope.



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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 voice actors 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 a 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 Lyrical Nanoha was revealed in StrikerS Sound Stage X to be very adept at reading and translating Ancient Belkan when Vivio needed some help doing research on the Mariage. She had since been used in ViVid as the go-to person for Ancient Belkan 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.
  • In Macross: Do You Remember Love?, Misa is shown able to understand Zentraedi language and, after some initial trouble, decipher the Protoculture one (from which the Zentraedi's derives). This allows her to translate the title song (originally a Protoculture song), and, indirectly, end the war in the good guys' favor when Minmay sings it.
  • Yakitate!! Japan has Pierrot, a world-class clown, who can speak in 135 languages and, as such, is able to communicate to all the participants of the Monaco Cup, who came from all around the globe.

    Comic Books 
  • X-Men
    • Doug Ramsey from New Mutants is this trope taken to its most extreme example. A study buddy of Kitty Pryde's, he turns out to have the mutant power to understand any language he encounters, in print, spoken, or otherwise transmitted. (In one of his early appearances he dejectedly noted that his ability allowed him to shout "Don't kill me!" in any language.) This includes computer code, and there are 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.
    • Various other members of the X-Men are also multilingual. In Giant-Sized X-Men #1, the first issue to introduce the "All-New All-Different" X-Men, Professor X recruited members from around the world, and telepathically downloaded knowledge of the English language into their minds to make communication easier. He has done this since on several occasions, and some of his students have learned other languages, either via telepathy or by simply studying them; Kitty Pryde has proven to be fluent in Russian, Japanese, German and Shi'ar.
    • Other non-obvious examples: Rogue is fluent in French from her childhood on the lower Mississippi and was among the X-Men whom Xavier telepathically taught Japanese before Wolverine's attempted wedding to Mariko Yashida. In an Avengers story, hyper-scholar Hank McCoy was able to converse in Latin. Having lived for over a century, both Wolverine and Mystique probably have yet to encounter a language they can't understand in a story.
  • 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.
  • In White Sand, Kenton knows several Dayside and Darkside languages, making him the translator of Khriss' group.
  • In Hunter's Hellcats, Snake Oil speaks several languages, and can speak Japanese well enough to pass as a native speaker (at least briefly).
  • Wonder Woman:
    • One of Wondy's most consistent traits is her wide array of known languages. Growing up on a peaceful island that promotes intellectual pursuits is helpful and Athena granted her an unnatural ability to pick up new languages quickly.
    • Wonder Woman (1987): Despite not having any languages in common with the earthlings to start with Nol Lapp and H'Elgn are able to teach Wondy and Natasha the pidgin language used by Sangtee Empire slaves, and teach Diana the language used by the ruling class.

    Comic Strips 

    Films — Animation 
  • Milo Thatch of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, to the point where he's the only one who can translate the Ancient Atlantean text carved into a wall to contemporary Atlanteans.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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 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 at 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.
  • Stargate, which came before the series, has 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 seems 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 Film Series
    • 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 Star Trek (2009), 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.
    “You brought me along because I speak Klingon. So let me speak Klingon."
    • Her understanding of speech patterns plays a pivotal role in Star Trek Beyond as her time attempting to negotiate with Krall allows her to identify his true identity of long-lost Starfleet captain Balthazar Edison from ship logs and reveal why he's so hell-bent on destroying the Yorktown station.
  • 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. (The third Austin Powers movie riffs on the innuendo in the trope name with the line "you might be a cunning linguist, but I'm a master debater!")
    • 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 input and processing)
      • It's played straight in ''The World Is Not Enough", when he masquerades as a Russian physicist, complete with heavily but believably Russian-accented English. However, when asked, in Russian, about his good (for a Russian) English, he answers in Russian that he studied at Oxford, in Russian apparently fluent enough to pass without comment.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • The same can be said of Diane Kruger, who plays Bridget von Hammersmarck and is also trilingual in English, French, and German.
    • 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, 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.
  • In Destination Tokyo (1943) an officer is brought along on a surveillance mission because (although he is not Asian) he grew up in Japan. He knows the area around Tokyo Bay and is also fluent in Japanese. They will transmit their coded information in Japanese so it will take longer for the Japanese to realize it's a foreigner sending it.
  • Early in Halo: Nightfall ONI and the Sedrans are trying to get information on a Covenant terrorist attack out of an alien prisoner named Axl. Col. Randall Aiken is trying and failing at the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique when Jameson Locke and the ONI team walk in, and Locke then rather quickly gets the information they need by speaking Axl's language and playing Good Cop/Bad Cop.
  • In WarCraft, Garona is the only character to speak both human and orc tongues, and acts as a translator during the meeting between Llane and Durotan. She's also seen translating Draenai's pleas to Gul'dan early in the movie, and it's implied that Gul'dan keeps her around in part to be his translator.
  • Louise Banks from Arrival is the foremost expert on linguistics in the USA, and it's the reason she's invited into the research team in order to communicate with the aliens called the Heptapods landed on Earth. She eventually becomes the only one to crack the heptapods' language enough to rewire her brain into it.
  • Wonder Woman (2017): Sameer combines skills with at least four languages with being an effective Con Man and actor.
  • In Taxi 2, German exchange cop Petra surprises Commissaire Gibert with her Japanese skills. He should have known about them because they're mentioned in her file, but they're mentioned after her measurements where he stopped reading.

  • In the young adult series by John Bellairs that begins with The Curse of the Blue Figurine, recurring character Professor 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 The 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. Gaunt and all members of his team who took part in the Gereon mission learned how to speak the language of the great enemy. This proves to be useful later on few occasions. For example, in Blood Pact Rawne uses his fluent knowledge of the enemy language to distract a Blood Trooper assassin long enough to kill him.
  • 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.
  • Edmund Dantes, in The Count of Monte Cristo:
    I adopt all customs, speak all languages. You believe me to be a Frenchman, for I speak French with the same facility and purity as yourself. Well, Ali, my Nubian, believes me to be an Arab; Bertuccio, my steward, takes me for a Roman; Haidee, my slave, thinks me a Greek...
  • 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
  • In The Thorn Birds, Father Ralph is one and so is his son Dane (something else that should have tipped him off to the fact that the boy was his), but it's also an Informed Ability, as there are few scenes where either of them get to demonstrate this.
  • In the novel Destination Tokyo an officer is brought along on a surveillance mission because (although he is not Asian) he grew up in Japan. He knows the area around Tokyo Bay and is also fluent in Japanese. They will transmit their coded information in Japanese so it will take longer for the Japanese to realize it's a foreigner sending it. The book is much darker than the movie (see above) in that In the movie the officer is a happy well adjusted man and is taken back on the sub after the mission. In the book we find that his marriage broke up after his wife accused him of being ruined by his upbringing in Japan - she called him a "White Jap"). In the book he knows in advance that it is too dangerous for the sub to wait to pick him up and knows he will be left behind. At the end of the book he is challenged by someone and uses an authoritative manner to get out of it, making the challenger think he is someone not to mess with. He thinks this may buy him a few more days before he is inevitably captured, tortured and executed.
  • The Secret Garden: Mary's upbringing by Indian servants exposed her to various dialects from birth, and she was formally taught French. Several times, she tries to imitate the broad Yorkshire accent under the impression that it is a different language (which isn't exactly a stretch).
  • Wolf Hall: Starting as a boy, Thomas Cromwell picks up Welsh from his brother-in-law. When he goes to the continent to flee his father and seek his fortune, he picks up Italian and French serving as a mercenary soldier, as well as Latin and Spanish, and then Flemish when he works as a cloth merchant in the Low Countries. All of this proves terribly useful as Master Secretary to Henry VIII (though he eventually loses the Welsh when he gets older).
  • In Babel-17, the protagonist, Rydra Wong, is an actual linguist, a poet, and generally a master of languages. She is able to recognize that Babel-17 is actually a language, and not just a code, after seeing just a few poorly transcribed examples.
  • Aya in the Tantei Team KZ Jiken Note series bears the epithet of "the Language Expert," after all. While the franchise doesn't have many occasions involving foreign languages (and it'd more than likely to be French if there is), in those occasions she learns the languages in question—computer languages included—in semi-Instant Expert speed.
  • The first Horatio Hornblower novel has the title character's ship sent to prop up a Nicaraguan rebellion largely because he knows Spanish. He's also the captain assigned to lead a joint operation between British and Spanish forces in Spain for the same reason. (Both ventures are miserable flops for various reasons.) Interestingly, his French is said to be poor in these books until he overwinters in a French household, but stories set earlier in his career have him quite fluent and establish that he learned it from an expatriate tutor as a boy—evidently as his service took him hither and thither, his French skills rusted and his Spanish (learned later during a two-year spell as a prisoner of war) improved. Because he's trilingual, Hornblower tends to be uncomfortable when he does confront a language he doesn't know and has to rely on someone else's interpretation skills.
  • Joanna Bonifacio of Smaller & Smaller Circles is not only a cunning reporter, but also a linguist who speaks six languages: besides English and Tagalog, she knows French, German, Japanese, and Italian. What's more, she switches languages in her head depending on the situation—Japanese for heavy traffic, French for annoying people, German when she needs money … and Italian for, presumably, special cases—like discovering the Serial Killer's next victim.
  • In The Great God's War, there is Tchwee, a man whose innate understanding of language is so advanced that he only needs to hear a language spoken for a while to become able to speak it fluently himself. Or at least that's how he explains being able to speak the Bellegerin language despite claiming never to have heard of the country itself - it's not exactly clear how honest he is.
  • In military thriller, Victoria, former Marine officer John Rumford is an eminent polyglot: In addition to his native English, he knows German, French, Spanish, Latin, and apparently at least a little Russian and Greek. Justified at least in part by his military education and experience, as well as his private interest in the classics.
  • In Invasion: Earth, Nadia Adrianova is a Russian linguist, assigned as the Soviet representative in humanity's dealings with the Oinn. Naturally, Nadia starts learning the Oinn language, despite Hes'bu being clearly reluctant to teach her. Besides her native Russian, Nadia speaks fluent English and Spanish. When negotiating with the hostile Blettr, Nadia is shocked to discover that these other aliens speak the same language as the Oinn. This is what tips off the human authorities that the Oinn and the Blettr are actually working together to scam Earth out of its resources.
  • In "Okuyyuki", Reilly's spirit-possessed katana teaches him flawless Japanese. His buddies aren't surprised to hear him speak it, either; in their experience, he usually comes up with even weirder things than that.
  • In "JoeLedger", Joe Ledger describes himself as a student of languages, from the first book, Patient Zero, he got on a Homeland task force because he could speak Farsi and other Middle Eastern languages that the people they were wire tapping spoke in. Throughout the series, Joe has demonstrated a knack for many languages, including Farsi, German, Czech, French with either a France or Canadian accent, Italian, Russian, Spanish and being able to speak a little Greek, but not able to read Greek. His boss, Mr Church, usually keeps his language abilities a secret until the time is right, but is hinted to be fluent in at least as many languages as Joe. Unusual for an adult, Joe continues to learn more languages, as he starts to pick up the secret language used by Arklight just from observation, allowing him to ease drop on its members
    • A particularly fun moment where Joe's language skills came in handy was in Assassin's Code. Joe tries to bluff an Iranian Major that he was a Russian agent so as to disguise American involvement during that mission. The Major attempts to call the bluff by insulting Joe's mother in Russian. Joe not only understands the insult, but replies in Russian that the Major's "father dallied with little boys and ate pork during Ramadan"
  • Thrawn starts with an imperial mission in the Unknown Regions, which are outside the programming of translator droids. So cadet Eli Vanto, who originates from this region of space, is used in this quality simply because he knows a few local languages, starting with the local trade language, Sy Bisti.
  • City of Bones by Martha Wells: Khat's patchwork background has made him fluent in a truly exceptional number of languages, including trade tongues, the Manean Classical Tongue, and the long-dead Ancient Script known only to a few scholars. Since he's squarely at the bottom of the Fantastic Caste System, this greatly surprises people who expect him to be an unlettered lout.
  • In The Magicians, the study of magic requires its practitioners to understand a wide variety of languages and dialects in order to master the increasingly multicultural library of spells - up to and including correct pronunciation and grammar. Among the languages mentioned over the course of the series include Middle English, Latin, Old High Dutch, Estonian, Old Church Slavonic, Arabic, Aramaic, and Minoan. Naturally, Alice proves to be the most fluent of them all.

    Live-Action TV 
  • MacGyver (1985), 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. In Real Life, Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver's actor) is multilingual as well.
  • Stargate SG-1
    • Though originally an archaeologist, Daniel Jackson 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.
    • 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. It helps that Jonas has a wide variety of interests (including linguistics, physics, and meteorology) and has very good observational skills and a near-perfect memory.
  • 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.)
  • 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. Then again, Meesh is more "the only guy we found who speaks English and Arabic and likes us well enough to take our money" and less "the professional translator."
  • 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 it's shown that he can read Latin (which actually makes some sense; as a Victorian gentleman with literary ambitions, he would be expected to have a working knowledge of both Latin and Ancient Greek).
    • 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, and has an at least working knowledge of Portuguese. 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.
  • 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. 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: The title character is shown to be fluent in French in the television movies. This causes a Bilingual Backfire for a French captain who "secretly" tells his men to wait for his order to attack, and in the earlier films acts as a translator for The Captain, who only is shown to speak English. In an interesting play on the trope, he has to interpret between a Spanish officer and Captain Pellew (who only speaks English), but the Spaniard ends up speaking French since Hornblower doesn't know Spanish. He gets the opportunity to learn in the third film when he's held prisoner in Spain with an affable jailer and very little else to do but work his way through Don Quixote using a dictionary.
  • 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 grunt work.
  • 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 (although Crichton tries to sabotage her efforts a bit by shouting a phrase in Klingon). 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, Persian, 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?
  • Madam Secretary:
    • Elizabeth McCord is shown to speak Arabic in one episode. She's not fluent, but she's good enough to be able to use it for dramatic effect when brokering a deal with the President of Iraq.
    • Also a one-shot Vietnamese woman Liz brings in to speak to a congressional committee on a microloan program. Everybody expects her to need an interpreter, but then she addresses the committee in English, which she learned from the son she was able to send to school thanks to a microloan.
  • Game of Thrones: Daenerys encounters a slave woman, Missendei, who translates for the slavers in Astapor. Later, Missendei enters Dany's service as her official translator, saying that she speaks 19 languages, including the Common Tongue, as well as High Valyrian and Dothraki. Dany herself speaks several, particularly High Valyrian and Dothraki.
  • Westworld: As a madam Maeve Millay knows multiple languages, which comes in handy in Season 2 where she is able to communicate with hosts in Japanese and briefly poses as a translator.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Not too hard to accomplish in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, even without magic. Most races get at least two languages (Common and one specific to their race), and several backgrounds give you two additional languages. Play as Genasi to gain Primordial, which lets you inherently understand its four dialects of Aquan, Terran, Pyran and Auran, take the Sage background (or any other with 2 languages), and finally take the Linguist feat to gain 3 more. You can now speak a total of 7 languages fluently (11 if you count the primordial dialects).
  • 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.
  • Warhammer Fantasy: Wulfrik the Wanderer is a Chaos character with the Gift of Tongues, meaning he can speak to anything in its language, including animals. This ability was given to him by the Chaos gods to force him to live up to his boast of being the greatest warrior in the world by letting him deliver challenges to anyone or anything, which he achieves by delivering the crudest insults he can imagine in their language (in game terms, it means a challenge delivered by him can't be turned down).

    Video Games 
  • 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 are 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 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.
  • The Elder Scrolls
    • In the series' backstory, the Maormer (Sea Elves) King Orgnum is served by one of these. When Orgnum met with Queen Potema to forge their alliance in the 3rd Era, he was said to have a translator who was fluent in all the languages of Tamriel, Pyandonea, Atmora, and Akavir.
    • Also from the backstory, the ancient King Ysgramor is credited with creating the old Nordic Runic writing system, said to be the first written language of Men in Tamriel based on Atmoran and Aldmeri (Elven) linguistic principles.
    • In Morrowind, the ancient Telvanni wizard Baladas Demnevanni proves to be one. During the Mages Guild questline, you'll come upon several books which contain clues about the disappearance of the Dwemer, including one that is written in both Aldmeris (the extinct ancestor language to many modern languages) and Dwemeri (which, to date, has not been able to be translated.) Baladas can read Aldmeris and will be able to use it to translate the Dwemeri it for you. (Alternatively, if you've made it far enough in the main quest, you can take it to Yagrum Bagarn, the last living Dwemer, who logically translates it easily.)
    • In 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 realizes the Dragonborn's lack of fluency when they had to ask what was being said during their initiation ceremony.
  • 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. Later the language was revealed to be created as ridiculously easy to learn and it's implied that the government knew the astronauts would end up meeting aliens, and chose Maggie specifically for her language skills.
  • Pokémon X and Y: During the Looker sidequest, Emma takes this role due to being the only one present who can speak the language of Kanto when a Kanto woman comes looking for help. Looker claims he can understand a wide variety of languages (he has appeared in both Sinnoh and Unova, each of which speak different languages than Kalos), but then he also mistakes the woman's story about her Pokemon being stolen as being a request for tea.
  • Corporal Garrett in Medal of Honor: Vanguard understands German, this allows him to translate what the German Soldiers are saying in the mission, 'A Shallow Grave'.

    Web Comics 
  • Narbonic has ANTONIO SMITH, FORENSIC LINGUIST! He only gets the Bold Inflation treatment when his hat's on.
  • Denver Tadwick, Exiern.
  • Fighter of 8-Bit Theater displays incredible linguistic knowledge in this strip, and explains its source in the next one. Black Mage's exasperated response to this revelation lies in the fact that, 99% of the time, Fighter is a total moron.
  • Parodied in this filler strip of Keychain of Creation.
  • A running theme in Megatokyo, where the series starts with Piro being fluent in Japanese from playing lots of dating sims, Largo knowing zilch Japanese, Kimiko and Ping knowing zilch English, Erika and Miho being fluent in English and therefore capable of communicating with Largo, and Yuki clumsily speaking what little English she can master. Later on, Ping gets a translation module that renders English words as Intentional Engrish for Funny Japanese subtitles... initially taken from porn flicks, much to Ping's very great confusion. Eventually Largo corrects it and she speaks perfect English.
  • This Penny Arcade has page-quote potential.
  • Elly of Dubious Company fills this role by translating Prince Winsome and Prince Daunting's Purple Prose in the Evil Tower of Evil story.
  • In Galaxion Vessa is generally overqualified for her job (or for any job, really). She speaks several Earth languages, AND Myradi, the alien language spoken by very few humans. Also, attempts Orehu, but she's only had so much to go on, so, as she wryly notes, she might have just as well asked for an anteater.
  • In Stand Still, Stay Silent, Tuuri is a Finn who took both Icelandic and Swedish as second languages, which makes her the only one able to speak with everyone else on her Multinational Team. This effectively makes her the translator, while her official jobs on the team are mechanic and skald.
  • In Rhapsodies, bandmember, Hsin, has been shown to be fluent in several Chinese dialects, Russian, Korean and may know several more. Because of his atrocious English, this usually catches his friends by surprise. English, he's quick to point out, is his "last" language.

    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 coup 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.
  • Bubbles sometimes fills this role in The Powerpuff Girls, knowing at least three other languages (Spanish, Japanese, and Squirrel). Not bad for a kindergartner.
  • The Library Kid in ''Recess speaks fluent English, French, German, Latin and Greek. She also speaks Basque but is not fluent.

    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 the Finno-Ugric languages Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian, and the language isolate Basque) they all belong to a handful of groups belonging to the same language family, Indo-European. Romance languages like French, Spanish and Italian are all descended from Latin, for example. If you're fluent in one language from a particular group of sub-group, achieving a passable familiarity with one or two of the others is relatively easy.
    • How easy you find learning another language also greatly depends on the differing complexity of the grammar of your native language and the language you're learning. For example, native German-speakers have few problems with the grammar of English (where the inflectional endings of nouns are largely absent, replaced by prepositions), while native English-speakers find German nouns with their case-endings and often unpredictable grammatical genders extremely challenging. Germans, on the other hand, have to struggle with many of the more complex features of Slavic languages like Russian (for instance, while German nouns have four cases, Russian nouns have six, or seven if you count the vocative).
  • 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.
  • The British Army has Wilton Park. If you are on a language course you will only speak the language you are learning to other students, and teachers. You are expected not to be just fluent, but native within 6 weeks. It has been known to cause problems in the bar when the barman sometimes has to ask customers to drop Persian, or whatever because they have forgotten to switch back to English.
  • 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 then thought to be 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, 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 we 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 at 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 pastor, 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.
    • Danish schools have English lessons from the 1st grade, German lessons from the 7th grade, and the option to take another language (depending on the school) during 8-9th grade. Similarly, when entering regular high school, most students have to chose a third language course besides English and Danish, which many either use to further increase their fluency in German or simply learn yet another language.
    • 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.
  • India is a nation of a billion plus (and poised to become the world's most populous nation in the coming decades) and yet it's a truism that every Indian is bilingual. Each state of India has its own language and dialect and people in the state know that and speak Hindi-Urdu, if not via-school education than Popcultural Osmosis as a result of Bollywood and Filmi music. People who are middle-class and professionals (a minority in India but a large population by global standards) speak Surprisingly Good English. In major cities like Mumbai, people working in professional and banking sector can speak Hindi/English/Marathi/Gujarati and if they are South Indian, Punjabi, Assamese and Bengali migrant families, they will know all those languages and also speak Tamil/Punjabi/Assamese/Bengali on top of that. Likewise kids at middle-school and high-school can also if they wish take French, German or Japanese as an elective.
  • Authors as a rule, tend to know multiple languages, if only to read particular authors in the original language, and there are cases where authors have become famous as English authors despite it not being their first language:
    • J. R. R. Tolkien spoke ten languages fluently and understood 18. And that's not counting the languages he created.note 
    • James Joyce could speak and read: English, Gaelic, French, Greek, Latin, German, Italian and when he resolved to write a fan-letter to Henrik Ibsen, he learnt Norwegian to write his hero an appreciation. His multi-lingual ear for languages went into many of his books.
    • Samuel Beckett, Joyce's good friend and fellow great author also knew a good variety of languages. Most impressively, he knew French well enough that after moving to France, he wrote his works first in French and then translated it into English.
    • Jorge Luis Borges wrote in Spanish but being a lifelong bibliophile and scholar, he knew several other languages, including English, Spanish, French, Italian among others. He learnt languages largely to read his favorite authors in the original.
    • Joseph Conrad was born into Polish Nobility during the period of the Russian Empire's hegemony over his land, so growing up he knew Polish, French and Russian, and in the years of his work in the Merchant Company, he picked up multiple languages, and when he became a respected author, he wrote in English despite learning it and becoming fluent at the age of 13.
    • Vladimir Nabokov was born in an aristocratic family and spoke Russian, French and English at home, he also studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. He spent the first part of his career as an emigre writing in Russian, and remarkably made the transition to writing in English for the second part of his career. Nabokov boasted that this put him one over Conrad, who never wrote books in his native languages, whereas Nabokov wrote accomplished works in both Russian and English.
    • Salman Rushdie was born in India and he knows Hindi, Urdu, English and French. English was not his "mother tongue" (aka first language) yet he became a respected English novelist and known for using British and American slang in his books.
    • Critic Harold Bloom grew up in a Yiddish-speaking Jewish neighborhood and didn't learn or speak English until he was older, he also knows Spanish well enough to read Don Quixote and many other authors in the original. Bloom nonetheless became perhaps the most famous and influential literary critic of his time, and a major scholar on William Shakespearenote 
  • In film history, cinema being an international language occasionally leads to film-makers working in different national cinemas:
    • Actor Edgar Ramirez who was born in Venezuela caught the eye of director Olivier Assayas for his film Carlos because he could speak English, French and Spanish very well and act in each languages. Assayas didn't think he'd be able to cast the part because he didn't think anybody would have that facility with language and somehow he struck gold.
    • Ingrid Bergman spoke Swedish, French, Italian and of course English. She had a thick Swedish accent which she never lost but it added to her "exotic" quality, and she later worked in the Italian and French industries in addition to Hollywood.
    • One surprising example is American director John Ford, known for making Rated M for Manly John Wayne films. But Ford knew English, Gaelic, French, German, Navajo, and bits of Mandarin, Japanese and Serbian. Of course his fluency is exaggerated, Maureen O'Hara said his Gaelic was not good, while actor Henry Brandon (a German man) was amused by Ford's attempts to chat with him in German, but everyone agrees that Ford did have a gift for languages.
  • 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.
    • This also goes for opera singers. As they already have to learn to sing texts in many different languages (most operas were written in Italian or German, but a lot of the most popular ones are in French (e. g. Carmen, The Tales of Hoffmann), Czech (Jenufa, The Bartered Bride), Russian (Boris Godunov, Yevgeny Onegin), or even English (Peter Grimes)), but as it also helps to communicate with the other musicians in the opera houses of the world it is a fairly small step to actually learn to speak some of these languages. For instance, the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón hosts a program on German television (actually the Franco-German culture channel arte) in accented, but grammatically almost flawless German.
  • Longtime NBA star Pau Gasol learned Catalan, Spanish, and English while growing up in Barcelona, and later taught himself French and Italian. The last of these languages became useful during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers—he and Kobe Bryant, who spent a big chunk of his childhood in Italy while his dad was playing pro ball there, would call plays between themselves in Italian instead of English to keep opponents in the dark.
  • Gasol has nothing on Zdeno Chára of the Boston Bruins. In addition to his native Slovak, Chára speaks Czech, English, German, Polish, Swedish, and Russian.
  • Thomas E. Lawrence, who was fluent in Arabic and knew thoroughly the Arab culture.
  • The Pope tends, in modern times, to be this ("Catholic" means "universal", after all, and the papacy is one of the few truly international offices 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 Spanish and English will probably become more and more indispensable as the most common language among Catholics (South American Catholics who don't speak at least some Spanish are rare), and *the* international language respectively; 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 uses the latter in public appearances, a far cry from his two immediate predecessors).
  • La Malinche was a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast, famous for having been an interpreter, advisor, and intermediary for Hernán Cortés and playing a role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, which sadly for her associated her name with betrayal (even though she was actually a slave, and her role was rather obviously not her career of choice). She grew up in the Nahuatl speaking borderlands of the Aztec and Mayan empires, until she was sold to Mayan slave traders and then given to the Spaniards as a gift. As a slave she learned to speak Mayan, acquiring bilingual skills that would later serve as a crucial communication link between the Spanish conquistador and the Mayans and Aztecs, arguably negotiating ways to prevent the conquest of the Americas being even more violent than it was. Being also Cortés' mistress, she bore him a son that was likely the first mestizo (a person of European and indigenous American heritage) of Mexican history.
  • Rory McGrath proved to be this during the recording of the later series of Three Men in a Boat. His degree in modern languages gave him not only the ability to make himself understood in several European languages (most prominently German and French), but also allowed him to pick up the basics of several more (most notably Serbo-Croatian) with almost eerie speed.
  • Any merc or arms dealer worth a damn can at least speak English plus one other major language. Current favorites are Russian followed by Spanish. Being able to speak the same language as your coworkers and associates means that you are far more capable of pulling your weight when things get tense, y'know, with being able to actually know what's going on and give info to your guys. It also helps protect you against getting screwed, especially if the guys who want to backstab you don't realize that you speak their language and have been taking a keen interest in what they've been saying to each other... Also, guys like border guards and security personnel are unlikely to speak anything but their native language well, so a versatile tongue makes dealing with these guys tons easier. Lastly, more language skill equals more people you can communicate with and therefore more business opportunities.
  • It should, however, be noted that many linguists in Real Life do not speak all that many languages, and are not an Omniglot. They learn to understand how foreign languages work, but this does not mean that they are fluent in all of them. For example, they may have a comprehensive knowledge of Hebrew phonologynote  without being able to hold even a simple conversation in Hebrew.
  • Ioannis Ikonomou, a translator for the European Commission, speaks 32 languages fluently, his favorite of which is Chinese.
  • Rose Valland’s grasp of the German language (unbeknownst to the Nazis occupying the Jeu de Paume Museum where she worked) helped save thousands of plundered artwork and made her the most decorated woman in French history.

Alternative Title(s): Polyglot


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