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Language Barrier

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At least uncomfortable smiles are cross-cultural.

"Speak English! Why isn't that a law everywhere?"
Master Shake, Aqua Teen Hunger Force
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Imagine you happen to be somewhere where you don't understand the locals, and the locals don't understand you. Nobody can pull off You No Take Candle. There are no 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.

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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 Language Fluency Denial, Hiding Behind the Language Barrier and Teasing from Behind the Language Barrier.

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Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • Played for Laughs in a Spanish-language Verizon commercial. An English-speaking man calls a woman's son a "cute little girl". When she tells him that he's her "ninõ" (son), he doesn't understand the mother and thinks that her 'daughter' is named "ninõ".
  • Appears in an ad for Berlitz Corporation (a language education company). A young German guy gets a new job as a coast guard. An older guy shows him the place and the most important devices, pats him on his shoulder, takes his coffee and leaves. Soon there is a distress call:
    Voice on the survival radar: Mayday! Mayday! [static noise] Hello? Can you hear us? Can you hear us? Can you... [static noise] Over! We're sinking! We are sinking!
    Coast guard: Hallo? This is -ur- German Coast Guard.
    Voice on the survival radar: We're sinking! WE'RE SINKING!
    Coast guard: What are you... sinking about?
  • A Spanish-language American cable commercial uses a lack of this as its selling point. A customer tries to call a company, but the employee can only speak a few Spanish words in a thick American accent.
  • Appears in a Dutch ad for the Soesman Language Institute, entitled 'A Day Trip', in which a family gets into their car, turns it on and the radio comes to life playing the Outthere Brothers song 'FYITA'. Not understanding the vulgar lyrics, the parents start to bop along with the catchy tune as they drive off. Engels leren? (Wanna learn English?)

     Anime and Manga 
  • Anatolia Story features a Hand Wave: when Yuri (modern Japanese teen) is transported to the Late Hittite Empire, she cannot speak the Hittite language. One french kiss from Prince Kail later, and suddenly she's fluent in it (it isn't clear whether she learns to read and write the language at the same time or was taught it normally). Yes, Kail is confirmed to be a magic user, but it doesn't seem to have been deliberate on his part, as at the time he had no idea who she was or what her circumstances were.
  • 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.
  • 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 outside of understanding and being able to speak basic English (and even that's incredibly rough). There are several cases where he has to talk to people who speak English, French, Russian, etc and is completely out of his depth.
    • 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 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 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.
  • Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet has Ledo, from a group of humans who have been in space for generations, stumble upon Earth and meet the humans who stayed behind; their speech has diverged to the point where they can't understand each other. Chamber, the AI on Ledo's Humongous Mecha, is able to translate based on an ancient language on file and dialogue samples he picks up. For a good part of the series Ledo uses a holographic screen that translates their language into something he can understand, and becomes more accustomed to speaking it as the series progresses.
  • In chapter 20 of Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, Shuchi'in Academy hosts a party for their sister school in Paris. It's only after the party starts that Shirogane realizes he's the only one there that doesn't speak French, forcing him to try and hide it with what little he memorized from a phrasebook. This actually ends up helping him when a French girl gives him a Breaking Speech as part of a Secret Test of Character, since he has no idea that she's even insulting him, let alone what she's saying.
  • In Kimi to Boku, when Chizuru was younger he used to play with Yuki at the park. Being raised in Germany, Chizuru couldn't speak with Yuki at the time.
  • Needles and Orange is a one-shot about a Japanese woman and a Chinese woman who are in a relationship despite not speaking the same language.
  • Rei, an handsome alien from Urusei Yatsura. Whenever he does speak, he is only capable of uttering one word at a time. This is mostly because Rei doesn't know how to speak Japanese. But also because he's just so incredibly, unbelievably stupid.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: In the Millenium World arc, the Pharoah needs to learn his true name to defeat Zorc Necrophades, so Yugi and his friends volunteer to find it. Unfortunately, when they find it, none of them can read hieroglyphics. They solve the problem by showing the Pharoah their memories of the name so he can read them himself.

    Asian Animation 
  • Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: In Pleasant Goat Fun Class: Animals & Plants episode 3, a small penguin and a large penguin can't understand each other because they don't use the same kinds of sounds. The larger penguin is actually Wolffy disguised a penguin, so he probably couldn't understand the small penguin in the first place.

     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.
  • Asterix:
    • Subverted in Asterix and the Goths. When Asterix and Obelix are trying to extract information from the Gothic interpreter Rhetoric, he feigns ignorance of Gaulish, only to let it slip when he sneezes and says 'thanks' in Gaulish after Asterix says 'bless you!'
    • Played straight in The Great Crossing; Asterix and Obelix speak Gaulish, the Danes speak Proto-Germanic, and the supposed "Roman colonists" Asterix and Obelix meet speak Proto-East-Algonquian.
  • Robin Series: Tim finds that his lack of Tibetan knowledge is a barrier when he arrives for training under a Tibetan martial arts master living in Paris and learns the man only speaks about three words of French. He's able to learn quite a bit from him anyway but it would have been much easier if they'd had a common language between them.
  • Ultimate Marvel
    • The Ultimates: The Wasp and Black Widow secured the Chitauri Doomsday Device, but can't understand the instructions, as they are written in Black Speech. So they call the super genius Tony Stark, but he's completely lost as well.
    • Ultimate X-Men: Nightcrawler speaks in German, and nobody in Weapon X could be bothered to teach him some basic English. Most of the time he speaks in his native tongue and nobody else understands anything. Jean tried to give him a telepathic crash course in English.
  • This is how Starfire got her code name. In the original New Teen Titans comics of the 80s, the Titans rescue an alien named Koriand'r from Gordanian slavers and she starts to work with them to fight crime, but she can't speak English, so they don't know her real name. Her powers harness solar energy and she has a fiery personality, so they call her "Starfire". After about a week of not being able to communicate properly, she kisses Dick Grayson to learn English. (Unlike her animated counterparts, comics!Kory is able to learn languages through any form of physical contact—learning it via kissing is just more fun for her, and since Tamaran has different views on behavior that's considered sexual or romantic, she doesn't entirely understand why that might come off differently to people from Earth.)

     Fan Works 
  • When they first went to Acme Looniversity, Jakko and Sekoila of Zany To The Max spoke only Finnish. There would've been one of these (although one-sided; they understood English perfectly) if they didn't hold up signs as translation.
  • In any My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fanfics where humans are transported to Equestria, there's a fifty-fifty chance that this problem will arise. (About 25% will eventually fix it by a Universal Translator spell). Others, such as A Voice Among the Strangers, take no such shortcuts with it.
  • There are stories that transport modern humans to Middle-earth, the setting of The Lord of the Rings. Most fan authors forget that no one in Middle-earth speaks English (a fact buried in The Lord of the Rings Appendix F). For the few stories to remember this, there are two options. One is to introduce Translator Microbes. The other is to put the Language Barrier.
  • In What About Witch Queen? most people know Confederate language, but Islander language differs from Confederate, and Weste is vastly different from the two above, giving Anna some communication problems once she arrives on Westerguard. Ferdinand also mentions once that he'd give a lot to understand Weste, because then he'd know whether he should run or not.
  • Sudden Contact: Until translators are introduced, the terrans initially have trouble communicating with the Citadel races except for psionics like Kerrigan.
  • In Freakin Gensokyo, the main characters Brad and Matt can't read a word of Japanese. It first becomes an issue in Chapter 5 when Brad fails spectacularly to read a map of the Human Village.
  • In Neither a Bird nor a Plane, it's Deku!, Izuku, having spoken nothing but Japanese his entire life, can't understand a word his Kryptonian spaceship is saying when he finally retrieves it. Luckily for him, said spaceship was able to quickly access the internet and absorb Japanese before continuing. Later on, he gets drilled in Kryptonese because 65% of Kryptonian texts can't be properly translated into Earth languages.
  • In "The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker", various races speak different languages. This often results in confusion from Link.
    Laruto: Qu'est-ce qui ne va pas? Y a-t-il quelque chose dans mes dents? Peut-être un morceau d'os de poisson.
    Link (gesturing wildly): Sorry! I can't understand what you're saying! I don't speak... that!

     Film - Animation 

     Film - Live Action 
  • Big Game:
    • Downplayed. While Oskari's English is pretty good, he doesn't understand some more obscure words Moore's using and speaks much slower than in his native Finnish.
    • Morris and Hazar's mooks play it straight, as Morris doesn't speak Arabic and has Hazar translate for him.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Dr. Dolittle, some scientists who doubt Dolittle's ability to speak to animals decide to test him by hooking an orangutan up to an EEG machine. Dolittle tries to talk to it, but it just stares at him blankly and the machine shows no sign of increased brain activity. After the scientists turn off the machine and leave the room, the orangutan starts speaking in Spanish.
  • The Emerald Forest: Downplayed as Bill and Tommy do know a little of each other's language but they still struggle communicating with each other.
  • 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 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."
  • 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. (In the "where are they now" YouTube short set several years later, he still has some work to do.)
  • 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.
  • Nine Dead: Mrs. Chan only speaks Chinese; the rest of the captives only know English. The captor still demands that they figure out her place in the plot why they're all there, or they will all die anyway.
  • In Rush Hour, Carter doesn't understand Chinese. In the second film, he's made some progress, but often descends into My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels. In the third film, he's apparently mastered the language but to his and Lee's chagrin, the bad guys speak French this time around.
  • 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.
  • The Thieves: While there are characters who are fluent in both Korean and Chinese, most are not. They either use their bilingual colleagues for translation or communicate through other language like English (Julie and Pepsee) or Japanese (Chewing Gum and Chen).
  • Titanic (1997):
    • 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.
  • The 13th Warrior, the movie starts out with many moments like this until Ahmad ibn Fadlan sits quietly with the group and figures out the Norse language over many days or weeks. The Vikings made many jokes at his expense which comes to backfire on them when he reveals he can hear and speak with them. They were convinced for half the movie that his first name was "Iben." When they meet, the Vikings can't speak Arabic or Greek, but it turns out one speaks Latin which gets them an introduction to their king.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Arrival: A major plot point in the film. The aliens who arrived on Earth cannot speak or write any human language, and humans are likewise ignorant of the aliens' language. It takes many months of work and international cooperation before humanity is able to communicate on even a very basic level with them.
  • In Kolya (set in the late 1980's in socialist Czechoslovakia), Mr Louka is Czech and doesn't speak any foreign language. He marries a Russian woman for her to get Czechoslovak citizenship. She then emigrates to West Germany, and when her elderly aunt goes to hospital (and later dies), Louka has to take care of his wife's five-year-old son Kolya who only speaks Russian. The first weeks are very hard for both and very sad for Kolya. One of the scene has Louka calling his mistress who teaches Russian to tell Kolya a fairy-tale over the phone.
  • In The Force Awakens, Finn is shocked that all the other characters can understand what BB-8 and Chewbacca say, because he can't.
  • Circle: When attention is drawn to Illegal Mexican, there's a debate about whether he should be eliminated next since he doesn't speak any English and they're already short on time. Spanish Translator tries to act as an intermediary until she's killed off to shift votes in favor of the pragmatists.
  • In the sci-fi movie Pandorum, the protagonist encounters Manh who speaks entirely in unsubtitled Vietnamese and heavy pantomime. Until he meets another crewmember who can speak English, he's actually heading in the wrong direction on the rather large spaceship because he misunderstands what Manh is trying to tell him.
  • Monos: The Monos are watching over their paramilitary group's hostage, an American they call Doctora. They don't speak any English. She speaks some Spanish, but sometimes she gets confused by what they're trying to tell her.

     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 Seven, who doesn't understand him. They get around the problem by miming. This problem doesn't exist between him and the Andalites, however, due to Translator Microbes.
  • 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.
  • Somewhither: While the Ursprache language (which essentially grants Omniglot abilities) eliminates that problem for most servants of the Dark Tower (who come from all over The Multiverse), Ilya hasn't learned it and two of his companions haven't either, so Abby has to act as a translator between him, Nakasu and Master Ossifrage.
  • In Child of the Owl, when Casey first moves to San Francisco's Chinatown to live with her Paw-Paw (grandmother), she has trouble fitting in partly due to the fact she doesn't speak Chinese.
  • The Bridge of Clay: Penelope Lesciuszko emigrates to Australia from Poland with almost no knowledge of English and at first she mangles it terribly and speaks with very heavy Polish accent. However, she is very determined and finally becomes a teacher of English.
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins: In the sequel, Zia, nobody can understand Karena because she is the last real member of her tribe. Even Karena's niece Zia only knows English and Spanish because she was raised in California.
  • Dancing Aztecs: The man telling Jerry which crate to pick up said Crate A. Too bad no one ever told him that the Spanish alphabet's pronunciation of the letter E is pronounced similarly to the American alphabets pronunciation of the letter A.
  • Down To A Sunless Sea: Many refugees on Jonah's plane. He at one point describes an Armenian family where only the foru year-old grandson can speak any English.
  • In the Forges of Mars trilogy, Archmagos Kotov initially struggles to communicate with fellow Archmagos Telok because his cybernetic implants are not reverse-compatible with the obsolete form of binary that Telok speaks. Similarly, Linya Tychon has trouble communicating with the other victims of Galatea’s Brain Theft because their brains are literally not equipped to receive the hexmathic code she speaks.

     Live-Action Television 
  • '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.
  • Naturally, this happens all the time on The Amazing Race when the racers try to interact with locals. Almost inevitable if the season's route visits Asia, as even the travel-savvy teams are unlikely to know the local languages.
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine, "The Fugitive": There's a witness at Precinct 99 who doesn't speak any English. Eventually she just repeats [kanalizatsia] ("Kанализација", its meaning is connected to word "canalisation") and tries to draw a picture. All in vain. Much later Captain Holt identifies her language as very likely Slavic. (He's right, it's Macedonian). She's trying to say "sewer" or "sewerage (system)" and keeps drawing a manhole cover. Nobody can decipher the picture. Hard to say what she's doing in New York and how she's enjoying it when she can't utter a word in English and can't think of using her mobile phone as a dictionary (provided she has one). And she's sitting in front of computers and telephones, too. Who's holding the Idiot Ball, her or the cops? (Since this is a sitcom, it can be explained by Rule of Funny.)
  • Played as Black Comedy in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Fool for Love" in the flashback set to Spike describing how he killed a Slayer during the Boxer Rebellion.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Highlander: In "Little Tin God", back in 1830, Duncan MacLoud and his guide Paco were exploring the Peruvian rainforest when they got captured by a Moche tribe. Duncan's attempts to talk to them in both English and Spanish don't go anywere, since they speak Mochica.
  • 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.
  • In the Madam Secretary episode "Whisper of the Ax", Arthur Gilroy hires Stevie McCord as an intern at his microloan agency when she rescues him after he tries and fails to negotiate a deal with a broker in Senegal using half-remembered high school French.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • In the sketch about penguins and their contribution to science, the language barrier was a stumbling block to researchers. Thus, they posed standard I.Q. tests to the penguins and to a random group of non-English speaking humans. The results: the scores between the two demographics were constantly the same.
  • 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.
  • Runaways (2017): The Series opens with a young homeless girl being accosted by two men who only speak Spanish. The Pride shows up and "rescues" her from them in exchange for one night at their Church, while she can't understand them warning her from steppin into the car.
  • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Sanctuary" has the universal translator initially struggle with the Skrreean language, which seemingly is just filler to stretch the length of the episode.
  • 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: It can translate the words well enough. But without the proper cultural context, the words themselves do no good. The whole conflict turns out to be a first contact mission on the Darmok aliens' part. They kidnapped Picard and put him and an alien commander in a situation that would force them to communicate. At the episode's end Picard has a rudimentary grasp of the language. At least enough to form a base for further communication.
  • Stargate SG-1: The pilot episode has Daniel Jackson briefly trying to learn the local language of Chulak and having to translate bits of an Arabic variant for the team. However, Teal'c for some reason speaks English, as do 99% of the aliens and Transplanted Humans Earthborn humans encounter for the rest of the franchise.
  • In the Starsky & Hutch episode "Death Notice," an elderly immigrant overhears two people plotting to murder a stripper. Unfortunately, his extremely poor English makes his attempts at warning the girls sound like death threats, and when he tries to explain himself to the police, he says that he wrote the messages because of "the voices," making him sound like a murderous schizophrenic.
  • 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.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959):
    • In "Two", two soldiers who survived an apocalyptic war, a man and a woman, are wandering in a deserted city. They don't speak the same language. After they meet, they have to learn how to communicate.
    • In "Probe 7, Over and Out", two humanoid space travelers from different races, Colonel Cook and Norda, are stranded on a planet. After they meet, they have to learn how to communicate with each other.
  • The Twilight Zone (1985): In "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.
  • Upstairs Downstairs: In the Fourth Season's Premiere, Eaton Place houses a family of Belgian refugees from the War. Living in the servants' quarters, the staff, unable to speak the language, are confused and irritated by their guests' unusual and hostile behavior- like one woman's obsessive bond with a doll. Finally, Belgian-fluent Georgina breaks the barrier by explaining that the refugees' behavior is based on their tragic experiences. The doll is the woman's Companion Cube after her husband, son, and daughter- the doll's owner- were killed in a raid on her town. Once their experiences are explained, the servants become more hospitable and the refugees reciprocate.
  • Vikings:
    • There is a language barrier between Norsemen and Saxons, whose land the Norsemen invade. Ragnar spares the life of a monk and scribe Athelstan when he realizes that Athelstan understands and speaks Old Norse. Ragnar has great plans and wants to raid in England, so he feels it will be useful to learn the language.
    • Language barrier stands between Franks and Norsemen. Subverted when it turns out that one Viking traveller speaks Old French and is able to interpret.
    • To save Paris, Princess Gisla of France is forced to marry Rollo, a Norseman and Ragnar's brother. They don't understand a word of each other's language. Rollo is shown being taught Old French by a clergyman at the court and he's having a terrible time. It involves tearing a book page in tiny pieces and crumpling it, flipping his own table, grabbing his teacher by the collar, flinging said teacher across the room, knocking a chair down for good measure and screaming Angrish gibberish resembling Old French.
  • 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.
  • Zoey101: One subplot in the episode "Haunted House" deals with a pair of French teachers who arrive at PCA, and they both speak nothing but their mother tongue. When they see Michael wearing his Halloween costume (a bruised, beggar-looking zombie) they both think he's suffered an accident and needs to be taken to the hospital. Given Michael can't speak nor understand French and all of his attempts to convince them he's not wounded fail, the poor guy keeps fleeing from the teachers almost all day long. Thankfully for Michael, Mark shows up in his mummy costume and (unwillingly) scares the teachers away, who run in terror after believing him to be a real monster. A frustrated Michael then decides to throw away his French book.

    Music 
  • Several of Sabaton's between-song stage jokes rely on this. The band are fluent in English, but it's a Running Gag that the only thing Joakim can reliably say in other languages (besides thanking the audience during the opening song) is "Another beer, please." The live album on the deluxe version of Heroes has several of these.
    "For those of you who don't speak Swedish, welcome to the Sabaton Cruise, and in the future if you want to understand what I'm saying, you better fucking learn Swedish!"
  • One of Tavin Pumarejo's comedic jibaro songs is about a Puerto Rican in New York City. He can't understand English and only knows how to say "yes". This leads to a lot of issues.

     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 3: 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. At various points though, cross-faction communication has been possible. For example: at launch, the Forsaken actually had Common (the language of the Alliance) as their racial language. Which makes sense from a lore perspective, since the Forsaken were former Alliance members. In Legion, the Demon Hunter class was introduced. They can speak Demonic, whether they are Alliance or Horde: so they can communicate with each other. Lorewise, there is actually no reason for Alliance and Horde not to be able to speak cross-faction. In terms of gameplay though, there is a good reason: to prevent toxicity in Pv P.
  • 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.
  • Most of the jokes during LocoCycle stem from the protagonist, an artificially-intelligent motorcycle called I.R.I.S. constantly misinterpreting the Spanish pleading of secondary protagonist Pablo, who is constantly getting dragged along with I.R.I.S. in the most painfully-literal sense of the term.
  • Unlike adaptations, in the Pokémon games regions can speak different languages. The original four regions are based off Japan and the characters speak Japanese, but people in Unova and Alola speak English and people in Kalos speak French. You'll occasionally see NPCs speak untranslated languages. In Pokémon X and Y a woman from Kanto tries to speak to the protagonist but cannot be understood, and Looker misunderstands her. Thankfully Emma speaks fluent Japanese.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Link cannot understand Lord Jabu-Jabu as he speaks Old Hylian from the era of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In a New Game+, Link (or at least the player) can understand it, though you don't really learn very much.
  • The Japanese version of Yo-kai Watch 3 has Nate and his parents moving from Japan to America. Nate doesn't understand English but all the NPCs you speak to only speak English. Nate meets the youkai Peraperaion which allows people to speak any language.
  • In Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2, some characters speak Al Bhed, which the lead characters cannot understand at the beginning of the game. By collecting Al Bhed Primers, the player can decipher one letter of Al Bhed: since Al Bhed is a Cypher Language, complete proficiency can be achieved by collecting all twenty-six Primers.
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain: The language barrier is one of the most important elements of the game. You can't listen in on enemy chatter if you don't have a skilled linguist in that field to instantly translate messages into the appropriate language. You can't understand your own subordinates if English isn't one of the languages they know. You can't develop fatal symptoms from the deadly parasites that are nesting in your throat and replacing your vocal cords if you don't speak the language they respond to with mating and laying eggs in your lungs. Ew.
  • In Stardew Valley, we have the Dwarf, a secret character who runs a secret shop. The only language the Dwarf knows is their native language, Dwarvish. As such, the player character cannot understand them. In order to properly understand them, you need to donate all four Dwarf Scrolls to Gunther to get the Dwarvish Translation Guide. It's also worth noting that your relationship with the Dwarf will not go up if you try to give them gifts before you can understand them. They'll still accept the gifts, though.
  • Knights of the Old Republic forces you to purchase HK-47, a Killer Robot who can double as a translator, before you can communicate with the Jawas and Sand People/Tusken Raiders on Tatooine.
  • In Harvest Moon 64 you cannot understand the Harvest Sprites until you befriend them. They speak their own language and have almost forgotten how to communicate with humans.
  • In the opening parts of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, Agent Wesley cautions B.J. Blazkowics to stay quiet: his disguise as a German soldier would be ruined if he tried speaking German, which he cannot do very well.
    Kommandant Franz, aus Frankfurt...Guten Morgen...Guten Morgen...eh, fuck it.

    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".
  • In the backstory of Umineko: When They Cry, naval crews from Japan and Italy are stranded on a desert island during World War II. The only way they can come to a mutual understanding is because both crews have one individual capable of speaking English, which allows them some limited communication. These two interpreters are Kinzo Ushiromiya (for the Japanese) and Beatrice Castiglioni (for the Italians): they hook up some time later, which kicks off the story.
  • In The Last Birdling, Bimonia and Vi have a tough time communicating at first because the latter doesn't seem to know how to say anything besides her own name. Reading the game's glossary reveals that in actuality, Snow Birdlings like Vi have their own language that they invented themselves, but they are forbidden from using this language around any other species.
  • Shizune from Katawa Shoujo runs into this a lot. She's deaf and speaks in sign language, but most people don't know sign language. She usually has her best friend Misha around to translate but they can't always be together. She also carries a pen and memo pad just in case, but really hates being forced to communicate like that. In Shizune's arc, Hisao eventually learns sign language.
  • Missing Stars: St. Dymphna's is an international boarding school in Vienna that mainly consists of European students. Most speak English decently enough, but there are a lot of students (mostly French) who don't.

     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.
  • Follower:
    • The chio appear to have great difficulty learning English.
    • Averted between the chio themselves, who have a language they appear to be born knowing.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent has a quite complex situation regarding its main cast. The five languages spoken are Icelandic, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Finnish. Finnish is very different from all other four. Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are in theory mutually understandable. Icelandic is a distant enough relative of these three to not be mutually understandable with them, but also happens to be the in-universe Common Tongue. Concerning the actual cast, there is:
    • Two Finnish cousins, one speaking only Finnish, one who took both Swedish and Icelandic as second languages. The latter can understand Norwegian, but has trouble with the strong Danish accent.
    • A Swede who can only speak his own language, can understand Norwegian but has trouble with the Danish accent as well. No Icelandic or Finnish.
    • A Norwegian who can understand both Swedish and Danish despite the accent. No Icelandic or Finnish either.
    • A Dane who took Icelandic as a second laguage and can understand both Norwegian and Swedish, but not Finnish.
    • They eventually pick up an Icelandic stowaway who only knows his own language and can talk only with the two people who took it as a second language.
    • This is averted for Mission Control, where everyone speaks some Icelandic and downplayed during radio communications that involve some members of the main cast.
    • Gradually getting subverted as the comic goes on. Reynir still speaks only Icelandic, but seems capable of communicating with the others through gesturing. Emil and Lalli are taking step to learn each other's languages, though process is slow. While Lalli can barely write an understandable sentence in Swedish, Emil has become good enough to hold short conversations.
    • Reynir, Onni and Lalli (and occasionally Emil) can avert this trope when they meet in the Dream World, where language is irrelevant. Reynir was even surprised at Onni's poor Icelandic when they first talked in real life.
  • In That Deaf Guy, it's the barrier between English and ASL. The main characters are bilingual, but other people, often , and often hilariously, are not.
  • In Yokoka's Quest, each of the 12 elements has its own language associated with it, in addition to the humans who speak regular English. Different characters know and learn different languages, with some only able to speak and/or understand a particular language, without learning how to read/write it, leading to frequent language barriers.

     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 clever enough to know she shouldn't get involved in the weird stuff that might be happening in the house.
  • AFK: The orcs can't speak to other races in the game, so the people who become these don't understand each other's languages either.
  • Oh Noah, a PBS Kids webseries intended to teach basic Spanish vocabulary to children, has Noah's mishaps, and the vocabulary to teach, result from his inability to understand Spanish from others while living with his grandmother.

     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.
    • In "Italian Bob", Homer is vexed that people in Italy don't speak English.
      Homer: Americana? What the hell could that mean? Why can't you people learn to speak my language? I learned to eat your food!
  • In Littlest Pet Shop (2012), Blythe can talk to animals, but in the episode "Tongue Tied", she runs into a ferret who only speaks Korean. She needed the help of her Korean friend to understand her.
  • In an episode of My Life as a Teenage Robot, Jenny lost her English disc and ends up only speaking Japanese. No one around her knows Japanese and Jenny tries charades as way to "speak".
  • Young Justice notes that when Adam Strange first went to Rann, he was unable to properly communicate with Sardath and Alanna in anything but charades. Likewise the Krolotean language is so alien that even telepathy can't translate it very well.
  • Más and Menos of Teen Titans are the only characters in the show who only speak Spanish (save for the one time when Control Freak was able to set their language setting to English). As a result, none of the other characters ever really know what they're saying, which proves to be an obstacle when most of the Titans in the world have been abducted by the Brotherhood of Evil, Menos included, and Beast Boy has to lead Más and the other remaining Titans in a rescue mission.
    • This also comes up in the flashback episode "Go!", when Starfire arrives on Earth after having escaped a Gordanian slave ship with her handcuffs still on. She can only speak an alien language, so no one can understand her when she asks for help in getting the cuffs off or anything else she's been shouting in frustration, so she starts just smashing the cuffs into buildings and cars to try to break them—which makes the other four newly-arrived Titans think that she's just trying to destroy the city. Eventually Robin realizes what's going on and picks the lock on the handcuffs, freeing her, and she uses a Magic Kiss on him to learn English.
    • Said Magic Kiss makes its return in Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo when none of the Titans can speak or read Japanese, which poses a slight problem since they're in Japan to track down a villain. Starfire kisses a Japanese boy to assimilate the language, which is when she explains that Tamaraneans are able to learn languages through lip contact, but the rest of the Titans have no such luck. 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.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars has two clone troopers, Waxer and Boil, coming across a little Twi'lek orphan, named Numa. Once they earn her trust, she starts calling them "nerra". But the two clones only speak Basic, and have no idea what it means. After taking care of her, and reuniting with Obi-Wan, they finally learn what she's been calling them: "brother". Aww.
  • He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983): In "The Time Corridor", He-Man, Man-at-Arms, and Orko need to travel back to ancient Eternia to stop Skeletor who traveled back as well. Before sending them through time, the Sorceress warns them that the people of the past speak a completely different language. Sure enough, when they arrive, they are confronted by a tribe and they can't understand each other. Fortunately, Orko successfully performs a translator spell.
  • Bubi Bear of The Hair Bear Bunch happens to speak Tarulian, the tongue of the inhabitants of a planet on which the bears and keepers Peevly and Botch land in a rocket ship (episode "No Space Like Home"). The dialogue starts off appointing Hair Bear as the planet's new ruler, but Bubi's ensuing dialogue tells the Tarulians that Peevly is their Earth laeder. Hair is ejected as ruler in favor of Peevly.

     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.
  • In 1968, it was discovered that a Philadelphia mental hospital contained a perfectly sane woman who only spoke Ukrainian. Back in 1921, Catherine Yasinchuk had been institutionalized by authorities who mistook her for a Talkative Loon babbling nonsense.
  • After the RMS Titanic struck the iceberg on April 14th 1912, the Marconi wireless operators sent out CQD and SOS distress signals explaining that they were slowly sinking. One of the first ships to respond was the German cruise liner SS Frankfurt. It is assumed that the language barrier made it difficult for the Frankfurt's operator to properly translate the Titanic's increasingly frantic calls for help to his captain, and he repeatedly had to ask the Titanic to clarify her situation for the better part of two hours. At some point, the Titanic's operator (quite famously) lost his patience and essentially told him to shut up, stop jamming the airwaves and simply stay out of it:
    SS Frankfurt: FRANKFURT TO TITANIC: WE ARE 100 MILES OFF. WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?
    RMS Titanic: FOOL. YOU FOOL. STAND BY. STAND BY. STAND BY AND KEEP OUT. KEEP OUT.

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