Follow TV Tropes


Switch to English

Go To
"Oh, you speak English! Good! [in German] You can turn off the subtitles now."
German Policeman, The Man with Two Brains

Characters begin speaking in a language other than the primary language of the audience, but find an excuse to switch to the more familiar language so that the audience doesn't have to read too many of those pesky subtitles.

Unlike Translation Convention or Translator Microbes, the characters who switch to English really are speaking English. Usually, a specific reason will be given in the work for characters switching to a different language in mid-conversation. There are many ways that the switch can happen.

A common reason given to justify two non-native speakers speaking English to each other is that they do so in order to "practice". Conversely, sometimes Alice and Bob might discover that they are both from an English-speaking country and don't need to speak the vernacular of where they are in when speaking to each other. Maybe Alice will suggest to switch to English because she knows it better than the current language of the conversation, or maybe they are somewhere where few people know English and they don't want to be overheard, or so on and so forth. If this is done poorly, it can be jarring and seem forced, especially if the characters really have no good reason to switch.

In addition, some non-English productions, such as Nordic cop shows, may feature this when two characters who can't speak each other's native language decide to both switch to English, which they can both speak - for example, Aliona can't speak Russian, Boris can't speak Italian, but they both can speak English; probably because they learned it at school.

Keep in mind that some examples of Translation Convention can be mistaken for this. This trope only applies if there is a reason in universe for the characters to be speaking in a language the audience can understand instead of the characters' own. This does not apply to situations where the characters speak English for the convenience of the audience, but are understood to be actually speaking another language. Also compare Completely Unnecessary Translator, which is about a character speaking to someone through a translator only to reveal that he actually speaks their language perfectly fluently.

See also Eloquent in My Native Tongue, which can be an inverse of this trope, as it may start with them speaking an unfamiliar language and switch to a more comfortable one.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Neon Genesis Evangelion, in Asuka's first appearance, she tries to link up to her EVA in German while Shinji is riding with her in the cockpit. Her EVA is unresponsive due to Shinji's Japanese thoughts interfering, so she commands it to switch to Japanese mode.

    Comic Books 
  • Wonder Woman (1942): Once Wonder Woman reveals that she has learnt their language her Saturnain captors switch to speaking English to each other in her presence and from that point it becomes very unclear when they're speaking English or their own language.

    Fan Works 
  • In Dragon Ball Z Abridged:
    • When Dende brings Krillin before Guru, Nail initially addresses Dende in Namekian. When he realizes Krillin is from Earth, they switch to the "universal language": English.
    • Nail does the same thing when meeting Piccolo. With Nail laying dying from being defeated by Frieza at the time, Piccolo initially thinks he's been beaten so badly he can no longer speak properly.
      Piccolo: Please tell me you're not dead.
      Nail: [speaks unsubtitled Namekian]
      Piccolo: Aw crap, I find the only living thing for miles, and he's so broken he can't even talk right.
      Nail: I was speaking Namekian, you idiot.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Hunt for Red October, when Jack Ryan, Bart Mancuso, and Jonesy first come aboard the titular Russian submarine, Jack breaks the ice by asking for a cigarette (until this point he's said, "I don't smoke" every time an American offered him one), but does so with a gesture as if he didn't know any Russian. Naturally, he starts getting sick. The Russians notice this and start laughing. When Captain Ramius sees that Mancuso has a pistol, he makes a comment in Russian about it (using a Russian word that sounds just like "buckaroo"), and Ryan starts to chuckle.
    Mancuso: What's so funny?
    Ryan: Ah, the captain seems to think you're some sort of cowboy.
    Ramius: [Russian] You speak Russian?
    Ryan: [Russian] A little. It is wise to study the ways of one's adversaries. Don't you agree?
    Ramius: [English] It is.
At that point everyone onboard Red October speaks only in English. Tupolev's crew on board the Konovalov continue to use Translation Convention, though, and one Russian in a lifeboat lets out an exclamation in Russian. In the commentary track, director John McTiernan mentions that he recalled seeing this used in the film Judgment At Nuremberg.
  • Japanese-American O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 precedes a speech to Yakuza members by explaining in Japanese why she's about to switch to English. "So you all will know the seriousness of my warning, I shall say this in English." We hear her Number Two translate it to Japanese, though. (This arguably represents an additional layer of insult: having just effectively pointed out they all speak English perfectly well in a situation where acknowledging this would be a bit shameful, the translation implies they're incompetent as well as cultural sellouts.)
  • Inglourious Basterds: Happens with Lieutenant Archie Hicox, whose German is flawless (although his strange accent arouses suspicion among German soldiers and an SS officer), after he is discovered as a spy.
    Lt. Archie Hicox: [in English] Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's.
    Major Dieter Hellstrom: [in English] By all means, Captain.
  • Moscow on the Hudson: During an early scene in Russia, two characters decide to practice their English by continuing their conversation in English.
  • In Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Maria Elena and Juan Antonio are Spanish. Cristina is American. When the three of them gather to converse, Maria first talks to Juan in Spanish, but Juan comes up with the objection that it shows disrespect to Cristina, who doesn't speak Spanish. So then all of them switch to English merrily after some random arguments about Chinese.
  • In The Man with Two Brains, Dr. Hfuhruhurr gets pulled over by a German-speaking policeman. When he replies to the policeman in English, the policeman says, "Oh, you speak English! Good!" and directs his partner to turn off the subtitles.
  • Frequently happened in Until the End of the World: Claire variously speaks French and English, and also some German. She frequently switches to English to converse with others.
  • In The Transporter, a Chinese father tells his daughter to converse in English with him (even though she speaks perfect Chinese), because language school was expensive. For reference, the film is set in France.
  • In the movie version of The Da Vinci Code, two French characters have conversations in English, via the "you have to practice this foreign language" excuse.
  • Inverted in The Legend of Zorro. After the title character rescues his son from the Big Bad's gang, they start a conversation in English. Then Zorro cuts the conversation off and requests that they converse in "the language of our fathers" — Spanish. The rest of the conversation occurs in Spanish with English subtitles.
  • In The Two Towers in Lord of the Rings Legolas and Aragorn are discussing Rohan's recruits, with Legolas disparaging them. They use Elvish, which Aragorn speaks fluently, until, exasperated, he breaks into English (which is supposed to be Westron, the Common Language of Middle-Earth).
  • In Johnny Mnemonic, Takahashi and Shinji begin a conversation in Japanese, before Takahashi chastises Shinji for speaking "terrible" Japanese and demands Shinji talk to him in English. Towards the end of their conversation, Takahashi switches to English, as well.
  • In Gung Ho, Takahara Kazuhiro's wife starts speaking Japanese to him in one scene, but he tells her to practice her English and they continue the conversation in English.
  • In the Jackie Chan movie Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie comes to America and meets up with his uncle. The two speak in Chinese for a while but his uncle soon asks, "How's your English?" Jackie mentions that his English is passable so his uncle insists they speak it from that point on. The rest of the film is in English. However, this only applies to the English dub. And it's actually dubbed over, all of the actors are actually speaking Cantonese throughout the film.
  • Dialogue in Looking for Alibrandi fluctuates between English and Italian. This is because Christina is the daughter of two Italian immigrants to Australia (and her daughter Josephine is the only Alibrandi woman to speak only English).
  • In the 2010 Robin Hood film, the King of France and the English traitor Sir Godfrey begin a conversation in French, before the King asks to switch to English. This is especially weird since as a 12th century noble Sir Godfrey's native tongue should also be French.
  • This happens in Sicario when Alejandro confronts Alarcon in front of his wife and children, with the wording being so that his children don't have to hear why he's here to kill him.
    Alejandro: (in Spanish) Do your children speak English? (Beat) Then we will speak English.
  • Star Trek:
    • Inverted in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock — the Klingons in an early scene start talking in English before switching to Klingon.
      Valkris: (in English) Commander Kruge, this is Valkris. (in Klingonese) I have obtained the Federation data. Ready to transmit.
      Kruge: (in English) Well done, Valkris. Well done. (in Klingonese) Disengage cloaking device.
    • A rather odd example happens in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and it occurs with the Translation Convention in place (after it's been non-humorously Lampshaded). During Kirk and McCoy's trial (which is conducted in Klingon, and Kirk and McCoy are shown listening to a translation with devices), the scene starts in Klingon, then switches to Klingon translators translating into English (or at least Federation Standard) then switching back to the trial itself, and now everybody is speaking English (Translation Convention). At one point General Chang starts yelling at Kirk about his background and says "Don't wait for the translation! Answer me now!" (in Klingon, but we see English) and Kirk responds, showing not only that he speaks Klingon, but that Chang knows he speaks Klingon.
  • Inverted in the Russian film Gun with a Silencer, where two patients escape from an American mental hospital. Bob thinks he's a spy, while Jack thinks he's a woman for half a day. Both meet with a man who claims to be a general, who gives them a hot air balloon in order to infiltrate Russia and sabotage the "shameful peace" between the two nations. While in the air, Bob states that, from now on, they will be speaking the enemy's language. Up until then, they were speaking in English (dubbed over with Russian). Then Bob switches to fluent Russian, while Jack switches to fluent Ukrainian (he learned the wrong language by mistake). They accidentally land in a Russian mental institution and assume that this is a normal Russian community.
  • Near the beginning of Iron Sky, Renate, teaching German schoolchildren on the moon, says that she will be conducting the rest of the class in English as practice. It certainly helps the audience, too.
  • Happens in a weird scene in Desperate Journey. After the Allied pilots knock out Gestapo Major Baumeister and escape from his office, Baumeister calls in his subordinate to talk about catching them. All the Germans in the movie have spoken in German to this point, but the film needed to get some plot across, so Baumeister asks his underling "You speak English, don't you?" The rest of the scene unfolds in English, for no reason.
  • Played for Laughs as a nonsexual Double Entendre in The Love Bug. Tennessee Steinmetz, Jim Douglas's mechanic and sidekick, is talking in broken Mandarin Chinese with a plaintiff whose property Herbie (the car) damaged. The sidekick tells the plaintiff about the car being Herbie. The plaintiff wants the car himself, once Dean Jones's character understands, the following (approximate) exchange occurs:
    Jim Douglas: All right, but we get to race it in the next race. If we win, you get the prize money, but we get to buy Herbie back for a dollar.
    Plaintiff: Now, that's the language I speak!
  • Justified in Joyeux Nol as English is the only language that all the lieutenants from Scotland, Germany and France are able to speak with each other. However, when it is just the French and German lieutenants, the language of choice is French as the German lieutenant is able to speak fluently in it as he is married to a French woman.

  • Inverted in a joke about "American" nuclear scientists in the early '40s. At a nuclear science conference, the first speaker asks:
    Speaker: Is Dr. Jones present?
    Man from the audience: No, he is sick.
    Speaker: Akkor jó napot kívánok uraim, a konferenciát ezennel megnyitom.translation 

  • In A Certain Magical Index, while working together in Japan, Stiyl (an English priest) and Agnes (an Italian nun) communicate in Japanese despite being fluent in each others' languages. Agnes claims that her English has an incomprehensibly thick Italian accent compared to her Japanese,note  and that she would likewise wince at hearing Stiyl mangle her own mother tongue. Since Agnes is Catholic and Stiyl is Protestant, it also ensures that neither of them has an unfair advantage if an argument breaks out.
  • In Jingo, the Klatchian armies speak Morporkian (i.e. English) because there are so many Klatchian languages, and even though Ankh-Morpork is the enemy, its status as a Merchant City means they all speak the language for trading purposes.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Burn Notice:
    • In an episode, Micheal pretends to be a Russian spy. He begins talking to a contact in Russian, who suggests switching to Spanish, because his Russian is rusty. They settle on English instead. For a bit of context, Michael is fluent in several languages (as befitting a former CIA field agent), but not Spanish. Given that he was born and raised in Miami, this is funny.
    • In another episode, an actual Russian spy does the same thing to a Cuban smuggler: "Mind if we speak English? My Spanish is not so good."
  • Often happens in Covert Affairs. Annie will find her contact, begin speaking to them in their native language and then the contact will say something about being fluent in English and from there on out they will speak in English.
  • In the Monty Python's Flying Circus episode "The Cycling Tour", John Cleese is a Soviet officer making a speech in Russian to fellow Soviets, pausing for the subtitles to show, and then says in Russian, "Forgive me if I continue in English in order to save time."
  • In the 1989 Doctor Who story "The Curse of Fenric", a group of World War II-era Soviet soldiers are on a secret mission in England. The first scene has them speaking Russian with subtitles, then their leader says "From now on, we speak only English", and they do — with implausible dedication in some cases, up to and including while dying. Quite how the still clearly Russian-accented soldiers were expected to blend in with the natives is debatable.
  • In Brothers & Sisters, Sarah is in France and attempts to ask for directions from a Frenchman. After much struggling, the Frenchman casually reveals he can speak English and the rest of their conversations stays in English.
  • In Stargate SG-1, Daniel Jackson is sent over to Russia to handle negotiations. Russian being one of the numerous languages Jackson knows, one would think that he'd speak in Russian while there. But it turns out that his Russian contact thinks his Russian is terrible, and asks that they stick to English instead.
  • Inverted in the Blackadder short film Blackadder: Back and Forth. The 21st-century Blackadder and Baldrick have traveled back in time to when the Romans ruled Britain, where their identical ancestors are guarding Hadrian's Wall. All the Roman characters speak English; however, when General Melchett('s Roman ancestor) shows up, he compliments one of the characters on his excellent English — then switches into Latin, which everyone speaks for the rest of the scene.
  • It's not the trope namer, but there actually was once a short-lived British game show called "Switch to English", in which people with a different first language competed to see who spoke English best. It was as thrilling as it sounds.
  • NCIS:
    • In the episode "Blowback," Ducky goes undercover for a meeting with French Arms Dealer La Grenouille. They start conversing in French before McGee prompts Ducky via earwig to switch to English.
    • Zig-Zagged in "Legend" — to pose as Russian agents, Gibbs and Callen switch to Russian before switching back to English with a Russian accent.
    • The episode "Twenty Klicks" starts out this way:
      Anton Pavlenko: [Russian] Where is your allegiance today, Sergei? What language shall we speak? Russian? Farsi? Chinese?
      Sergei Mishnev: [Russian] Let's go with English. [English] You spend so much time sucking up to the Americans, by all means you should feel comfortable.
  • Inverted in multiple directions once in NCIS: Los Angeles when Callen meets a fellow agent and they spend a scene switching through several different languages like they're taking a linguistic tour of Europe.
  • In the Swedish series Arne Dahl, this happens on at least two occasions.
    • One character goes to Estonia for a case (he ends up getting nailed to a wall, but that's another story) and speaks English to his Estonian counterparts.
    • In "Europa Blues", Arto flies to Italy as part of the case. After trying his best at Italian, the Italian cop suggests that he switches to English.
  • Murdoch Mysteries: Early in "Monsieur Murdoch" when Murdoch, Higgins and Crabtree find a man in a missing woman's hotel room, the constables tackle the man, who speaks in French, demanding to be released. Murdoch asks the man to identify himself in French, and the man does so — turns out he's a member of the Paris police. Soon he insultingly suggests switching to English so he can butcher that language instead. Murdoch doesn't take the bait, but later on (once the two are working together), he reverts to French without provoking any complaint from the Frenchman.
  • In the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery, Klingon warlord T'Kuvma pulls one at the end of his opening speech to his followers.
    T'Kuvma: (in Klingonese) They are coming. Atom by atom, they will coil around us and take all that we are. There is one way to confront this threat: by reuniting the twenty-four warring houses of our own empire. We have forgotten the Unforgettable, the last to unify our tribes: Kahless. Together, under one creed: remain Klingon!
    All: Remain Klingon!
    T'Kuvma: That is why we light our beacon this day. To assemble our people. To lock arms against those whose fatal greeting is... (in English) "We come in peace."
  • The Americans, where the Russian spies and their handlers spoke English all the time, because apparently they did not want to get out of character, although the real purpose was to cover up the obviously very American accents the actors had in the very few lines they spoke in Russian. That being said, The Americans was about the only halfway decent show when it came to hiring Russian actors - at least all the characters from the Russian embassy or appearing in the scenes set in Russia were played by them and the showmakers were not afraid of extensive subtitled scenes.
  • Killing Eve, where Villanelle speaks English most of the time, even to the French (although her teacher claimed French had been her favourite language) or when she is in Russian prison. No explanation is given except for a Hand Wave: "she just doesn't like to speak Russian". Jodie Comer's accent is good, but obviously non-native.
  • In the pilot episode of Wonder Woman (1975), a Nazi officer greets with one of his spies in German before telling his subordinate they should switch to speaking in English to prevent anyone hearing the spy's secret mission. However, the whole thing is for naught since the officer's eavesdropping assistant is an Allied double agent who speaks both English and German.

  • The Sabaton Cruise concert on the deluxe edition of Heroes has frontman Joakim Broden mostly speaking Swedish (it's a Finnish liner, meaning most of the passengers understand it), but switching to English sometimes when he needs to explain something to other members of the audience (such as teaching the Poles how to say "Another beer please" in Swedish and vice versa). Then there's a bit where he gives a prize to a Swedish member of the audience and keeps going in English for a moment.
    Joakim Broden: Sorry, Svenska! [hits himself in the head a couple times and continues in Swedish]

  • The Johann Strauss opera Die Fledermaus has a scene where two characters are pretending to be French at a Viennese ball. They exchange simple phrases and nonsense before the other guests demand they speak German like everyone else.
  • In Anyone Can Whistle, when Fay, in her French-accented Lady in Red disguise, meets Hapgood, they have a subtitled conversation in Gratuitous French. When he asks her (still in French) about her red hair, their conversation switches back to English:
    Fay: C'est une— how do you say? Wig?
    Hapgood: Wig.
    Fay: Do you mind?
    Hapgood: Not a bit.
    Fay: I didn't think you would.

    Video Games 
  • In Half-Life 2, two Vortigaunts are speaking to each other in their native language, but when they notice Gordon Freeman is listening in nearby, they apologize for their rudeness and switch to English. They state that they will speak in English, unless they wish to say unkind things about you. All of their dialogue is still in their native language after this.
  • This happens at the very beginning of Grand Theft Auto IV. Niko tries to speak to his cousin Roman in Serbian, but Roman switches to English, because he has not spoken Serbian for so long that he has forgotten it.
  • In Rhythm Heaven Fever, during the practice for "Tambourine", a monkey gives you instructions in "ooks". When you get past the first set, he informs you, in Monkey, "As a reward, I shall now switch to English."
  • In Saints Row 2 there are several points where Shogo tells Jyunichi to speak English rather than Japanese.
  • In Rise To Honor the default option is to have all the dialogue in Hong Kong spoken in Cantonese, but it switches entirely to English upon Kit's arrival in San Francisco from Hong Kong. However, upon his return, he and the other characters revert to speaking Cantonese, including his friend Michelle who traveled back with him, even when the two are speaking amongst themselves, with no justification given.
  • Done in-game but not literally story-wise in Infinity Blade II. The first game was voiced entirely in a fictional language called Pangean. In the beginning of the second game, the first line is spoken in Pangean, then it switches to English for the rest of the game (and series), as a way to establish Translation Convention.

  • Maple Sugar and Gosling: Magical Girls: When Québécois businessman Monsieur Bernard first arrives, he introduces himself to Maple Sugar in French, which she is fluent in. However, Maple asks him to speak English instead, as she doesn't want Gosling to be left out of the conversation.

    Real Life 
  • Can be an example of Truth in Television. Many people who have immigrated to another country may speak in the language most common in their new country instead of their native tongue for convenience's sake.
  • In multilingual families, a conversation can start in one language, switch to another, and then switch back again. This is often because concepts may be easier to express in one language than the other.
  • Invoked by France's then-Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner at one meeting of The European Union Council of Ministers; the ministers had all sat down and donned their earphones, when Kouchner, who was chairing the meeting, said something of the effect of, "Guys, take those damned silly thingsnote  off. Everybody here speaks English, we'll get more done that way, and we're not fooling anyone with this nonsense."
  • A story from Rinkworks' Computer Stupidities page zigzags this trope in a hilariously confusing way:
    "I used to work in tech support for a company in Sweden. Once a guy called and started talking in English. Well, I speak fairly fluent English, so this wasn't a problem. So I spoke English back, and we started troubleshooting his problem. After a little while I started to suspect something was up with this guy, because he didn't always seem to understand what I was saying, and he often fumbled for words. Right then, I heard a door open in the background, and a voice said, in Swedish, 'Ready to go to lunch, Sten?' He answered in perfect Swedish. I put the customer on hold and tried not to spit my coffee out from laughing so hard. When he came back on the phone, he spoke in English, and I spoke in Swedish. After about five more minutes of him following my instructions, he said to me in English, 'Hang on. I can't understand Swedish. Please speak English.' The rest of the conversation was in English."
  • Truth in Television for most English speakers. Bill Bryson discusses the rise of English as the international language of business and politics in The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. One European corporation had roots in Italy, France, and Germany, so English was selected as the language for meetings, factory orders, etc. One member of the board noted "This way, we're all equally disadvantaged."
  • Another example of a business that switched to English as its official business language is Nokia. It started holding its board meetings in English even before recruiting its first non-Finnish board member in 1992, and adopted English for all corporate purposes in 1995.
  • In Taiwan, medical education uses English terminology, so the Legislature had to pass a law saying Taiwanese doctors had to take a course in medical terms in Chinese and Taiwanese, because they couldn't explain their diagnoses to the vast majority of their patients who didn't understand medical English.
  • Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, very fluent in English thanks to spending much of his teenage and young adult years in the US, regularly holds staff meetings in English instead of Hebrew. During meetings between him and Naftali Bennett in 2021 regarding the formation of a new government that Bennett headed for a short time, the two men used only English.note 
  • Considering the international nature of sporting, countless athletes are compelled to learn English especially for the sake of interviews and/or communicating with teammates. Case in point Filipino former boxer Manny Pacquiao who spoke next to no English when he began his professional career but later boasted conversational ability when he entered politics.
  • The Triparte Pact, signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan in September 1940, was primarily aimed at dissuading the United States from joining the Allies, since the three signatories agreed that if any country not already at war with any of them at the time of the signing attacked one of the three, the other two would declare war on the attacker in return. Thus it was somewhat ironic that the treaty was written in English - since it was the only language that all 3 national delegations understood.
  • During the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the UN, American Ambassador Adlai Stevenson famously tried to invoke this trope on the hesitant Soviet UN representative: "Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no don't wait for the translation yes or no?"


Video Example(s):



The Chinese father tells his daughter to converse in English with him (even though she speaks perfect Chinese), because language school was expensive.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / SwitchToEnglish

Media sources: