Language Barriers in Film

Some people speak one language, some speak another, others speak two or three or ten. Whether or not language knowledge overlaps, communication is not only possible, but it is essential. Though they may differ from reality, some films employ the use of language barriers to create a conflict and affect the message of the film. The offbeat communications can elicit a variety of emotions from audiences and give a movie a realistic twist. Whether the end result emphasizes humor, terror, sorrow, or anything in between, the following seven films all depict how language barriers may not really be barriers at all.

1. The Impossible (2012), Spain

While on vacation in Thailand, a British woman, Maria (Naomi Watts), and her son, Lucas (Tom Holland), are separated from the rest of their family during the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Maria is seriously injured and is eventually rescued by locals who take her to a small and chaotic hospital housing hundreds of injured people. While his mother is being treated for her life threatening injuries, Lucas overcomes turmoil and language barriers to reunite several foreign language speaking patients with their families. This film benefits from using several foreign languages to amplify the panic of lost and injured victims who are desperate to find their loved ones and survive this natural disaster.

2. Lost In Translation (2003), United States

Bob (Bill Murray), a middle aged actor, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman accompanying her husband on a business trip in Japan, meet and begin a friendship while exploring Tokyo together. At one point in the film, Bob takes Charlotte to a hospital to have her foot injury checked out. While in the waiting room, an elderly man, who speaks only Japanese, attempts a conversation with Bob, who does his best to communicate despite not knowing any Japanese. Meanwhile, a pair of women laugh at the old man for his hopeless attempts at conversation with the clueless American. This parallels the audience finding humor whenever the American characters try to communicate with the confused Japanese characters.

3. Window to Paris (1993), France and Russia

A Russian man named Nikolai (Sergey Dreyden) rents a room in a communal house in St. Petersburg and discovers his window is an enchanted entrance to Paris. Throughout the film, the Russians, who speak no French, travel to Paris. They fail to interact peacefully with the French people they come across, especially Nicole (Agnés Soral), whose apartment they pass through each time they voyage to the city. Although the characters clash because of their communication barrier, it’s exactly this that brings them together. The Russians’ antics are comedic for the audience, but Nicole, in just a bathrobe, finds herself in trouble when she ends up in Russian jail after chasing the Russians back through their window. Nicole scolds Nikolai in French, but he is able to get her out of jail by tricking the police into believing she is in fact the French singer Edith Piaf, making their contrasting languages helpful in the end.

4. Spanglish (2004), United States

Flor (Paz Vega), a Mexican immigrant living in America who speaks only Spanish, begins working as a housekeeper for the Claskys, a wealthy American family (Téa Leoni, Adam Sandler, Cloris Leachman). The entire film highlights the difficulty of communicating through a language barrier, however there are several scenes where Flor and the Claskys manage to understand one another. In one scene, after Mrs. Clasky gives her daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele) a small jacket in hopes that she will lose weight to fit into it, Flor tailors the jacket to fit Bernice after seeing the young girl upset by the supposedly kind gesture from her mother. When Flor gives Bernice the jacket she repeatedly recites her recently learned phrase “just try it on,” however the gesture alone is enough to make Bernice ecstatic and she hugs Flor, indicating that sometimes actions speak louder than words.

5. Captain Phillips (2013), United States

A cargo ship led by Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is overtaken by Somalian pirates who intend to take hostages and demand millions of dollars for their freedom. Though the Somalians do speak some English, they mainly communicate with each other in Somali, which none of the Americans on board know. This language barrier between the pirates and the crew enhances the intensity of the film, especially in the scenes that follow the Somalians escape the main ship onto a lifeboat, taking the Captain with them. While the audience does have subtitles to understand the Somalians, Phillips watches in horror and confusion for days while tensions rise as the Somalians communicate in their native language to discuss whether or not they should kill Phillips, while the navy attempts to find a way to rescue Phillips.

6. Love Actually (2003), United Kingdom

In one of the ten storylines this romantic comedy showcases, Jamie (Colin Firth), a British man visiting his French cottage, employs Aurélia (Sienna Guillory), a housekeeper who only speaks Portuguese. Though the two can’t understand each other’s words, they communicate by miming or motioning. Their communication methods are shown in one scene in particular when Jamie tells Aurélia about the book he’s writing and they’re able to learn a bit about eachother.  Their multilingual interactions serve to express that not knowing one’s language does not mean you can’t get to know them as a person. Although they can’t understand one another through words, Jamie still confesses his favorite part of the day is driving Aurélia to the bus stop and pursues her romantically.

7. Gravity (2013), United States

On her first space exploration mission, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) survives after space debris hits and destroys the Explorer space shuttle and Hubble Telescope where she is working. After eventually traveling to the International Space Station and attempting to get back to earth by using a Soyuz capsule, its parachute gets etangled in the station and Stone begins to lose hope and contemplates suicide. She shuts off the capsule’s oxygen supply, but meanwhile manages to reach a man on Earth through the radio, but she can’t understand the language he speaks. However, their communication doesn’t end there. Dr. Stone speaks to the man and asks to hear his dogs bark and for him to continue singing his lullaby to her. Although the pair can’t have a conversation, the man is still able to calm Dr. Stone and remind her of her life on Earth. There is also a short film companion to Gravity which focuses on Aningaaq, the man Stone speaks with, and his side of their communication.

Whether a film is a comedy, drama, or action, language barriers help enhance the theme and the affect it has on the audience. Communicating through a language barrier may not be so easy in real life, but these seven films show how it can be possible.

Kate Joseph

Kate Joseph

Kate is a junior at Simmons College in Boston, Mass., studying Communications with a focus in Journalism and Media Arts. She can’t stop watching stand up comedy and adding an unrealistic amount of books to her ever growing “to read” list. In her spare time she likes to go kayaking, explore new places and make videos. She hopes to pursue a career that combines her passion for writing, film and global equality.

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