LINGUIST List 20.2377|
Fri Jul 03 2009
Review: Sociolinguistics: Bleichenbacher (2008)
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Multilingualism in the Movies
Message 1: Multilingualism in the Movies
From: Andrew Caines <apc38cam.ac.uk>
Subject: Multilingualism in the Movies
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AUTHOR: Bleichenbacher, Lukas
TITLE: Multilingualism in the Movies
SUBTITLE: Hollywood Characters and Their Language Choices
SERIES: Swiss Studies in English
PUBLISHER: Francke Verlag
Andrew Caines, Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics, University
This title is an addition to Francke Verlag's long-running series, ''Swiss
Studies in English'', and it is the monograph of Bleichenbacher's doctoral
dissertation which was submitted to the University of Zurich in 2007. Its focus
is the depiction of languages other than English in Hollywood-made movies.
Twenty-eight modern movies are selected for consideration and various angles of
analysis are taken. These relate to three main questions: how characters' status
as native speakers of languages other than English is signaled, whether those
same characters are portrayed in a positive or negative light in the movie and
how much that is based on their language use, and thirdly how language choice
relates to context in the plot of the movies. These three areas of research are
contained within the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters respectively with the
title: ''Replacement strategies'', ''Characterization'' and ''Language choice''.
Before that, there is a brief introduction with an overview of the book's
structure, a discussion of multilingualism in reality (chapter 2) and in fiction
(chapter 3), and details about the movies selected for analysis and why they
were selected (chapter 4). Conclusions are drawn in the eighth and final
chapter. Disappointingly, there is no index. This book will be of special
interest to researchers in the areas of Film Studies, Language Politics and
Language Ideology. It may also be of passing interest to researchers in the
areas of Discourse Analysis and Language Acquisition. Recreational readers with
a curiosity about language issues and a love of movies may also consider reading
This book is informative and thought-provoking in that it prompts the reader to
reconsider how languages other than English, and the speakers of those languages
in turn, are used and portrayed in Hollywood-made movies (and non-Hollywood and
television output by extension). It is obvious that since the Hollywood movie
industry is located in an English speaking country and funded by American
studios, productions are made with an English speaking audience in mind, in the
first instance at least. Dubbings into other languages are always an
afterthought. For many movies, the story is set exclusively in the USA, the
characters speak English as a first language, and so there are no linguistic
complications to speak of. But for many other movies, of course, the plot
necessitates scenes set in countries where English is not the first language,
and therefore characters whose first language is not English (OL1 henceforth).
This means that choices must be made as to how these facts are made clear to the
audience whilst retaining the comprehensibility of any dialogue or written
language in some way. The questions which Bleichenbacher poses relate to the
language choices made in movies of this type, and how these choices are imposed
on the characters in relation to the characters' contribution to the storyline –
positive, negative, humorous, sinister or not.
In finding a way to answer these questions Bleichenbacher displays an admirable
knowledge of the twenty-eight movies he has selected to be his source material
(the ''language contact movie corpus'' as he calls it), and more besides. Various
techniques of analysis are used, both qualitative and quantitative. Dialogue
excerpts and screenshots are included to illustrate certain issues, and these
are without fail discussed thoroughly. Also, data tables describe trends in the
corpus overall. Eventually, Bleichenbacher does arrive at an answer to his
questions. The problem for the reader is that it, and any hint of it, is
concealed for too long. The moment of revelation comes near the end of the book,
toward the close of the penultimate chapter, as might be expected, except that
it wasn't expected. This issue reflects the overall failing of the book: not in
its content, which is suitably readable and informative, but in its
organization. It does not feel as though Bleichenbacher leads the reader
assertively through his material, towards an inevitable conclusion. Instead, we
join him as he works his way through his movie database, searching for clues.
What's lacking is a sense of direction and purpose.
The brief introduction is at fault here. Methods and research questions are
outlined, as is the structure of the book, but there is no anticipation of the
conclusion and as a result it becomes at times difficult to understand ''why'' at
various stages in the text. It is hard if not impossible to reconcile the
discussion with the final destination of the book when that is not known.
However, the issues are clearly introduced, thanks to a competent review of the
literature on multilingualism in the real world and in fiction. The concepts of
linguistic 'convergence' and 'divergence' to the interlocutor are explained,
referenced (Sachdev & Giles 2004), and repeatedly used in later analysis.
Various other extant theories are described and amply set the background to the
purpose of the study. The most important other concept encountered at this stage
is that of 'linguicism' – ''ideologies, structures and practices which are used
to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and
resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the
basis of language'' (Phillipson 1992: 47). The occurrence of linguicist
stereotyping is identified frequently in the rest of the book.
Bleichenbacher also calls upon work by Irvine & Gal (2000) to formulate his
hypotheses at the outset of the sixth chapter on characterization. The focus for
the chapter is thus placed upon 'iconization' (the status and portrayal of
L2-English speakers), 'fractal recursivity' (the idea that OL1 characters speak
English worse than L1 English characters speak other languages) and 'erasure'
(the complexities of language contact are greatly simplified for the big
screen). Thanks to numerous examples and data tables Bleichenbacher is able to
conclude in favor of the first and third hypotheses and against the second. That
is, ''there is a clear relationship between having a non-English first language
and being a less powerful and more negative character'', ''the process of erasure
is discernible in the reduction of the complexity of cross-cultural
communication'', and ''OL1 characters, whether good guys or bad, are portrayed as
highly fluent in English as a second language in most cases'' while ''EL1
characters are not only much more monolingual than the OL1 characters, but their
L2 proficiency is also much lower'' (144-5).
The same theory by Irvine & Gal is in turn used to set the agenda for the next
chapter – the seventh one, on language choice. This time the three hypotheses
relate to 'global patterns of language choice' (status), 'comprehensibility
strategies' (relevance) and 'code-switching' (reality and simplification).
Again, discussion of excerpts and data tables ensues, and the conclusions are
that ''English is used more often in situations with more prestigious settings
and social activities, and in scenes characterized by a positive mood'' while
''other languages are associated with less prestigious settings and activities,
and they also index more scenes with negative moods'', confirming the first
hypothesis. ''Dialogue [in other languages] is only rarely as irrelevant as the
background murmurs and shouts in the replacement movies discussed in chapter 5
[movies in which situations where you might anticipate languages other than
English are played out exclusively in English, except for occasional and
irrelevant 'scene-setting' foreign dialogue and signs]'', thereby contradicting
the second hypothesis. As a result, non-English language is present and is
relevant to the plot. Therefore its meaning needs to be conveyed to the audience
in most cases, and the favored strategy for this is subtitling. A mixed
conclusion is made for the third hypothesis: firstly the unreality that OL1
characters have far fewer lines of dialogue than do the EL1 characters, in
contrast to quite realistic, albeit simplified, motivations for code switching.
On this subject, table 26 presents the pleasant finding that only a minority of
instances of code-switching are 'indexical' – that is, without psycholinguistic,
pragmatic or sociolinguistic motivation. Instead, the majority are found to be
'situational': ''factors... such as the speaker's linguistic repertoire, the
addressee(s) of a turn, or the topic discussed'' (192).
The most impressive aspect of these two chapters – as well as the fifth, which
discusses replacement strategies (how non-English language situations are dealt
with) – is the detailed and lively discussion of dialogue, scenes and
characterization in the movies. The least impressive aspect is without question
the data presentation. Tables are adequate and thoroughly discussed. The problem
instead is with the charts. These are woefully inadequate and incomprehensible.
The shades of grey and the small text make the charts difficult to read in the
first place. The attempt to include too much information and/or too many factors
only adds to the confusion. The worst examples of this shortcoming are chart 1,
especially in that it is the first and so sets the tone, as well as charts 4, 5,
and 7. In addition, it's not clear exactly what purpose these charts serve,
since the data tables are otherwise adequate and a long preamble at the start of
chapter 6 (before the appearance of chart 1) is deliberately dissuasive that any
quantitative results of statistical significance will be found because of the
admitted variation in genres of the movies in the corpus.
As for the corpus itself, it is perfectly acceptable that the movies selected
should be ''highly popular'' (39), since this is a study of Hollywood movies
primarily, and of their impact secondarily. The selection naturally cannot be
homogeneous, such is the nature of movie making. The twenty-eight can be
categorized as six historical dramas (from _Amadeus_ to _Schindler's List_),
five intercultural comedies (from _Green Card_ to _Just Married_) and seventeen
action movies. This last category is further broken down into six James Bond
movies, three Jack Ryan movies and eight others. Such a high number of Bond
movies means that there is a strong presence of homogeneity within the general
heterogeneity of the whole corpus. Perhaps some of these could have been omitted
and the trend for variation could have been fully sustained. Nevertheless,
variety is achieved thanks to the inclusion of the Medieval and Tudor
(_Braveheart_, _Elizabeth_), the recent and modern (_The Pianist_, _The
Peacemaker_), the extraordinary (_Goldeneye_, _Hannibal_) and the everyday
(_Sabrina_, _Traffic_). All of which provides plenty of material for analysis
later in the book.
Chapters six and seven are the most significant of the book, and point directly
to the main conclusion, which comes out almost by surprise, right at the end of
chapter seven. Namely, the interaction between the results of the testing of the
Irvine & Gal based hypotheses, discussed above, is an inverse one: the movies
with the more positive characterization of OL1 speakers contain the least OL1
dialogue; those with the least positive OL1 characterization contain relatively
large amounts of OL1 dialogue. Bleichenbacher ascribes this to a 'compensation'
effect: homogeneity of language use co-occurs with positive OL1 characterization
and so ''the predominance of the English language'' is the by product (218). This
is a persuasive outcome which relates directly to some of the most interesting
passages of the book – those which relate to language ideology and the ''popular
belief that all the world speaks English, only and always'' (Kellman 2000: 102).
Overall, this is a book which could benefit from improved organization, not only
in terms of a clear sense of direction, but also from clearer delineation – or
perhaps combination – of the three analysis chapters 5-7. At times, it feels as
though there is considerable overlap between the three. Nevertheless, and
despite poor presentation of charts, the discussion of specific extracts and
summarizing tables of data make for a thought provoking read with an unexpected
outcome. This study of Hollywood movies stands as a sturdy baseline against
which comparative studies of other movie-making traditions (European, African,
Asian and so on) may be measured.
Irvine, J. & Gall, S. (2000) Language ideology and linguistic differentiation.
In Kroskrity, P.V. (ed.), _Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Politics and
Identities_. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 35-83.
Kellman, S.G. (2000) _The Translingual Imagination_. Lincoln: University of
Phillipson, R. (1992) _Linguistic Imperialism_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sachdev, I. & Giles, H. (2004) Bilingual accommodation. In Bhatia, T.K. &
Ritchie, W.C. (eds.) _The Handbook of Bilingualism_. Malden: Blackwell
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Andrew Caines is in the final year of his PhD program at the University of
Cambridge. His research is a corpus-based study of an innovative construction in
English – namely, the 'zero auxiliary' interrogative: what you doing? you going
to town? you talking to me? For more information go to
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