Foreign Actors & The Monolingual World: Why Learning A Second Language Improves Movie Experience

With Hollywood the most universally recognized exporter of movies, it’s easy for native English speakers to get comfortable with their cinema experience.  Most films marketed to us tend to be solely in English, and even for those artsy ones that aren’t, there are always subtitles.  But what are we missing by having to watch movies through a translator’s filter? Alternately, how can acting in a second language affect both an actor’s performance and their craft as a whole?

When it comes to portraying a character on-screen who is bilingual, there are various different methods actors take.  In many cases, an actor will blindly memorize their lines in a second language without actually understanding what it is they’re speaking.  Japanese actress Yoko Shimada won a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of Lady Toda Buntaro in the miniseries Shogun, with only a speech tutor guiding her through her lines.  More recently, Julliard graduate Samira Wiley has received acclaim for her bilingual performance in Orange Is the New Black, where she was informed she would have to act in German for the second season.  Despite not speaking a word of German, Wiley delivered a stunningly raw performance that has made her one of the most talked about new talents in television.


Then you have actors who are fluent in different languages and are comfortable in taking on roles in all sorts of tongues.  While acting in English has its obvious career benefits, many international actors have described taking on a different persona when acting in English as opposed to their native language.  Spanish actor Javier Bardem has described himself as having a much more “cerebral” connection to English as opposed to his emotional connection with Spanish, the language in which he has experienced most of his life.

As for native English speakers with fluency in another language, such as Viggo Mortensen who starred in the Argentine film “Everybody Has a Plan” and Jodie Foster who had a small role in the French film “The Very Long Engagement,” their skills offer them the ability to develop a new facet of their careers and appeal to international fans in a more direct way.  However, there can be a career risk for established English or American actors who move to another country to act; in many cases, dedicating a year or more to appear in a movie outside of Hollywood’s sphere of influence can result in being quickly forgotten by the movie business.

Perhaps this is why more famous bilingual actors, including Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, aren’t branching out more in this direction.  On the other hand, it can be a dynamic step in an actor’s personal development, with many describing it as an exciting experience, comparable to acting in a period film, that forces you to take on the mindset of someone from a different country.  Multilingual acting can also give a film’s script a greater sense of authenticity, and it’s also a challenge to the audience to connect with a character who is speaking in an unfamiliar language.  Improve your movie-going experience as a whole by sending us an inquiry about language classes, or take one of our free online language level tests to see what your language skills are.