Language and accents. Two things that we all use. Yet one thing that has always confused me is the media’s (mainly the film and television industries’) approach to accents and foreign languages.
What could be less authentic than an English actor putting on a foreign accent?
Why is it that if we are watching a film about WWII that the English characters will speak in a British accent and the German characters will speak English with heavy German accents? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t speak German and I don’t expect you to speak German or any other world language, but surely that’s what subtitles were made for? I am aware of the argument that this use of English with a heavy foreign accent is to avoid confusion and add authenticity, however this seems somewhat confusing. What could be less authentic than an English actor putting on a foreign accent? It appears, at least to me, more comical than authentic. To put this in context, say person X is watching Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’. But, for the sake of argument, let us pretend that Ben Kinsgley (the English actor who plays Gandhi) does not put on any accent. ‘X’ is unlikely to turn to her friend ‘Y’ and say, ‘hang on a second, I’m confused, which one is Gandhi? They all have the same accent so I’m having trouble differentiating between who is meant to be British and who is meant to be Indian!’
I am yet to come across a foreign country in which they put on ridiculous accents to play English people
What surprises me even more is how this weird endorsement spreads as far as news channels such as the BBC. For example, if a BBC presenter is interviewing someone from Russia who wishes to remain anonymous, they will use an actor’s voice. Obviously, during the interview (being aired in the UK), the actor will speak in English. However, for some unknown reason, they will insist on adopting a heavy Russian accent. The same thing happens when the BBC translates speeches from other regions such as Syria. The individual translating will often put on a heavy Arabic accent. It seems to me that if you are watching the news to see what is happening in Syria, you probably don’t need someone with a heavy Arabic accent to help you guess what country is on the news. Even if you do, a helpful little tip is to listen to how the presenter introduces the story. They will often start the interview by saying ‘Now we will go over to ‘X’, a Syrian official in Damascus’. ‘But wait!’ I’ve heard people say, ‘This is a great way to teach people about different countries and different accents’. Perhaps it is. Personally I’ve found that listening in Geography class, watching foreign films, meeting people (we do live in a multicultural society) or even looking at a world map help too (and are a little less patronising).
Personally I prefer subtitles
Finally, just to wind you up and play devil’s advocate, people could argue that this practice is actually offensive -there is no doubt that it does have a comedic element to it. If you think about how many comedy sketches rely on exaggerated accents to poke fun at individuals or cultures you may begin to see my point. Also, I would just like to mention that I am yet to come across a foreign country in which they put on ridiculous accents to play English people…
Personally I prefer subtitles. Now I realise that not everyone does or will but I hope, if nothing else, this has got you thinking about those everyday things we accept and don’t always question.