Has anybody else noticed recently a more multilingual offering in the series, shows and movies on Netflix? As a linguist, I certainly have and it's quite exciting! Finally, the TV screen is reflecting our linguistic realities and it's hugely refreshing. Read on to find out how I think Netflix has embraced what we call in Applied linguistics 'the multilingual turn' and why this matters.
The monolingual lie
In my 20's my mum and step dad, cool, comical and classy and having been together for 18 years, decided to get married at the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas. On their wedding day it rained, something that rarely happens on the starry-eyed strip of bright lights, luxury and vices. Our trip took us on through L.A. and its Hollywood heights and San Francisco with its sea lions and scarily steep streets. I'd seen many of those Californian streets before on the big shiny screen. You know the ones I'm talking about, those with the big American houses, with the pristine gardens, white picket fence and shiny white doors, always immaculately dressed for Christmas, with waxed, wooden floors inside and white sofas that never seem to get dirty...the American dream, where everyone speaks in perfect English with an immaculate American accent. From the hot dog stand seller, to the café waitress, from the taxi driver to the shop assistant, all the teachers, police officers and factory workers are generally speaking in American English with an American accent. And yet, according to the American Community Survey conducted in 2010, at least 20.3% of households in the country do not use English at home (see Table 1 below).
This figure is believed to be much higher today. Indeed, as Rumbaut and Massey (2013) point out, "contrary to what some Americans seem to believe, the United States historically has been a polyglot nation containing a diverse array of languages." In fact, in some places in the USA, take McAllen in Texas for example, 85.4% of households reported using a non-English language at home, most of those being Spanish. So, it's not surprising then that when I found myself staring out of the car window at the Californian road signs and shop windows, I noticed that a large number of these, if not the majority, were written in Spanish, not English. As I walked through the malls and queued up at McDonald's, the language around me was not English. It was mostly Spanish, some Farsi too, a hint of French and add some Mandarin into the mix. Turning back to Rumbaut and Massey (2013) (a recommended read), the United States of America have been built by immigration in addition to the cultural diversity that existed from its very beginning, and so, it is, as they say, a "great American paradox" that a country "characterized by great linguistic diversity propelled by immigration... has also been a zone of language extinction in which immigrant tongues die out to be replaced by monolingual English". Never more so has this been the case than in Hollywood and on the big screen where English has dominated and even extinguished the real linguistic landscapes of the places and people who are prevalent in California and in the USA as a whole. However, with Netflix, the tide is turning, or more precisely, the multilingual turn is turning...
One nation does not speak one language
The multilingual turn
In the field of Applied Linguistics, the multilingual turn refers to the move in language education to embrace all of the languages of the learners in the classroom when they are attempting to learn a second or foreign language. In her research, Meier (2017) developed a framework for understanding the multilingual turn in terms of learning and teaching, a critical perspective that aimed to "jointly make sense of the increasingly multilingual world, and perhaps weaken the monolingual myths in the long term", namely the idea that one nation speaks one language, which couldn't be further from the truth. Take the UK for example, a supposedly "English-speaking nation" where it is reported over 300 languages are spoken and where, in 2011, at least 7.7% of households used a language other than English (ONS, 2011) (see the map of London languages below). One nation does not speak one language and an international, globalised world does not speak in only English either. Netflix pledged to acknowledge our multilingual world with the arrival of Katell Jentreau as Regional Globalization Manager in 2016. The company went from being accessible in 30 countries to 190, and languages were key to that expansion. Netflix now offers subtitles in 37 languages and dubbing in 35 languages, employing expert translators from around the world to make sure they can convey nuanced meanings through different languages. This approach saw the Korean language series Squid Games, the Spanish-speaking series La Casa de Papel and the French language series Lupin reach 1,650,450,000, 619,010,000 and 316,830,000 of watching hours respectively, all across the globe (Huygue, 2022). In fact, language learners themselves are tapping into Netflix as an essential source of input. My neighbour's son watched la Casa de Papel to prepare for his baccalauréat exams here in France - OK, so he may not have had to talk about money laundering or the like in his exam, but the point is, Netflix provided him with a resource that motivated him to be immersed in the Spanish language, something mainstream French TV did not. The British mums in my Facebook Mums in France group were very motivated to learn French by tuning into Lupin. In fact, one group of language enthusiasts created a tool based on Netflix which would help learners learn language through watching their favourite films and series - check out the Language Reactor.
Our goal is to not let language be an obstacle
At Netflix Jentreau explains, "We believe that great stories are universal, and that they can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere. Our goal is to not let language be an obstacle in experiencing new voices, cultures, and perspectives" (Huygue, 2022). Whilst dubbing and subtitling in themselves may not be embracing multilingualism per se in the sense of providing a space for multiple languages at the same time, it does mean the company is acknowledging the many languages spoken around the globe and is working to make their content accessible to as many people as possible. It also acknowledges the fact that not everyone speaks English, not all actors speak English, and not all great series and films are in English. More than this though, and more closely aligned with a'multilingual turn', countless Netflix series, films, documentaries etc. now include people who code-switch between their languages as well as the use of multiple languages within one programme. I watched a nice example of this a few weeks ago in a film called Toscana. It was the story of a Danish chef who inherits the Tuscan estate of his estranged father. It's a love story but what I loved about it was that the two main characters moved fluidly between communicating in Danish, Italian and English, reflecting the very real everyday language practices of many around the globe. I also watched a very cheesy film the other day (OK, don't judge me, I'm getting into the Christmas spirit) - it was called Christmas with You. So, OK, there might not be any Oscars for this one but the main characters also use plenty of Spanish with the grandma in the scene flitting between English and Spanish in a way that reflects the linguistic lives of many Americans today. The main character also incidentally sings her main song in both Spanish and English, a very nice song, though my favourite Spanish/English code-switchers will always be the Black Eyed Peas.
Only around 17% of the world's population speak English
1899, case in point
If you're a language lover like me, then the new Netflix series 1899 is a must. It's what's got me up writing this article at 3am on a school day. It's a a polyglot pick n' mix, a chocolate box of choruses, London's Leicester Square language soup (as described in my blog post on London). Its characters speak in French and German, Mandarin and Polish, Danish, Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese, Polish and Norwegian, and English. Eleven languages in total, each character speaking in their own tongue(s). It's described as a horror but for me, it's anything but. It's finally a real reflection of our multilingual, multicultural, multi-everything 'super-diverse societies'. It's an honest depiction of the linguistic diversity many of us are surrounded by on a daily basis. It's the code-switching, the moment-by-moment movements of the multilingual speaker who shifts between languages within sentences, between sentiments, from one word to the next. It's the not automatically understanding everything everyone says. It's the use of body language to make up for the misunderstandings. It's the fleeting uses of English as the common language between characters, which is the reality for many operating in a globalised world where English has become an international language, a lingua franca, which, yes, helps us to communicate with a common code, but which simultaneously threatens the death of many 'minority languages' (which I imagine are not seen as minor in the minds of those using them every day to express their love, life and loss). The Netflix series 1899 does not give into TV's equivalent of the 'myth of the native speaker' where everyone speaks 'standard English' with a British, American or Australian accent. It speaks an English language truth, in all its amazing accents, and it does this also in 11 different languages. No, not everybody speaks English. In fact, it's estimated that only around 17% of the world's population speaks English in some capacity, and many of those speak it as a second, third, fourth or foreign language. Indeed, it's believed that around 83% of the world's population does not speak any English at all. Finally, through Netflix and other spaces embracing multilingualism, the English-only speakers of this world are getting a chance to understand this.
If we want to survive, we have to be together
I could not embed the video here but please do watch the directors' explanations for why they opted for a multilingual cast and read DiLillo's supporting article 'How 1899 wove its polyglot tapestry'. The German directors of the series, Jantje Friese and Baran bo Oda, explain that they wanted to create a cast that was true to life, as it would have been in 1899 on a boat destined for America, a boat bustling with immigrants, all speaking in their own languages, not always understanding one another but doing what they could to communicate and get by. A portrait also of today's America, of today's Britain and many other multilingual cities, societies and households around the globe. In the video in the link, the French character Clémence comments about how important it is in these times of Covid and Brexit, that we come together internationally (I'm guessing the sinking ship in the story refers to Brexit). "If we want to survive," Clémence says, "we have to be together." And never has that been more true than today, as humanity as a whole faces the climate crisis. I suppose on a personal note I was excited to see this multicultural, multilingual cast because it's the same cast I created in my story The Fridays, which tells the tale of a group of friends from around the globe, united by climate activism. They're third culture kids and polyglots, and I include words from their languages, prayers from their religions, food from their plates in a way that reflects the incredible diversity I've been privileged to have experienced in my multicultural, multilingual life. As Clémence from 1899 concludes, "No one can survive alone...we have to be together" and I'm grateful to Netflix, the daring directors and the amazing actors for finally showing us how this coming together can be possible both linguistically and culturally on the big screen too.
Ethnologue (2022). English. Languages of the world. Available at: https://www.ethnologue.com/language/eng
Huygue, S. (2022). Multilingual Boom at Netflix: An update with Katell Jentreau. Multilingual.com, May 2022, 203.
Meier, G. (2017). The multilingual turn as a critical movement in education: assumptions, challenges and a need for reflection. Applied Linguistics Review, 8(1), 131-161. https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2016-2010
ONS. (2011). Language in England and Wales: 2011. The Office of National Statistics. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/language/articles/languageinenglandandwales/2013-03-04
Rumbaut, R. G., & Massey, D. S. (2013). Immigration and Language Diversity in the United States. Daedalus, 142(3), 141–154. https://doi.org/10.1162/daed_a_00224