25 April 2019

Popular Media In Languages I Don't Understand

I suck at foreign languages. I took some Latin by correspondence in junior high school and didn't get far. I studied French for four years in high school, but didn't learn enough to comp out of foreign language requirements in high school so I ended up taking a 5 credit French class roughy equivalent to advanced fourth year high school French, pass-fail, and managed to eek out a pity pass by showing up to class every day and turning in all my homework, which inevitably came back bathed in red ink. I've also picked up a smattering of Swedish and Korean words from family, a smattering of Spanish language words from daily life, and a smattering of Japanese and Korean words from watching TV in those languages.

My wife and I wanted our kids to do better and started them on Spanish early and continuously from pre-school though high school. My wife lived abroad with a host family for a while in high school and can speak passable Spain style Spanish, which she spoke to our children in frequently when they were little. Our daughter also spent part of a summer abroad with a host family in Costa Rica and has taken some Spanish in college. Neither of my children is truly fluent in Spanish, but my daughter comes close and has been able to communicate meaningfully in Spanish while in Mexico, and she is the best of all of us in Spanish. Both my son and daughter managed to score a 6 out of 7 on their respective IB Spanish exams (which is basically an "A" but not an "A+") on a test taken by college bound students all over the world which does not suffer from grade inflation. This is probably equivalent to a 5 on an AP Spanish test.

Despite this, about half of the popular media (music, television and movies) that I consume these days is not in English and not created for an English speaking audience. This is something I had regularly wished would be possible when I was in high school, but it took another twenty-five years or so for it to become reality (for me at least).

Back then, foreign language content was mostly limited to private screenings from foreign language teachers and professors, NPR opera, sacred music or international music programs (usually just once a week), and rare encounters with Spanish language media on TV or a.m. radio while traveling somewhere else (or, of course, when traveling abroad).

For the contemporary movies, TV and music this is mostly is made possible by Spotify, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Sirius XM and art house theaters in metro Denver (the Sie Film center and the Landmark theater chain), although some contemporary Spanish language music is available via FM radio and some Bollywood and Spanish language movies with subtitles and an occasional Japanese anime movie, are available in regular movie theaters. I read translations (at least once or twice) of most of the opera music and maybe half of the Latin music, and I've picked up enough church Latin over the years that I can usually figure out a lot of that myself without a formal translation if its just a Latin mass or uses very similar music. 

Probably about a quarter of the comics I read are written by non-English speakers and often are translations of the original foreign language versions. These are mostly (in order of frequency), Japanese and Korean. I also read three web comics by authors from Spain, one web comic by a Malaysian author and one by a Turkish author (each of which draws lightly but definitely somewhat from the local circumstances), and I have read comics in print by authors from Iran and India set in those countries respectively.  I've also read comics originally written in Japanese (in translation) set in quite authentic ancient Anatolian and contemporary Italian settings. This is made possible mostly via Webtoons, the Denver public library, and other online comics.

I regularly listen to contemporary music (in roughly the order of frequency): Bollywood movie music (India, mostly in the Telugu language with a little in Tamil or Hindi), J-Pop (Japan), K-Pop (Korea),  and popular music in Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Italian, Turkish, Finnish and now and then Arabic. I also listen to opera music (mostly in Italian, but a little bit of French, Russian and German), and choral music in Latin (mostly old religious music), neither of which, of course, are contemporary. I sometimes, but certainly not always, read translations of the Bollywood, the J-Pop, the K-Pop, Spanish and Italian lyrics, but rarely any of the others (among other reasons because I don't have a good enough ear to transcribe them and then translate them).

I usually watch foreign language movies and TV with subtitles, although rarely, I will watch dubbed versions, and every once in a while, on a lark, I will watch English language movies and TV dubbed in another language with English language subtitles.

The foreign language movies and TV include Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Turkish, Chinese, Taiwanese, Russian, French, Italian, and contemporary Hebrew language content and also Bollywood movies (mostly in Telugu but some in Tamil or Hindi).

This is every bit as worthwhile an experience as I had hoped it would be in high school and is a great way of lifting the veil of foreignness and mystery from foreign cultures. Of course, popular TV and movies don't depict the places where they are as they are in real life. But, where before I would have had absolutely no idea what life was like in these places, and thus made absolutely no assumptions, now I at least have some reference point for life in these places. (The multilingual but primarily English language Netflix TV series Sensate, which deliberately focused on awareness of global everyday life was also an eye opener on this score.)

One other observation, that may just be a selection effect (but honestly probably isn't), is that many the non-English language tunes incorporate short English words, phrases or sentences.

Another observation is that popular music from abroad incorporates differing amounts of local non-Western v. Western musical concepts. The only kinds of non-Western music I listen to enough to generalize regarding are Bollywood, J-Pop, and K-Pop music. Bollywood music has the most South Asian specific musical innovation, J-Pop has the second most local musical innovation, and K-Pop has the least.

1 comment:

Tom Bridgeland said...

Watching movies made in other countries can end up giving you odd ideas about those countries. Talk with Europeans or Japanese about the US, for example. They have a load of really off ideas about the US derived from Hollywood.