My linguistic role model has long been the hitman hero of Trevanian’s wonderful 1979 novel Shibumi, who alleviates the boredom of solitary confinement in a Japanese jail by teaching himself Basque, a notoriously difficult language, from a children’s book. Conveniently forgetting this character was also a Master of Go and could kill someone with a pencil, and that I wasn’t and couldn’t, I somehow got it into my head that learning a foreign language was simply a question of willpower.
After two years of studying Flemish (I live in Belgium, so that’s not quite as insane as it sounds), I decided it was time to take the plunge and watch Belgium’s 2014 submission to the Academy Awards in the best foreign language category, without subtitles. Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, set in Ghent, is the heartbreaking story of Didier, a ukelele player, and Elise, a tattoo artist, whose six year old daughter is dying of cancer. How hard could it be to understand?
Pretty damn hard, as it turned out. Flemish is the Belgian version of Dutch, and even after two years of sporadic exposure to the language (I live in a part of Brussels where French is predominant), the film’s dialogue still sounded to my ears like the distant gargling of Scottish drunks. Beyond the formulaic pleasantries, the only thing I understood was the swearing, and then only because everyone swore in anglo-saxon. So I threw in the towel and turned on the subtitles – only to find those were in Flemish too.
My reading is slightly better than my oral, so I managed to limp to the finish line, only slightly hampered by the subtitles going out of focus whenever I got something in my eye, which happened quite a lot during the hospital scenes. As expected, The Broken Circle Breakdown was desperately sad, but brilliantly acted and beautifully filmed, with a super Belgian bluegrass soundtrack. And I did pick up some new vocabulary – “klootzak” (which means bastard) and “kutwijf” (which, according to my Van Dale dictionary, means “fucking bitch”).
But how useful are films when you’re trying to learn a foreign language? One of the reasons given for native Dutch speakers’ remarkable proficiency in English is that – with the exception of cartoons for very small children – Hollywood movies and British and American TV series on Dutch and Flemish television, and in cinemas, are always subtitled, never dubbed. It worked for them, so why not for me? Or would all that foreign dialogue go in one ear and straight out of the other, without ever lodging in the middle, in the brain? Or does it only work if you’re still at the sort of tender age when learning comes more or less automatically?
According to the English-as-a-second-language blog English Attack!, subtitles, even if they’re in the same language as the dialogue, are not helpful at all, because “reading and listening constitute two very different brain functions” and provide a crutch that doesn’t exist in real-life situations. On the other hand, I wasn’t getting on too well with The Broken Circle Breakdown till I added the subs.
Perhaps the solution is to watch the same film repeatedly till you can do without the subtitles and quote chunks of dialogue by heart. In which case, I would have to find a film more lighthearted than The Broken Circle Breakdown, or indeed Belgium’s last Oscar nominee, Bullhead, starring the extraordinary Matthias Schoenaerts, and even more downbeat than The Broken Circle Breakdown, if that’s possible. Or Van Groeningen’s last film, De Helaasheid der Dingen, which translates as The Misfortunates (I prefer the French title – La merditude des choses, literally The Shittiness of Things – which could almost be a generic all-purpose banner heading for Belgian movies), and is all about how awful it was growing up in a fictional town in Flanders. Actually this last one is very funny and features some of the worst mullets in movie history, but the humour is darkest gallows variety, probably best in small doses.
We anglophones, of course, are at a disadvantage, since most of the movies that come our way are already in English, but even Hollywood can cough up occasional nuggets of foreign vocab. I first learnt the Spanish word for “nothing” when James Spader sneered “The girl was, is and will always be – nada!” in Pretty in Pink. And how many anglophones learnt their French swearing from The Merovingian’s “Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d’enculé de ta mère” in The Matrix Reloaded?
Just how necessary is dialogue anyway? I recently made a point of going to see Shaun the Sheep Movie in London, since I wasn’t sure I would be able to find a subtitled version when it opened in Belgium – only to find it was pretty much a silent movie with sound effects. And silent movies invariably got by with just a few intertitles, as did Blancanieves (2012), Pablo Berger’s exquisite quasi-silent reworking of the Snow White story, which only the terminally stupid could find confusing.
But even films with dialogue you don’t understand can be enjoyed on at least a visual level, particularly when there’s more to them than people sitting around in rooms talking. The first time I saw Blue Velvet it was dubbed into Italian – a language with which I had only the vaguest acquaintance, but a subsequent viewing of the original English version confirmed that very little of it had gone over my head. When I lived in Japan I regularly watched Japanese films without subtitles, though admittedly these tended to be, for example, anime in which witches were burnt at the stake, or action-thrillers in which bank robbers sexually molested their hostages; I don’t suppose I would have got very far with an Ozu-type talkfest – though Ozu’s films would themselves probably be worth studying for their visual composition alone.
Anyhow, my next linguistic project is clear. It’s tackling the boxed set of Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon – 272 minutes in Portuguese, which I accidentally bought with Dutch subtitles instead of English ones. Sure to be a doddle.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph webside in October 2013. It has since been edited and added to.