I recently queried the Linguistic Anthropology e-mail list, Linganth, for suggestions as to popular films with language related themes. Most professors teaching linguistic anthropology in the United States rely on a few tried-and-true films in their classes: American Tongues, Crosstalk, and a few TV documentaries about animal communication and the evolution of language. Unfortunately, these films don’t really hold up in Taiwan, where watching films is difficult without subtitles and subtitled films are limited to a few famous documentary films and mainstream hollywood fare (including classics). For this reason I wanted to have a good list of mainstream films I might consider for use in my classes.
I was treated with a wealth of materials, including three articles on the subject from the Anthropology News SLA column, written by Mark Peterson (with contributions from the Anthrosource e-mail list), materials from Hal Schiffman’s course “Language and Popular Culture,” and many additional suggestions from list members, which I’ve included below the fold.
One topic which is quite popular with the linguistic anthropologist crowd is Star Trek, so I it is worth mentioning a new documentary film about people who speak Klingon. Unfortunately, I don’t think Star Trek is very popular with my students, who grew up on steady diet of Japanese anime. Perhaps I need to compile a list of linguistically interesting anime?
P. Kerim Friedman:
The Unconquered (1954)
Enfant sauvage, L’ (1970) (many more such films about feral children
are listed at http://www.feralchildren.com )
Children of a Lesser God (1986)
Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992)
Lost in Translation (2003)
The Conversation (1974)
If you can get episodes from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” there is one titled “Darmock” in which the Enterprise encounter an ‘enigmatic’ people with whom others have not been able to establish communication. The aliens speak a language that has as its logic that it refers to metaphor and the imagery of myths; not S-O-V like Picard and his crew.
Beth Lee Simon:
Mad Hot Ballroom
A picture of how thoroughly (and explicitly) multilingual (teacher – student, teacher – administrator, student – teacher, student – student) classroom and school related (friends in school activities, parent – parent) interactions in public school are, at least NYC schools. Codeswitching, language acquisition, multiple Spanishes.
I don’t know how appropriate it is for the classroom or whether you’d be able to get hold of it, but for a nice illustration of language choice in multilingual settings, check out “Solomon and Gaenor.” Set in early 20th-century Wales, the story of a coal miner’s daughter (family speaks Welsh) and a Jewish shopkeeper’s son (family speaks Yiddish). The two speak English to each other, although apparently they also filmed a version where they speak Welsh to each other.
Another Star Trek episode, The Voyage Home (I think that’s the title), is about other animal communication (whales) and cultural competence (the crew comes to Earth and must negotiate various cultural meanings.) The movie Nell raises language acquisition and language/brain issues.
Harold F. Schiffman:
Another “classic” (I guess) is “Santa Fe Trail” (1940), which is riddled with racism, but also has a scene I show my students, where a Native American woman tells the future. She speaks her own language (we’re in Kansas somewhere), and Olivia de Havilland translates expertly.
I’d like to add another one, if it isn’t already on the list: Last of the Mohicans, with Daniel Day-Lewis. Interesting is the use of native American languages (Mohawk, Huron, others) plus English and French. In one scene DDL is speaking and asks for translation into French, and somebody else translates from French into Huron. What’s interesting is to see what gets translated and what doesn’t, or how it’s presented. (Watch subtitles to see what’s happening.)
Here is a partial list of films and television shows I’ve used in my courses in the last couple of years (sorry I don’t have them annotated)–most of these are not fundamentally about language, but they all have interesting linguistic components.
For teaching about language in the US, I think “Crash” is probably one of the best films out there right now. “Children of a Lesser God” is also good (though much older) if you want to discuss ASL and/or multilingualism. Animated films almost all have great linguistic examples–especially Shrek and Shark Tale (though these might be more difficult for ESL students to pick up on because of the animation). Also the comedians Margaret Cho, Chris Rock, George Lopez and others often riff on language and some of that is easily available for download (video and audio). Thanks to Lisa Del Torto and Katherine Chen for finding most of these.
Firefly (TV show set in future where the shared language is a mix of English and Cantonese)
Airplane! (great scene of “jive” translations)
8 Mile (nice rapping–works very well set in contrast to the rapping in Malibu’s Most Wanted)
Fast Times at Ridgemont HIgh
Whose LIne is it Anyway (improv TV show–great examples of linguistic indexicality)
Coming to America
Good Will Hunting (there’s a great scene in a bar that shows different rates of r-less and r-fullness in Boston)
Dave Chapelle (often does “whitey” voice)
Dr. Doolittle (all the speaking animals use different sociolinguistic indexes)
South Park (especially for “taboo” language)
Malibu’s most wanted
My big fat Greek wedding
King of the Hill (TV show)
American HIstory X
Life of Brian
Crazy in Alabama
Escanaba in da Moolight (regional variation from the upper Penisula of Michigan)
Fargo (Upper Midwest juxtaposed against New York)
Bring it On
If you’re interested in classics, there’s Ball of Fire (1941) starring Gary Coopoer and Barbara Stanwyck. And of course My Fair Lady, if your students are of a musical bent….
As long as we’re circulating things that we’ve found useful: the Kid ‘n’ Play movies (House Party, Class Act) have much to offer in thinking about the relationship between race, class, authenticity, and expression (the story’s resolution usually placed in the final co-performance of the two stars). Eddie Murphy’s performance(s) in Bowfinger; and some of the scenes in John Leguizamo’s Mambo Mouth.
Also, I haven’t used this because it’s quite recent, but Dave Chappelle’s appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio includes a lot of discussion about the role of language in society and performance.