Popular Films for Teaching Linguistic Anthropology

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:

Windtalkers (2002)
Pygmalion (1938)
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)

Ken Ehrensal:

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.

Ginger Pizer:

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.

Kathryn Remlinger:

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.)

Robin Queen:

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
Rain man
Whose LIne is it Anyway (improv TV show–great examples of linguistic indexicality)
Mean Girls
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)
Undercover Brother
Malibu’s most wanted
My big fat Greek wedding
King of the Hill (TV show)
Mambo Italiano
American HIstory X
Life of Brian
Crazy in Alabama
Malcolm X
Jungle Fever
Escanaba in da Moolight (regional variation from the upper Penisula of Michigan)
Fargo (Upper Midwest juxtaposed against New York)
Bring it On
Rush Hour
Chasing Amy

David Samuels:

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.

5 thoughts on “Popular Films for Teaching Linguistic Anthropology

  1. There are, of course, the Native Americans in Blazing Saddles who turn out to be speaking Yiddish. “An Empire of their Own” indeed!

  2. As far as linguistically interesting anime goes, most of the action in the movie Blood: The Last Vampire takes place on an American military base in Japan and the speech in the movie goes back and forth between English and Japanese. Ranma 1/2, a cartoon show set in Japan, has three supporting characters who are Chinese: one an old woman who is perfectly fluent in Japanese (one of the Japanese characters even compliments her on this), another a 16 year old boy who is also perfectly fluent, and the last a 16 year old girl who I am given to understand speaks in a stilted Japanese conforming to stereotypes of Japanese-speaking Chinese people (this is represented in the English dub by “Aiya, today beautiful!” constructions). A few of the jokes in this comedy centre around characters’ imperfect grasp of either Japanese or Chinese (but just a few) and I understand many of the characters’ names also form puns in Japanese or English. Also, the main character is cursed with the ability to change sexes. Born male, he always speaks in male voice even when female except for situations when he wants to pass as female. (The device of sex-changing characters practically forms its own subgenre in manga and anime) There’s probably more linguistically interesting stuff in Ranma 1/2, but these examples are off the top of my head. DVD’s of both Blood and Ranma 1/2 should be easy to get and I’m willing to bet Ranma 1/2 was shown on Taiwanese tv back when it was on the air in the 90’s.

    A more recent anime series to look for is Bleach. It’s really quite interesting to see how much English is used, particularly since it’s not marked out as anything special. I hadn’t realized modern Japanese used so many loanwords from English. Also, Bleach is a fantasy about the supernatural and I think some of the spells or mantras the characters use are in older Japanese or something. Oh yes, and some of the dark supernatural stuff have names in Spanish or English (for example, monsters are called “Hollows” and the world they’re from is “Hueco Mundo” [sic], or Hollow World in attempted Spanish). The use of Spanish is even more pronounced in the comic book with bad guys called arrancar (Sp., to remove or to rip off) introducing themselves in Spanish (“Yo soy arrancar numero trece, Eduardo Leones”).

    DVD’s of Bleach would probably be harder to get since it’s actually being shown on Japanese tv right now. If you absolutely must get it then you can find episodes for downloading at the usual places online you’d look to download stuff from (i.e., it starts with a B and a T). I’m not really up to date on anime so I can’t give you more examples, but I hope they help.

    Sarapen (formerly known as Jesse on SM back when I used to be active on it)

  3. Since the subject of cartoons (anime) was brought up, I can think of a few examples of things that might work.

    First, a number of American cartoons and anime is available with alternate language tracks. In Region 1 DVD encoding (US and Canada,) this usually means a main English language track plus Spanish and possibly French for American cartoons, and an English language track and subtitled Japanese language track for anime. In many cases there will be significant differences in tone, voice acting style, flow, etc. between langauge tracks. Since you are in Taiwan, I assume there are DVDs there with similar multilanguage tracks (involving different languages).

    Second, I’m reminded of an episode of My Life As a Teenage Robot (an American made cartoon that aired on Nickelodian) in which the main character, Jenny (a teenaged robot, duh), loses her English language disk while fighting monsters in Japan. As a result she can only speak Japanese and runs into difficulties back in the United States. However, in the Japanese version they reverse the languages.

    Episodes of this cartoon are broken into two seperately titled stories. If someone wanted to use this episode it originally aired with parts entitled Party Machine and Speak No Evil. Speak No Evil is the title of the story involving Japanese.

    Finally, unrelated to cartoons but in Blade Runner, Edward James Olmos character Gaff speaks a “street” language which combines aspects of Chinese, Spanish and some other languages.

  4. Oh, one other thing I thought of, if you look at the titles of some American cartoons or anime, they are significantly changed when they have been brought to other countries. For example Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became Teenage Mutant Heroe Turtles and Batman Beyond became Batman of the Future in England while what was titled Detective Conan in Japan became Case Closed in the United States.

Comments are closed.