Examples of English as She is Spoke
August 24, 2021 5:37 PM   Subscribe

What are your favorite instances in media of people pretending to speak a language they don't actually speak, either by memorizing phonemes or making stuff up? (Please skip the overtly racist stuff and focus on people who are punching up or at least punching laterally. No Chung Ling Soo, please.)

My current, very quickly compiled list: Adriano Celentano and Claudia Mori in English, Caballero Reynaldo and Dodo Hug in many languages, Chumbawamba in Italian and Spanish, The Clash in Spanish and French, Monty Python and Benny Hill in French, Red Dwarf in Esperanto, the film Dirty Pretty Things in English, and many individual comedians. (And this.) But, there must be better examples.
posted by eotvos to Writing & Language (55 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not quite sure this is what you're looking for, but the Beatles recorded in German early in their career. As far as I know, they just learned the songs phonetically.
posted by hoyland at 5:41 PM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I love the Three’s Company episode where Janet and Larry pretend to be a French couple, Fifi and Pierre.
posted by Melismata at 5:43 PM on August 24, 2021

I like Lady Gaga's "Scheiße" which is mostly nonsense German (and other things ... a bit of French in there too, maybe). It being mostly nonsense is the point, though.

Ben Folds Five also recorded "Song for the Dumped" in Japanese as tribute to their Japanese fans. If I'm remembering the story correctly, they had someone else translate it but Folds worked hard on getting the accent right. I had no idea how successful he was but ...
posted by edencosmic at 5:50 PM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I had always heard the Topol learned the part of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof phonetically, and Wikipedia confirms that is at least partially correct.
posted by rekrap at 5:54 PM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]


"The song is intended to sound to its Italian audience as if it is sung in English spoken with an American accent, designed to be 'Bob Dylan-esque'; however, the lyrics are deliberately unintelligible gibberish with the exception of the words 'all right'."

(Edit: I realize you alluded to this in your list, OP.)
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 6:01 PM on August 24, 2021 [10 favorites]

The Italian scene in Inglorious Basterds? (YT)
posted by liet at 6:06 PM on August 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

Karen and Alice in the anime Kinro Mosaic? Their character are from England but their voice actors are Japanese and they gave it a sporting try. First examples I could easily find: Karen upset, Karen and Alice's first meeting.
posted by glonous keming at 6:08 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Cantinca Untaru, the endearing young actress in The Fall (2006), is from Romania and learned most of her English lines phonetically. It's a wonderful and natural performance.
posted by mochapickle at 6:18 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Swedish Chef
posted by chrisulonic at 6:22 PM on August 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

Foux du Fa Fa
posted by zadcat at 7:04 PM on August 24, 2021 [6 favorites]

Perini Scleroso
posted by whatevernot at 7:24 PM on August 24, 2021

Def Leppard
posted by doctord at 7:25 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

posted by zadcat at 7:38 PM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Kind of a stretch but the middle part of My Fair Lady has Audrey Hepburn speaking upper-class English as if it is a foreign language she has learned syllable by syllable. The racing scene is classic. Just a different take on the same idea.

And of course there is The Kids in the Hall's "I speak no English."
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:44 PM on August 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

Would the Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook sketch count? How about Chanel 9 Neus? Nimbo Cumulos ?
posted by zadcat at 7:53 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Danish language is collapsing into meaningless guttaral sounds.

One Icelander has a solution.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:25 PM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

It's been awhile, but I immediately thought of Russell Peters
posted by olopua at 8:53 PM on August 24, 2021

The little girl in "Big Bird In China" just memorized the English sounds but did not actually speak English.
posted by Charity Garfein at 9:18 PM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Gong Li supposedly (Wikipedia doesn't provide a source) learned her lines for Memoirs of a Geisha, Miami Vice and Hannibal Rising phonetically.
posted by caek at 9:22 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The very popular television series Shogun, based on James Clavell's novel.

Only three of the Japanese actors spoke English in the entire production: Shimada, Obayashi, and Okada. At the time of filming, [Yoko] Shimada knew very little English, and heavily relied on her dialogue coach to deliver her lines phonetically. The English words that she could not pronounce were substituted or overdubbed in post-production.
posted by blob at 9:29 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Italian for Beginners episode of The IT Crowd has Jen faking Italian.
posted by shoesietart at 9:35 PM on August 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

There's a great joke in Fawlty Towers regarding a bilingual interaction between Basil and Manuel. It's so good and so compact that it plays in a loop in the DVD's options screen for the series.

For the record, I'm Spanish, and I could cringe at Faulty Towers full time for a job... but this joke cracks me up every time, I've shared it with my daughters, is just too perfect to spoil in a comment, and I won't even title it:

posted by kandinski at 10:51 PM on August 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Also, growing up, my sister and I sung a song in "English" that simply was not. We learnt it from other kids at school who also didn't know English.

It's simple nonsense.

Today, going on YouTube, I saw it tagged as "from the Scout Songbook", or "Indian" (yes, those videos are racist, but the song isn't).

Here it is, for your amusement:

Ortan Chíviri
posted by kandinski at 11:07 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm sure there are videos up on YouTube (probably mostly high schools), but this is a thing in The Foreigner (play by Larry Shue), where the main character "speaks" a made-up language, while also pretending not to speak (and later amazingly rapidly learn) English.
posted by DebetEsse at 11:48 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

In the excellent Norwegian TV Sherlock skit "Oklahomo", the actor who plays John Watson speaks only a little English... he is doing an excellent job nevertheless, after repeating his lines 8 or 10 times to his Holmes.
posted by slightlybewildered at 12:09 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Professor Stanley Unweberin demonstands his expertaglioness. [MetaPrev]
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:11 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

David Bowie: Helden
posted by TheRaven at 1:29 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

This is not quite what you asked for but for their 2007 French Eurovision entry, Les Fatals Picards sang L'amour à La Française in an English accent during the French bits and a French accent during the English bits. Try it, it's so difficult! This is my favorite thing ever and, poor guys, they came 22nd with 19 points.
posted by glasseyes at 3:22 AM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

The episode of Ab Fab where Edina swears she can speak Danish fluently from watching hours of The Killing. Only to have it all fall apart when Sofie Gråbøl turns up .
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 5:21 AM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

In the movie The Court Jester the main character (Hawkins, in disguise as the Incomparable Giacomo) claims to speak many languages including French, Italian, and German and rattles off some plausible-sounding gibberish -- there's a clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzKHp1cQ_jo.
posted by an octopus IRL at 5:43 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Pope! John Paul II could deliver Easter Blessings in up to 60 languages (he was presumably great at reading the International Phonetic Alphabet). On Edit - maybe not specifically "media", but for sure in the media!
posted by Dotty at 6:12 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh I just remembered another old one, John Boorman's The Emerald Forest. Listen carefully to Charley Boorman's dialogue with ... anybody, and it turns out he's speaking English with greatly Portuguesed intonation.
posted by glasseyes at 6:13 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

See this transcription of Tom Waits' Kommieniezuspadt - some of it is normal(ish) German, some is a bit strange, a little is English, and some is German-like nonsense.
posted by altolinguistic at 6:46 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Elizabeth Reaser learned her German and Norwegian lines phonetically for the move Sweet Land, and she did not have a long time to do it.
posted by gudrun at 6:49 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Eddie Izzard pretends to speak Latin: Hannibal and the elephants from Stripped.

Fake-Latin bit starts at around 2:15. There are subtitles, but just ignore them from there: the subtitler doesn't speak Latin either.

(Though it turns out she did study Latin at school)
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:59 AM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

NHK (the Japanese state news network, think Japan's BBC) every morning has a 15 minute part of a serial drama. These last about 9 to 15 months. They did one on the father of Japanese whisky, who went to Scotland, married a Scottish woman and came back to found the Suntori distilling company. The woman they cast to be his wife, Charlotte Fox, first learned Japanese phonetically to be on the show. She later (as I understand it, as the show progressed) learned Japanese as a language.

I haven't seen the show, but according to all the fluent Japanese speakers so I've heard talk about it, it's quite obvious that she's speaking phonetically.

She became a beloved celebrity in Japan for a while, so the story has a happy ending.

Also, I asked my wife about this and she pointed out that Simone Yetch (the woman behind Truckla and the former queen of shitty robots) was on a Chinese sitcom after spending a year or so there. She made a video about just how bad it was.
posted by Hactar at 7:02 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

When Antonio Banderas appeared in The Mambo Kings (his first big Hollywood pic), he didn't speak English so he learned and spoke it phonetically.
posted by scratch at 7:06 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Michelle Yeoh learned her Chinese lines in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon phonetically (she grew up speaking Malay and English).

Abba put out an album in Spanish.
posted by jabah at 7:36 AM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

In Ravel's opera "L'enfant et les sortileges," there's a scene where household items come to life and speak in rudimentary English ("How's your mug?" "Rotten!" "I box your nose! I punch you!") as a way of illustrating the Francophone child being tormented by his elementary English homework.
posted by dr. boludo at 7:41 AM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

One of the chapters in Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! is about Feynman kidding around with fake Italian:
Once, when I was at Princeton, as I was going into the parking lot at Palmer Laboratory on my bicycle, somebody got in the way. My habit was always the same: I gesture to the guy, "oREzze caBONca MIche!", slapping the back of one hand against the other.

And way up on the other side of a long area of grass, there's an Italian gardener putting in some plants. He stops, waves, and shouts happily, "REzza ma LIa!"

I call back, "RONte BALta!", returning the greeting. He didn't know I didn't know, and I didn't know what he said, and he didn't know what I said. But it was OK! It was great! It works! After all, when they hear the intonation, they recognize it immediately as Italian—maybe it's Milano instead of Romano, what the hell. But he's an iTALian! So it's just great. But you have to have absolute confidence. Keep right on going, and nothing will happen.
(Full chapter here, if you'll forgive the link to the Rational Skepticism forum.)
posted by verstegan at 7:42 AM on August 25, 2021

Relatedly, but not the same, are goofs where songs in foreign languages get deliberately mis-understood as words in the native language. Two famous examples from Latin America:
-Everybody -- even Twisted Sister themselves -- knows that the chorus to "We're not gonna take it anymore" is really "Huevos con aceite y limón" (eggs with oil and lemon).
-A more extensive riff on the same idea is Queen's "We are the champions," turned into "Cuida los chanchos" (take care of the pigs). The video is a pretty literal demonstration of the Spanish lyrics.
posted by dr. boludo at 7:48 AM on August 25, 2021 [4 favorites]

Shagsper? Henry V, Catherine and her maid Alice talk dirty learning English. Fout/foot, Gown/Con. I blushed to the roots of me hair.
posted by BobTheScientist at 8:00 AM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Thread from the blue about most Wikipedia entries in Scots having been written by an American teenager that doesn’t speak the language
posted by meijusa at 12:03 PM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Marcelino Buru and Naná Vasconcelos did this when they were Brazilians living in Paris and learning French in the 1970s. "Ovo Há" means "eggs there are" in Portuguese, and also sounds just "au revoir." The rest of the song is beginning French student word salad.
posted by umbú at 3:21 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

All the dialog in the film 'Sebastiane' (1976) was in Latin. Maybe there are actors who learned Latin in school, but I can't image there are any who are native speakers.

There is a chorus in the Queen song, "Let Us Cling Together" in Japanese. They are terribly bright lads, but I don't think any of them speak Japanese.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 3:32 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Fast Show - Chanel 9 Neus
posted by richb at 3:15 AM on August 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

'Mongolian Cowboy' Enkh Erdene sings 'Amarillo by Morning'.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:29 AM on August 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

One from the vaults: in June 2008, the MeFi Music Challenge was "cover a song by another MeFite". chococat chose to cover micayetoca's beautiful song Veronica.
"I wanted to cover this one badly, but I gave myself two rules:
I had to keep the 6/8 time and I had to sing it in Spanish.
I so don't speak spanish. Basically I listened to mica's original, wrote it out phonetically and spent Tuesday night practicing it over and over, then did everything else this afternoon. I figured it could either work okay or be very, very embarrassing."
Here's the cover. chococat provided a link to his phonetic cheat sheet which miraculously still works.

This is not so different from the process classical/opera singers go through; plenty of us sing in languages we don't speak. I speak English, Italian, French and German; but when I recently had to sing a small role in Czech, I phoneticised the hell out of it.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:44 PM on August 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'll leave this here:


If you grew up in the 80s and 90s in a non-English speaking country, this is how you sang EVERYTHING.
posted by kandinski at 12:10 AM on August 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow. These are all fantastic and I'm very happy to know about them.

Thanks, all, for scratching a weird late night itch very thoroughly.

I have no idea how to assign a best answer, so please accept gratitude instead. (I also won't blame anyone for the delightful, but troubling earworm infection of Ortan Chivirir.)
posted by eotvos at 3:16 PM on September 12, 2021

Response by poster: Also, despite loving the L'amour à La Française Eurovision entry and watching it many times, I never explicitly noticed the accent shift. But, it always catches my ear as weird. Fascinating!
posted by eotvos at 3:27 PM on September 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

QI on toddler jargon
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:23 PM on September 12, 2021

« Older plate o'   |   AirPods Pro Xbox workaround Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.