Surprisingly Bad Native Language - TV Tropes (2024)

Writers often try to portray a foreign language accurately, even when they are unable to get a native speaker of the language. Sometimes, they succeed. More often, though, they fail and what this results in is characters who mangle their native tongue. This can be jarring if you're a native speaker of the language and may even break your Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

This is very common with English in anime; there are very few instances in which native English speakers in anime will sound even remotely convincing.

Compare You No Take Candle, for when writers intentionally write in their own native language poorly. Contrast Inexplicable Language Fluency, for when a character speaks or understands a language they have never heard before and Eloquent in My Native Tongue, for when a character speaks their native language much more articulately than the language the work is in. Can also appear in instances of Poirot Speak, when the mistake patterns of a non-native character show, that they were written by a native speaker (most prominently by knowing obscure terms, but stumbling over basic words).

While common when people just run things through a translator and think it's good enough, sometimes it may be done on purpose for comedy.

May overlap with What the Hell Is That Accent? if the writer gets the accent wrong as well.

Subtrope of As Long as It Sounds Foreign.

Examples

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Anime & Manga

  • Armed Girl's Machiavellism. Choka U. Barazaki demands to be called "Regina delle Farfalle" ("Queen of the Butterflies" in Italian), as she says she's Italian. Her pronunciation in the anime, however, is horrible, and she actually mangles "Regina della Farfalla", meaning "Queen of the Butterfly". Subverted. She's actually Japanese and trying badly to pass herself as Italian to maintain continuity with her older sister figure Mary Kikakujō, who is half-French.
  • An aversion occurs in Macross: Do You Remember Love?, as it is hinted that the native language (or at least the common tongue) of everyone on board the Macross is English. The lyrics Misa wrote out for Minmay to sing to the title song are written in flawless English (suggesting Translation Convention, as Mari Iijima sang the song in Japanese), and the rest of the signage is likewise in extremely good English (unlike the TV predecessor, which often played this trope straight).

Comic Books

  • In a comicSurprisingly Bad Native Language - TV Tropes (1) based on Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends Eduardo says "Muy dangerouso", but the Spanish word for "dangerous" is actually "peligroso". Likely intentional, since most children reading it would only know English.
  • Midnighter: One story has Midnighter sent to the trenches of WWI to assassinate Hitler. The French soldiers shout things like "Allemands cochons!" ("Germans dirty!" instead of "Dirty Germans/German swine!") or "Mouris!" (not even close to "Mourez!", French for "Die!").

Films — Animation

  • In Coraline, Bobinsky's native Russian isn't at the best level.
    • Most glaringly, he calls mice "mooshkas", which, apart from being a weird sort of accent (putting a Russian noun in an English plural form), is the wrong word: "mooshka" means "little fly", while the word for "little mouse" is "myshka"; the correct Russian plural would be "myshki".
    • "Sergei Alexander Bobinsky", as he introduces himself later, completely messes up Russian Naming Convention. However, this case might be justified, since it's not the real Bobinsky speaking but the otherworldly rats posing as him.
  • The Lion King (1994): Rafiki's Swahili chant "Asante sana, squash banana, we we nugu mi mi apana" which he translates as "You are a baboon, and I'm not.", is not grammatically correct.

Films — Live-Action

  • Allied: Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is a Canadian agent who is supposed to be fluent in French, but he is almost impossible to understand for native French speakers.
  • Black Robe: The Algonquin is hit-and-miss among the actors portraying the natives. Meanwhile, the Mohawk is just gibberish.
  • Bullet Train: The Russian in it is incredibly bad. Not just the actors' performances (none of which spoke the language), but the lines themselves turn into a mess whenever it's more than just a single word.
  • The Cyclone: In the Italian original version, almost all Spanish characters (flamenco dancers), when speaking in Spanish, make a lot of mistakes, showing clearly that they are not at all native speakers (although they are supposed not to speak Italian either). The accent is more or less correct, but it all sounds strange and disturbing to a native speaker.
  • Dances with Wolves tried teaching the actors to speak their lines in Lakotah (only one of the Indian actors spoke it fluently). However, Lakotah is a dual language, with male and female forms. The Lakotah language coach for the film was a woman and apparently translated all of the dialogue how she would say it, so all of the Lakotah characters speak like women.
  • Dracula Untold: Various characters speak in Turkish during the movie, however the Turkish they speak is both heavily accented and often grammatically incorrect, making it obvious that they're not dubbed by native Turkish speakers.
  • The Hunt for Red October: When Ramius asks Ryan in Russian "You speak Russian?", the Russian line that Sean Connery actually says is "Govaryu po russki?" This means, "I speak Russian?", and is also grammatically incorrect as a question. The correct line should have been like "Vy govarite po russki?" This may have to do with the fact that Ramius is Lithuanian, not Russian, as Ryan mentioned earlier in the film.
  • Iron Man 2: Ivan Vanko makes occasional errors in Russian (tense, case, etc.) that no native speaker would do.
  • Prey (2022): Aside from the really messed-up production process behind it, the Comanche dub has a far bigger problem - it's very poorly recorded, by people who don't speak it, and wasn't coached or even proof-read by someone who speaks it. What makes it all that more glaring is the fact that the majority of the cast is fluent or at least semi-fluent in Lakota and the story could just be set among Sioux without anything changed in it, given how the in-universe Comanches are treated as interchangeable generic Plains Indians.
  • The Producers: While Uma Thurman, who is playing Swedish immigrant Ulla, certainly tries to speak Swedish, it fails to the point of her lines having to be subtitled on Swedish releases. The whole thing is a bit odd since they managed to get some stuff right and some stuff plain odd. Like her "catchphrase", "God dag min vännen", which was also used by Ulla in the 1967 original and translates to "Hello my the friend". Probably it's a mistake for "vänner", which would make it "Hello my friends."
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: Although the Nazis speak German in many scenes, most of the lines were redubbed for the German versions of the film as the actors spoke very bad German, with a strong American accent. They were redubbed by native German speakers for later DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the film.
  • Scarface (1983): Tony, who is supposed to be a Cuban immigrant, tells Alberto "¡Olvida! Matamos este tipo solo. Sin mujer, sin hijos." which is subtitled as "Forget it! We kill this guy alone. No wife, no kids." A native Spanish speaker would have said "¡Olvídalo! Matamos solo a este tipo. No a la mujer ni a los niños".
  • Shin Godzilla: It is painfully clear Satomi Ishihara does not speak English, which makes the decision to cast her as a native-born (given that she plans to become President), presumably half-white (given her surname) English-speaking American Senator extremely baffling; this becomes especially egregious in scenes where she interacts with high-level Japanese officials, every single one of whom speaks more coherent English than she does. Given that her character arc revolves around her becoming more in touch with her Japanese heritage, and her primary goal is ultimately becoming President, this presents somewhat of a problem.
  • Shock Treatment: During "Little Black Dress", Viennese game show host Bert Schnick sings, "Ever since I was the eine kleine herren", which translates as "a small man". So, he's saying, "Ever since I was the a small man".
  • Sophie's Choice: While the lines are more or less correct (and are correct in the script), it is blatantly clear that Meryl Streep has no clue what the hell she's even saying, simply repeating the lines from the script (and thus putting emphasis on the wrong words). That's already bad, but her attempt at Polish comes off as if having a very, very bad lisp. Her performance used to be the butt of jokes in Poland, as all the drama is deflated by what sounds like a stereotypical clown entertaining children.

Literature

  • In the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, French was clearly provided courtesy of a translation website. The (apparently) French Mademoiselle LaFarge asks the titular character "Comment vous appelez-vous?" instead of just saying "Comment t'appelle-tu?" For those who don't speak French, "vous" is used when addressing strangers, elders who are not your family, and "tu" is used with acquaintances, and those of your own age and below. Google Translate always uses "vous" whatever the situation.
  • Raphael from The Mortal Instruments, being Mexican, tends to interject phrases in Spanish when he speaks. In City of Ashes, he tells Clary that Simon "no es muerto," which is incorrect; it should be "no está muerto." It seems like a classic Google Translate error.
  • NOS4A2: When Bing pumps sevoflurane into the house of Vic's neighbor Mr. De Zoet, the latter thinks he is having a stroke and in his panic lapses into his native language, Dutch. However, it's clear writer Joe Hill does not speak Dutch and likely used a dictionary or online translation to help him because he has Mr. De Zoet yell "Ik heb een slag". "Slag" is a possible translation for "stroke", but only when the word describes the act of hitting or striking someone/something. The medical condition, which is what's actually meant here, is called "beroerte" in Dutch.
  • The Twilight Saga: Scenes that feature characters speaking their own native languages are clearly written in English and then run through an online translator.
  • In Trojan Odissey by Clive Cussler, a Nicaraguan maid replies "me casi acaban" when the main characters find her cleaning their hotel room. What she's supposed to say from context is that she is almost finished cleaning. What she's actually saying (in crude grammar) is that someone almost finished her.

Live-Action TV

  • Breaking Bad (and its prequel Better Call Saul):
    • Mark Margolis, who played Hector 'Tio' Salamanca, didn't speak Spanish, and native speakers have confirmed that his attempts to recite Spanish lines on the show are awful.
    • Gus Fring is supposedly a native of Chile who has Spanish as his mother tongue, but Giancarlo Esposito, who plays him, clearly has no familiarity with the language.
    • Downplayed in the case of Steven Bauer (who plays Don Eladio Vuente); while Bauer doesn't quite grasp particular Mexican dialects of Spanish, he is at least fluent in the Cuban version of the language. See hereSurprisingly Bad Native Language - TV Tropes (2) for more details.
  • Supernatural: In the episode "Everybody Hates Hitler" Sam uses an internet search engine to translate German into English. The German text shown is just a bad word-by-word translation of the English text, though Sam supposedly copied it from a book written by a German native speaker.
  • Warrior (2019): According to native Cantonese speakers who watch the show, the majority of non-white cast speaks the language poorly.

Video Games

  • In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer, the Brazilian militia members will say "Golpeando com espada" when laying down a Claymore mine. It means "striking with a sword" because the translator confused the claymore mine with a claymore sword. There's also mixups in other dialogue, changing fragmentation grenades for flash grenades, and yelling about changing weapons when reloading.
  • Civilization V:
    • The game put focus on immersion, making all leaders use their native languages during diplomacy, with subtitles provided for players. As a result, the vast majority of them talk either with weird accents, sprout ungrammatical sentences, use modern versions of the given language rather than something period-appropriate - or any combination of those.
    • Attila is voiced in Chuvash, the closest surviving relative to the Hunnic language he spoke in real life, but many of his lines have grammatical, tonal, and/or diction errors.
  • Hay Day, developed by Finish company Supercell, has NPCs who visit the various shops in players' towns. When they leave a tip for English-speaking players, instead of saying "Here's a little something for you," it's translated as "Here's something small for you."
  • Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb (a large part of which is set in China and involves dialogues in Chinese) is poking fun out of the infamous "Chinese" attempted by Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The problem is - the in-game Chinese is only marginally better, and this time around, it's the in-universe native speakers that mangle it. For added irony, David Esch, who stands in for Harrison Ford, isn't all that bad for a foreigner.
  • Metro Exodus is a curious case. In the default, Russian dub, Sam, the token American, whenever switching to English, will be talking with a thick Russian accent. This is because his voice actor for that dub was a Russian native speaker - simply because they also needed someone to deliver the vast majority of Sam's lines in proper Russian. To make it all that weirder, the English dub for the game done by the same company hired a different person to voice Sam in full English VA. Apparently, nobody figured out that the best course of action would be to give Sam lines to read to someone who doesn't speak Russian as their native, fitting into an in-universe situation where Sam is supposed to struggle with Russian.
  • In the original release of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Cortez is supposed to be a Spanish pirate (or whatever the Mario universe's equivalent of Spain is), yet the Spanish phrases he uses are extremely incorrect—he addresses Mario and his partners as "Mi amigos," for examplenote, and spelling "Sí" without the diacritic, as "Si."note The Video Game Remake rectified this, both by correcting his original phrases and by peppering his speech with more Spanish phrases.

Webcomics

  • Irregular Webcomic! has goofed on foreign languages a few times (such as in strip 30Surprisingly Bad Native Language - TV Tropes (3) where a German talks about his "bad plans for world domination" and uses the non-German phrase "with extreme prejudice"), to the point that David Morgan-Mar has started asking for help when he's doing them. To give him credit, he does admit it when he's goofed and he's stated his use of German articles is purely dictated by humour purposes.

Western Animation

  • Family Guy: In "McStroke", the Italian butcher Peter argues with is speaking almost proper Italian: some of what he says is badly translated from English ("I'm gonna punch you on the head" is translated as "ti dò un pugno nella testa" instead of "ti dò un pugno sulla testa"), and his accent is clearly not a native Italian one.
  • South Park: The Mexicans in "The Last of the Meheecans" speak Spanish, but some of it is incorrect, such as a woman saying, "Tu casa es aquí" as opposed to "Tu casa está aquí" for "Your home is here", and a man saying, "Mantequilla tiene derecho" instead of "Mantequilla tiene razón" to mean "Butters is right" ("derecho" refers to the direction "right", or "right" as in "human rights"). Of course, this is fixed in the Spanish-language dubs of the episode.
Surprisingly Bad Native Language - TV Tropes (2024)

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