Cartoon Culture: Part 2

Listening with new ears

Say what? The problem with translation

Perhaps it’s my academic background, looking to analyze seemingly normal situations to find the hidden meaning, but I was struck by a cartoon episode I saw the other day involving a bilingual unicorn/dog couple and their friends.  Lady Rainicorn, the Korean-speaking unicorn on Adventure Time, was conversing with her doggie husband, Jake, when Jake realized that he was the only one who understood her.  He divided his time between her and his friends, but they did not all hang out together.  Jake realized that it would be better if his friends could understand Lady Rainicorn’s language, so he found a ‘universal translator’ that enabled her words to be translated into English. The only problem was, instead of hearing her speech in her own high, sweet girl voice, the collar can only translate her words into three voices called ‘nightmare’, ‘old man’, or ‘nerdy alien’, with the old man setting being the only one that everyone could understand.  See a 90-second clip of this episode here. While Jake’s friend was glad to understand the unicorn now, Jake is unsettled because her translated voice doesn’t really represent who she is.

More than words

Translation programs have been around for a long time, and are becoming more sophisticated as technology improves, much to the dismay of language teachers!  However, as Jake notes, there are certain aspects of conversation that do not translate well or do not accurately represent what is being said.  It may be that a single word in one language has many specific variations in another language, such as the oft-quoted theory that Inuit groups have dozens of words for ‘snow.’  Similarly, in Mandarin Chinese, you cannot speak of family as ‘sister’ or ‘uncle’ without specifying if the sister is older or younger, or the uncle is from the mother’s or father’s side, by marriage or by birth.  These language complexities give a lot of insight into the culture of a particular group and without a good understanding of the cultural context, we may miss out on a lot of meaning through simple ‘translation.’  In fact, a recent study shows that language is related to our cultural behaviors: we may be more inclined to save money or find our way in unfamiliar places based on what language we speak.

When thinking about learning a new language, consider the pros and cons of a simple translation tool–are you in a desperate situation that needs quick communication to resolve a problem? Then break out Google Translate and see if it helps.  But if you’re planning on traveling to learn about a culture or getting to know a new international neighbor, take the time to learn about the language and its insights into culture.  You’ll be speaking in your own voice and connecting on a deeper level with your conversation partner!


Cartoon Culture: Part 1

Bilingualism in cartoons

Inspiration strikes when you least expect it! The other day, my son was home sick with the flu. Feverish and tired, the only action he saw all day was displayed on the television screen. Did you know Cartoon Network shows cartoons…ALL DAY? As I tried to do some work in the adjacent room, sounds of Scooby Doo and Tom & Jerry crept in constantly. Then something interesting happened. I heard another language…on a cartoon!

Talking animals…who speak world languages

Wait…maybe there is some redeeming quality to these animated shows! It turns out the show in question was Adventure Time, and the language was apparently Korean (I had to research it to be sure!). Lady Rainicorn, the magical unicorn wife of the talking dog, Jake, speaks Korean. Imagine that. What interested me most was the casual display of a basic bilingual family. Lady Rainicorn understood English-speaking Jake, and he understood her. Each spoke in their ‘native’ language to each other and to their magical unicorn puppies who understood both mom and dad.

Avoiding cultural stereotypes

There may be other cartoon characters who have spoken world languages, but the displays that I am familiar with are often stereotyped. I was excited to see two little otters speaking French in a cartoon once, but they were accompanied by berets, artists palettes, and a deliberate effort to exude French accents, changing their laughter from ‘hee-hee-hee’ to ‘hau-hau-hau’ in order to act more French. Pepe LePew, the malodorous skunk, was quite the ‘French’ lover. Drawing only on cultural stereotypes serves to highlight the differences among us, rather than show how we connect in similar ways in day-to-day life. Thankfully, multilingualism has infiltrated kid’s media in recent years in a more positive way: Dora is a problem-solving kid who also speaks Spanish. While there are certainly critics of the depiction of some bilingual characters, overall, the exposure of children to new languages in an educational and constructive way has been a welcome change.

Support for early language learning is increasing, and helping kids become accustomed to a multilingual world–even in an animated show–can provide a model for what it’s like to interact with others who speak a different language. As Jake and Lady Rainicorn go about their magical daily life, their bilingualism is not the focus of the story. It’s just the normal way they communicate while keeping their shape-shifting puppies out of trouble!