On Homeland, identity and authenticity

IMG_20170501_114053I recently got hooked on a TV show called Homeland, of which I’ve just started watching the sixth season. What I love about the series is the fact that it takes place in many parts of the world, such as Tehran, Pakistan, the USA, Germany, or Libya. Being a language teacher, I particularly concentrate on the way speakers of various L1s use English as a means of communication. Also, I like to catch a glimpse of some exotic cultures as well as come across variations of English. Well, to be more precise, I only (to my disappointment) come across various accents.

Judging by the film annotation, the scripts have been written by people whose L1 is English. And as a non-native speaker, I can tell how much this fact influences the language used in the show. I mean, when a Russian guy speaks English, he speaks with a heavy Russian accent but otherwise, his English is impeccable. I haven’t noticed any signs of L1 interference, for example. There’s only one situation which implies a potential language barrier between speakers of different L1s:

A German guy says rather sharply to his girlfriend: “It’s not my fault that I don’t have a clue. I’m not a brain reader”. The American girl sitting next to him starts laughing and replies: “Or a mind reader either”.

You know, I’m a fairly proficient speaker of English but I’m quite sure I’d never be able to produce some of the complex utterances that flood out of the non-native speakers’ mouths in Homeland – especially in life endangering situations the characters encounter. My point is that the flawlessness is simply unnatural and inauthentic. I guess the authors just didn’t want to disturb the viewers more than necessary. However, if I were the scriptwriter, I would have exploited the fact that the Germans, for example, are played by German actors. I would have let them deviate from the script and play with L1 interference a bit. In other words, I would have gone further in terms of indicating a person’s national identity –  I would have gone far beyond their accent, style of clothing or color of complexion.

I’ve recently been in contact with speakers of various L1s – mainly through the work on the Erasmus+ project – and I know that language wise, one’s accent is only one of the indicators of a person’s national (cultural) identity. It’s the vocabulary or grammar they use which often reveal their true color. And I’ve started to cherish the uniqueness of each and every person’s language inventory, mainly because those people have become very close to me, which couldn’t have happened if we didn’t speak a common language, which we cutely and unknowingly distort in all sorts of subtle ways.  And I believe this is one of the most authentic scenarios one can ever encounter – when L2 is the bridge and the gateway to other people’s souls and when it doesn’t really matter how well we speak it provided we manage to get the message across.

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On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve just finished correcting my young students’ progress tests. One of the tasks was to come up with semi-fixed phrases, e.g. as black as night, as light as a feather, as heavy as lead. Most students remembered the correct versions we’d learned in the previous lessons. However, some created their own phrases, e.g as black as my T-shirt, as heavy as a brick, etc. I think I was the one to blame for this misunderstanding which I caused by playing a song called Everything at once by Lenka; the author of the lyric is very creative and comes up with somewhat unusual similes. My students probably inferred that this is the way it works with these language items. Or maybe they just couldn’t remember the right ones. This, once again, demonstrates that some individuals are brave enough to go against the flow and take ownership of the language.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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One Response to On Homeland, identity and authenticity

  1. Kyle Dugan says:

    Nice observation, Hana. I’ve always thought that about coursebook materials as well. Fake accents for flawless English — totally unreal. I’d guess that if you do get somebody in Homeland or another show speaking flawed English it would somehow be the whole point — a comic character who no-speaka-English way at the bottom of the CEFR scale, the source of comedy or confusion. It would be interesting and so much richer to hear the slight variations from a highly proficient if still noticeably foreign speaker of English.

    Liked by 1 person

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