A musical instrument can produce melodious notes in any key playable by the instrument and known by the musician. If my voice is my instrument, why should I limit myself only to the words available in one language?
The world view of an American is someone is only knows one language. Foreign languages are not required school subjects here, so many people do not choose to learn them. English has become the global language for business and computer systems.
In 1994, Drew and I took our first trip abroad. Our destination was Germany, with a weekend in Amsterdam on the end of the trip. I had studied German in high school and college, but I had forgotten much of it since I had not had an opportunity to practice it. Don’t worry about the language was the advice of a friend. Everyone in Europe speaks English.
We discovered that the German people spoke German, at least on our first day in Munich. While our remembrances of that day now make for funny stories, the language barrier caused one of the most frustrating days of our entire marriage.
As a side note, I believe that the fear of the language barrier is one reason many people don’t travel internationally. This post and several others have been inspired by some trips, but this blog is not about travel. However, I will point out that if you attempt to speak even a few words in the native tongue of the country where you’re standing, you have just made a huge step forward in making your trip an enjoyable one.
In Germany, I found that I started remembering more of my German as I continued to hear it. I could speak sentences half in German and half in English to people. After the first day, more people started speaking English, even ein bisschen (a little) to us. When they said they could speak ‘a little’ English, they usually were fluent.
Two trips abroad this past year brought me in contact with students at language schools.
In February, I went to Brazil for the fantastic Inner Game of Voice-Over Workshop taught by my voice-over coach Susan Berkley and her co-instructor Rich Jones, an award-winning voice talent from Canada who now lives in Brazil.
Susan and Rich both speak fluent Portuguese. The workshop participants certainly were grateful for their translation assistance when we were shopping in the small countryside towns where English was not widely spoken! One of the most memorable uses of language was our studio session in Sao Paulo. Susan directed the talent in English and immediately gave production instructions to the engineer in Portuguese.
Rich also teaches English at the Millennium Language School in Sao Paulo. I was delighted in recent months when Rich asked me to voice some tracks for an instructional CD to be used at the school.
When I was in Brazil, the Brazilian students loved to talk to the Americans as it gave them ample opportunity to practice their English. I loved talking with the students as I was able to interact with people in another country on a more personal level than I normally do when I travel. The Brazilian students were all adults in a wide spectrum of ages.
When Drew and I recently visited Alexandria, Egypt, we saw a language school that was letting out for the day. The students ranged from small children to kids of high school age. They all appeared to be carrying books with English titles. We saw one boy carrying books labeled Chemistry and a SAT preparation guide. Those children and/or their parents see English as a necessary component to a bright future.
As an American, it would be easy (and somewhat arrogant) to think that I have no need to learn another language.
I have observed and read that more people around the world are learning my language. When I travel, I notice that more signs are in both the native language of the country and English. People usually switch to English when they learn I’m an American.
As a traveler, I have a goal to be multi-lingual. I declared this goal in my journal a few years ago when we were staying at a hotel on the tiny island of Bonaire near South America. One day, I watched the concierge fluidly and easily converse in 5 languages with the swarm of guests who approached her. I decided that day that I will speak German, French, Spanish and Italian. Being able to converse with someone in their own language emphasizes our similarities as people rather than our differences.
Most importantly, as a voice-over talent, I have a need to be multi-lingual.
Even without fluency in several languages, I at least need to be able to recognize, understand and correctly pronounce foreign words when they appear in literature so that I can perform audiobooks effortlessly. In addition, studying other languages always can improve one’s English since many of our words are derived from another language.
Even now, I can understand some German through hearing or reading it better than I can spontaneously speak it. I have recorded a voice mail system in German for a client who wanted continuity of voice-over for both English and German. I think that in most cases, though, my opportunities to perform scripts in a foreign language would be limited. If an organization wants to hire a voice talent who speaks a certain language, plenty of native voice actors exist who could execute the script flawlessly. I realize I would have the easiest time of first regaining my skills in German, but I have taken the challenge of learning French.
I am continuously adding foreign language programs to my reference library. I currently own language CDs in Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese. These CD sets are usually packaged with pronunciation guides, lesson books and/or pocket dictionaries. I am in the process of loading all of my language CDs on my iPod so that it becomes an incredibly useful tool to my voice-over career. I can quickly find and listen to the speakers with authentic accents, which helps me prepare proper accents for character parts.
A terrific source of these programs at low-cost is Costco. I also have found college dictionaries for foreign languages there. My philosophy is: the time to buy it is when you see it! Costco and similar shopping warehouses are notorious for having limited quantities of a product and not restocking them.
Of course, in this information age, we have almost unlimited opportunities to become armchair travelers and listen to the dialects and accents of those from other countries. In addition to the abundance of travel shows on TV, you can download podcasts and radio broadcasts from the Internet. You can play your favorite movie with the soundtrack from another language. I’ve read that audiobook narrator Kate Reading (Anna Fields) would go to ethnic restaurants as part of her research for books. I also know voice talent who have contacted embassies for particularly tough pronunciation questions connected with audiobook research.
Perhaps the typical American only knows how to speak English. I hope that statistic is changing. However, this American voice talent wants to know how to speak fluently in 4 other languages. In the meantime, I’ll be happy if I can retain the flavor of the accent enough to sound convincing to listeners of my recordings.