Monday, June 04, 2007

a "24" no-no

I've managed to sneak in a couple more episodes of the first season of "24." In the episode where Jack kidnaps a businessman who may have information on the whereabouts of Jack's wife and daughter, it turns out that the businessman is one of Jack's mortal enemies, a Serbian who is part of some larger (Serbian?) plot to nail both Jack Bauer and presidential candidate David Palmer. What bugs me is that, during the inside-the-limo confrontation, when the Serb finally shows his true colors and pulls a knife on Jack, he speaks in guttural Serbian first, then speaks in heavily accented English next.

But why? Not ten minutes earlier, the same baddie was speaking perfect American English.

This is perplexing. When, for example, an actor like Christian Bale (who is Welsh) plays an American role, Bale reverts to his normal accent when doing interviews. I'd expect that. But when a person whose first language is not English masters English to the point that they can speak it flawlessly, there is no extreme reversion. I think back to my French theater class in college; we had one dude from Paris who had lived in the States for eight years, and who could easily pass for American. The idea that that guy might "lapse" into speaking heavily accented French is ludicrous. At most, he might make a slight mistake or two when under stress (in this guy's case, I doubt he'd even do that), but there's no way he would suddenly speak Froglish.

My own experience speaking French leads me to believe that one can have good hair days and bad hair days, especially if one hasn't been plugged into the francophone milieu for a long time. But once one has reached a certain level of mastery, it is very difficult to backslide. Actor Lambert Wilson is another case in point. Wilson is French and speaks perfect English; for his role as the Merovingian in the Matrix movies, he was asked by the Wachowski brothers to put on a French accent. After mastering English, speaking in a heavy accent requires conscious effort and isn't likely to happen in a moment of crisis. In the evil Serb's case, the crisis was a heart attack brought on when Jack Bauer struck him sharply in the chest (Bauer was aware of the heart condition). No; in my opinion, the Serb would have spoken unaccented American English until the moment he died.



Anonymous said...

It is my experience that, without extensive formal training, people's accents don't change all that much once you get past the initial acclimation period. Language ability changes, but accents pretty much stay the same. This is why we have brilliant scholars speaking perfect English with heavy accents.

My accent in Korean has always been very good (i.e., near native speaker), even when I couldn't speak Korean all that well. This led some people to believe that I could speak Korean far better than I actually could, simply because I sounded Korean. This has nothing to do with my language ability--I just happen to have a good ear. I still have some verbal tics and quirks (that I do consciously try to rid myself of), but given the variation in Korean pronunciation, they are not enough to tip people off that I am not a native Korean (on the phone, for example).

Like you said, language ability may slide without practice, but accents don't change all that much. A definite no-no.

And how many mortal enemies does Jack Bauer have anyway?

ZenKimchi said...

And he ended up being a character (Lynette's male chauvinist boss) in "Desperate Housewives."

Another "Desperate Housewives" actor pops up later in the season too.