Breaking the Subtitle Barrier

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[Written by Beatrice Crawford (she/her)]

[Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash]

Where were you when Parasite won Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony? South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s win felt monumental to cinephiles across the globe (the first foreign-language movie to take home the big prize), which was accentuated by his viral acceptance speech. With an iconic record under his belt, Bong Joon-ho had one thing to say: ‘once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.’ Now more than ever, foreign-language works are taking over the English-speaking world, not just in film but in all forms of media. Does this signal a shift to a more linguistically-diverse cultural landscape, and if so, what does this mean for the future of the Anglophone cultural scene? 

While films like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and the Spanish Roma took the silver screen by storm in recent years, the most obvious manifestation of this major cultural shift can be seen on streaming platforms. With the competition building up against their once-virtually-unchallenged title as the ‘King of Streaming’, Netflix has unveiled their secret weapon: a diverse range of foreign-language content. Over the course of the last few years, the streaming giant has invested billions of dollars into producing foreign-language series and films, from Spanish teen dramas like Elite to gritty thrillers like the German Dark. Furthermore, this year alone, the platform has planned to invest US$500 million in South Korean content. Despite numerous language barriers, the global success of such shows is evident. Money Heist, another Spanish-language Netflix vessel, was the most-watched series on Netflix for six consecutive weeks, with its fourth season being named one of the ten most popular shows in 92 different countries. With the advent of streaming, foreign-language series and films have been able to supersede both physical borders and language barriers unlike ever before. A decade or two ago, we would have only been able to hear such languages on BBC4 — now, they’re accessible to anyone with a netflix subscription, anytime and anywhere. Watching foreign productions don’t just expose us to the language: the culture and worldview of the respective country seep through into every line of dialogue, interaction, sweeping shot of a Parisian or Mexican skyline. 

The Anglophone music world is similarly set ablaze by foreign and bilingual artists. Anyone who has heard the charts in recent years would find it hard to ignore the Latin influence permeating pop music; we all remember how inescapable Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’ seemed in the summer of 2017. Even this year, American superstar Selena Gomez has made headlines for her announcement of a 7-song EP entirely in Spanish, entitled Revalación. Other languages are also gaining traction: while mainstream media may seem to resist it, flicking through the replies to any popular Tweet, the impact of the ‘Korean wave’ is unavoidable. What’s more, ‘Fancam’ videos of K-pop idols inexplicably fill the most unrelated of Twitter threads; they were even used as a political weapon to drown out racist posts in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. The music industry is finally going global, moving past the likes of one-hit wonders like ‘Macarena’ and ‘Gangnam Style’ and into more permanent fixtures on the scene. 

Take the K-pop phenomenon BTS for example — regardless of why you follow their performances (for the music, to pick up a bit of Korean, or just to see some well-manicured boys dancing in synchrony?), the result is an exposure to something you probably wouldn’t have seen on MTV back in the ‘80s: genuine cultural diversity. The narrow-minded idea that English is the only valid language to communicate and create art in — at least if you’re wanting relevance in the UK or across the pond — seems to finally be challenged. As English-speakers, we’re used to being catered to; being exposed to foreign-language content combats this idea that Anglophone countries are the epicentre of the world. In this way, we are able to see ourselves not as belonging to one language or one country, but as interconnected world citizens. Good music is good music regardless of a language or cultural barrier, right?

The idea that both the UK and the US are far from international-thinkers is an enduring stereotype, and perhaps not entirely unfounded: in a 2014 survey, the UK population tied as the third least likely in Europe to speak a foreign language. But recent gains for foreign-language media in the Anglophone world seem to indicate that we’re heading in a different direction, albeit slowly. While the exponential growth of the internet may have its downfalls, the world’s increasing interconnectedness can’t be included in this and the importance of foreign-language media to the English-speaking world can’t be ignored. The breakdown of language barriers and our exposure to cultures that may have completely evaded us had we been born just a hundred years earlier, is the perfect remedy for our perceived narrow-mindedness. It’s time to embrace Latin pop, South Korean black comedies, and disturbing German crime thrillers — they’re here to stay. 


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