I recently watched (or perhaps re-watched, my memory fails me in my early senescence) a very excellent multi-language movie called Children of a Lesser God. I enjoyed the movie despite its rich undertones of male chauvinism and female objectification because it was an excellent opportunity to learn some words and phrases in another language: ASL.

The movie presents the watcher with a wonderful opportunity to get a sense, albeit to a very limited degree, of what sign languages are. The fact that the male protagonist (William Hurt) often translates the female protagonist’s (Marlee Matlin) signs into 1980’s English allows the viewer, who ostensibly understands what is going on, to make connections between certain sign-words and certain ideas, words in English. In fact, in some parts, the director even allows the watcher to learn some words/phrases in context without asking the make protagonist to translate. In this way we learn the word “fuck” or “have sex” as well as several other curse words. I suspect that this artistic/dialogue trick also helped the writers and directors get some filthy language past the censors. We do also learn how to say words like “easy,” “if,” “you,” and “speak.”

One aspect of this bilingual movie that is worth noting, however, is that because one language being spoken English, is communicated using mostly the air, while the other ASL, is communicated using only photons, the viewer receives linguistic input in both languages simultaneously. Usually, such multi-language contexts demand serial translation, given that we can only pay attention to one audio stream at a time (most humans, maybe there are exceptions). While the information structure of ASL is different from that of American English, certainly many things coincide (as is common among languages) and so one can indeed begin to make language-to-language, word-to-word associations more readily. I found it, in truth, easier than reading subtitles in one language while listening to another. This may be due to the fact that writing is a proxy for human language whereas “watching” ASL is indeed listening to ASL.

I was also fascinated by the fact that I had such a hard time copying the sign-words and resorted to pausing and replaying the movie (thank you 2010s computer technology) to learn the pronunciation of signs. Humans convey much information and emotion in the way they move their muscles –many of us can convey incredulousness or condescension by subtly changing when and how we tighten our vocal chords (with muscles) while in ASL the same is done with muscles (of the face, arms, hands, fingers, body, etc.).

In fact, this last idea is expressed literally in one scene where the female lead tries to explain to her troglodyte counterpart that there is world of subtlety that he misses and that they will never be “one” until he has some notion about such subtlety. Thankfully, the character dismisses this sentimental female BS and berates her with his superior male intellect, thus continuing nearly a century of Hollywood tradition.

Andro-centric writing aside, this bilingual film gives the viewer the chance to learn many things:

  • Bilingual films are really fun!
  • Non-natives are often “deaf” to the subtlety and nuance of foreign languages.
  • Language learning is a life-long activity.
  • Foreign-language teachers rarely are members of the language community (of the language they teach).
  • Language speaking is a social behavior that entails empathy and mind-reading.

This film is also important because it does give exposure to a community of people, born and raised in America, many of whom do not speak English as a first language, about which the US government has no census data! These are lawyers, scientists, translators, professors, janitors, factory workers, etc. who simply exist out of the public consciousness.

I fervently believe that this is a film worth watching. I recommend that you watch it on mute with English subtitles (or the subtitles of your choice). As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film, the use of music in the movie is superfluous if not downright un-artistic.

Also, if you care about gender issues, and love being disgusted, this is a great film to watch!

Important links:

Roger Ebert’s original review:

  • https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/children-of-a-lesser-god-1986

Film recommendation about another sign-language/spoken language bilingual film (German):

  • “Beyond the Silence” https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenseits_der_Stille

More movies about (or featuring brief mentions of) deafness, ASL here