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When a writer wants to acknowledge that some foreigner or alien would not speak English, rather than just having Aliens Speaking English or not having the sort of setting with Translator Microbes, they'll have the character pick up the language from, of all things, TV and radio transmissions.
Often this gets done too quickly to be realistic with Instant Expert maybe used to indicate a super-intellect but depending on the medium, it may fare better depending on how much TV/radio/books the character has watched/heard/read. Part of the importance of the historical Rosetta Stone was that it provided a way to connect Egyptian hieroglyphics to languages we already could translate and provided a starting point. Generally any other first encounter would have to start with the basics (e.g. the "rock" and "tree" scene in The Iron Giant) so probably radio and books aren't that useful but television, with an audio-visual combination, could perhaps provide enough reference points. There are many foreign students who learned their most basic English knowledge in elementary school, but improved it to fluency through the media. After all, the best way to learn a language is immersion, like a baby.
Anime and Manga
- In one episode of Seven of Seven, Nana is tutored in English by Funny Foreigner Melody Honey, who speaks Japanese with a bad kansai accent. At the end of the episode, Nana asks her how she learned Japanese, and she mentions watching videos of manzai comedy routines.
- In Lucky Star, Patricia Martin learned all her Japanese vocabulary from watching anime and manga.
- In Dragon Crisis, Rose can only speak one or two words at first, but a full night of watching TV makes her very fluent in Japanese.
- In Super Dreadnought Girl 4946, Isaac Montana claims to have learned Japanese from watching anime. She was good enough to pass the Level 1 JLPT (which basically means she's as good as a native speaker), leading her classmates to wonder how much anime she had watched. However, she might have been lying, since she was The Mole before her Heel Face Turn.
- In Parasyte, while Migi learned Japanese from reading books and hence speaks quite politely, Shaba learned English from Japanese tv and therefore speaks crudely. When Shinji and Uda meet, he compliments Migi for being so polite while lamenting that Shaba is a bit rude.
- Blue Devil once met aliens who learned English from watching reruns of I Love Lucy beamed into space. "Little Ricky" was an exclamation along the lines of taking the Lord's name in vain.
- Some backstories of DC Comics' Martian Manhunter has him learning English by watching TV in his apartment during his free time.
- The all-ages version of Power Pack has Whitemane learning English this way. It helps that he gets to be something of a movie buff.
Film - Live Action
- Madison from Splash speaks only...Mermaidese at the beginning, but just as Allen has gotten into the swing of making excuses for her not speaking English, she picks it up from watching TV at Radio Shack.
- At the beginning of The Fifth Element, Leeloo speaks only the Divine Language of the priests ("bada-boom"), but her perfect, genetically engineered self, is able to pick up the basics from a massive dose of future Internet. This also leads her to unfortunately absorb human war and hatred (and presumably a lot of porn).
- And of course, "please help" when she crashes into the hero. Where she learns it from READING it. Not quite sure how that works...
- In Explorers, the three kids meet aliens who pick up English from watching television. One alien did a better job than the other, so the latter communicates by speaking in TV catch phrases and clips from old black-and-white TV broadcasts.
- A possible variation in The 13th Warrior film: Ahmad ibn Fadlan doesn't speak Norse at the beginning, so he can communicate only via some shared Greek and Latin with one of them. Thus the audience doesn't get to understand them, either. However, in a montage of them travelling and talking around the campfire, more and more start to turn to English as Ahmad begins to understand more until eventually he surprises them at a campfire but insulting them in their own tongue. When asked how he learned their language, he just replies, "I listened."
- Mac, Teebo and Wiploc from Earth Girls Are Easy also learn English from watching TV.
- Wayne's World:
Wayne: Hey, where'd you learn to speak English?
Cassandra: College... and the Police Academy movies.
- ET the Extraterrestrial learned some basic words (y'know:"phone" and "home") from Sesame Street in a fairly well justified way: the show had basic words sounded out next to a picture of what it was talking about. It is a show directed at preschoolers, after all.
- In the live action Transformers film, Optimus Prime tells Sam and Mikaela that they learned English from the Internet, with the exception of Bumblebee, who uses the radio to speak Junkion-style (and one of the soundbites he plays is the alien from Explorers).
- In John Grisham's The Pelican Brief, a Lebanese assassin perfects his Southern (US) accent by watching local television as part of his cover.
- Mentioned in The House On Mango Street, when Esperanza's neighbor's son starts repeating a Pepsi commercial.
- In "The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School" by Kim Newman, which is set before the invention of television, there's a character from a remote part of Asia who learned English from American pulp magazines, and litters her speech with stereotypical gangster slang.
- The novel I Want to Buy a Vowel is about a Guatemalan immigrant who learns English from TV and as such has a tendency to repeat lines from game shows at inappropriate times.
Live Action TV
- In Skins, Anwar tells the Russian girl he meets what he'd like to do to her and becomes embarrassed when she reveals she speaks English and learnt it from watching Friends. Cue her saying "How you doin'?"
- In an episode of the TV show spinoff of Honey I Shrunk the Kids, a cat accelerated to human intelligence and body-swapped with a human learned English by watching television.
- The dumber crocodiles in Pearls Before Swine learned English from Cookie Monster. Understandable, since the intent of the show is to teach preschoolers.
- One of Denis Norden's anecdotes on My Word! involved a Swedish au pair who talked in a broad Oop North accent due to learning English from Coronation Street.
- GURPS Aliens. The Engai learned the language used by the rest of the interstellar community by monitoring radio transmissions.
- In Starship, Bug learnt English from watching old recordings on the starship.
- The Junkions and their leader, Wreck-Gar, from Transformers Generation 1 learned to talk by watching TV and listening to radio to justify Aliens Speaking English. They tend to speak in "commercial" voice. Hilarious in that (A) they are voiced by Eric Idle (in The Movie, anyway), and (B) the show is itself a 30-minute commercial.
Hot Rod: Where'd you learn to talk like that?
Wreck-Gar: T.V. We talk T.V. You talk some T.V.?
Kup: I talk some T.V. And now the news, don't touch that dial.
Wreck-Gar: Yes, friends, act now, destroy Unicron! Kill the Grand Poobah! Eliminate even the toughest stains!
Wreck-Gar: And the answer is: Unicron!
- It is common for TV to be the most widespread form of mass marketed entertainment even in places that have never heard of English before, and because TV shows are usually directed with the lowest common denominator (and cost) in mind, subtitled, English language shows become the chief means by which the people learn English while getting entertainment.
- This is specially true for children. Because given a choice between sitting in a class room and listening to a teacher drone on about adverbs, grammar rules or what not, OR watching mind rotting cartoons (in English), the cartoons, and English language will will win the day for children's minds and limited attention spans.
- Victor Borge learned English by watching movies.
- As did Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- Mila Kunis learned English by watching The Price Is Right. She thanked Bob Barker for talking slow enough for her to understand.
- In non-English-speaking parts of Europe, it's not uncommon for English-language Harry Potter books to be under the "language education" section of bookstores, since lots of kids just learning English become better at it by reading the English books and comparing them to a translation.
- Ricky Martin says this is how he learned English.
- Joanie Rochette, a French Canadian Olympic figure skater, says that no one in her family speaks English. She learned it by watching Scooby Doo.