Words and meanings: acting in a foreign language

Words and meanings: acting in a foreign language

By Osvárt Andrea

May 26, 2022

I am often asked how I can pull off a role in a foreign language as most people are not even able to express themselves in their own native tongue! Not to mention being understood!

Here is what I’ve learned over the past 20 years of my acting career mainly interpreting foreign characters in languages that were not my own:

My experience might be different from yours, however, I always felt stiff when acting in my mother language. As soon as I moved to Rome, Italy, at the age of 23, I enrolled in an acting school and started to experiment improv and scene study in Italian language. Not only I felt freedom of expression but I also has a huge sense of relief in terms of what the audience, the teacher or my classmates were expecting from me.

The reason behind this might be my perfectionism that won’t help any acting career to lift because perfectionism kills emotions and, therefore, humanity.

People go to the theater or cinema because they want to see life. They want to see life replicated, twisted, studied, worn, torn apart, analyzed, and dissected. Audience wants to see You alive, making mistakes, struggle, achieve, fail, try again, pull it off and win their hearts.

This is not possible when you are stuck in a perfectionist mode, being in your head, concentrating on not to make mistakes.

Acting in a foreign language helped me to get rid of my self imposed limiting beliefs, cross my boundaries and surprise not only my spectators, but even myself.

I remember I once had the incredible honor and privilege to work with the phenomenal German actor, the Oscar-nominated late Bruno Ganz in a movie called “The End is My Beginning”. Bruno was very worried of me wanting to do the scene in German while speaking very little German in reality. He was at the opinion that words have their core meanings rooted in the subconscious of the mind from early childhood and actors can only attach correspondent emotions to the words when understanding their meaning on a core level.

This might be true to a certain extent because if I think I should act in Chinese, I’d probably not be able to deliver a breakthrough performance. In a language, however, I speak just enough to be able to differentiate words and get a sense of what I am representing in the scene, acting in a foreign language can be just deliberating:

As an actor, you don’t have to worry about perfect intonation, accent, tone and so on anymore, as viewers will give you immediate relief and instantly forgive all the mistakes you may commit. In addition to that, you’ll be admired and and praised for all your tremendous efforts in trying and doing something so unique and difficult even in one’s native language, that they’ll put you on a pedestal.

Kudos to you all, acting in a foreign language!

Here are some ways how you can improve your language skills for free:

Passive learning:

Read books in a foreign language

Listen to foreign language radio stations online

Watch foreign-language movies with or without subtitles in the foreign language

Listen to foreign language audiobooks in your car

Active learning:

Apply and take a foreign language exam (motivate yourself to do so, you never know when you might need it)

Participate in online workshops, webinars, group sessions

Look for conversation exchange partners online, there are many groups.

Write a blog in a foreign language

Repeat after your audiobook in your car (that is my favorite)

Don't miss a frame!


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