Sunday, November 21, 2021

On American Monolingualism

It is an old stereotype that Americans, especially if they are not immigrants, are less likely to have second language skills than people in other, comparable countries, and especially less likely to be fluent in a second language than they.

Of course, all this is tougher to estimate than it sounds. Statistics based on self-reporting, for example, likely exaggerate capability, especially given the vagueness of concepts like "fluency"--and the demonstrated inability of a great many people to function at a high level in their own native language, even after lengthy formal education. (Perhaps one can carry on a simple conversation in a given language--but cannot speak it, let alone read it, at a very advanced level, such that so simple and mundane a task as understanding a common bus schedule can defeat them. Can that truly be regarded as command of the language?)

Still, there seems to be at least some truth to the image, sufficient that those interested in those subjects point out a couple of factors with some regularity. One is that an American (as compared with a citizen of the European Union, for example) generally has to travel a long way before they are in a place where the people predominantly speak, write and read a language that is not English (and less often need to do so than, for instance, people in countries where hard circumstances drive their people to go abroad looking for work).

Another factor is that Americans are far more accustomed to exporting pop culture than importing it--the songs they listen to, the movies they watch, much less likely to originally have been created in something other than English. (Indeed, Americans much more often see Hollywood's remakes of foreign movies than the movies they are based on.)

All of this implies a great deal for the pressure to learn, the opportunity to practice--that they are less likely to have just "picked up" other languages in childhood, or acquired something of them in everyday life, instead making this a thing one goes that much more out of their way to do, indeed specifically, consistently commit time to over a long period for the relatively distant payoff of competence in the language, which is often little more than an end in itself.

There is also what all this means for those taking the deliberate, academic path to which they have no recourse--that they get language instruction conceived by linguists for other linguists, rather than for more general users; instruction by teachers inclined to a scholarly perfectionism rather than offering up a package the student can quickly begin using as a basis on which to build that subtler knowledge. Is it quite so important that the student be enjoined to remember every last form of every verb to which they are introduced, the vast majority of which forms they are unlikely to see anytime soon, practically before the student has acquired any vocabulary at all? I doubt it. But that is what the textbook writers insist on, and the implicit enjoinment to perfectionism--which leaves potential learners thinking in terms of a far greater competence in the language than most native speakers of that language are likely to have as the standard of acquisition, and the choice between this or nothing at all. And that would seem to be another problem in itself, for when it is perfection or nothing I imagine many resign themselves to nothing. (I suspect contributing to this further is the pop cultural garbage inundating us in false images of hyperpolyglot geniuses who all speak a dozen languages perfectly, in spite of never actually studying or practicing, making it look easier than it is, setting impossible standards that make the onlooker feel inferior.)

There is, too, the way a purely academic effort can produce a very uneven capability. (One may end up in a situation where they can read the second language at a very high level, within some field of competency they have perhaps far more adroit at reading the relevant material than a native speaker who has not been trained in the field--but at the same time find that coming up with the words with which to carry on an everyday conversation defeats them.)

And of course, that those most likely to make the academic effort are people who probably speak their own native language with exceptional skill and polish is likely to pose obstacles for them as well--by leaving them the more impatient of their difficulties and crudity in that other language, all while they are perhaps juggling other intellectual or cultural interests as well with less than all the time in the world for all of them. (For example, they have only so much time to give to discretionary reading. As a result they find themselves having to choose between reading a book they are interested in their own language for the knowledge it contains--and struggling along with a book in another language just for the sake of practice.)

Of course, all this does not in itself mean that Americans as a whole might not be doing better--but it does at least call into question the tone of accusation and moralizing that American social critics tend to assume (and the sneering of a good many foreign observers) when discussing American monolingualism.

Why James Bond's Audience is so Middle-Aged

As the latest Bond movie finally has its day at the box office, and the data about the viewers is piling up, one thing that has attracted a good deal of notice has been the age of the audience--the Hollywood Reporter noting that some 57 percent were 35 or older, and 37 percent 45 or older.

Basically, Bond fans are, compared with the fan bases for other action franchises, middle-aged-to-old. Why is that?

I can think of at least three factors.

1. Older viewers got hooked on the Bond series back when it had a genuine claim to novelty--the first of the really high-concept action-adventure franchises--and little competition (nothing to compare with it until Star Wars, really, with real competitors few in number even into the '80s). By contrast younger viewers had numerous franchises clamoring for their attention, and effectively splitting it. (Indeed, they have their choice not just of action franchises but specifically spy-fi franchises, with the Fast and Furious film series, in its incarnation over the past decade, apparently their preferred flavor.)

2. Nostalgia has been a powerful factor in sustaining interest in the Bond films--but we are increasingly remote from that moment. People who grew up in the '80s and '90s might still remember being touched by the nostalgia for the '60s in which jet-setting Playboy lifestyle spymania figured so prominently (hence Austin Powers), but someone who grew up in the '00s would likely be left scratching their head looking at all that. The pull is simply not there for them. And that matters all the more given the aforementioned competition, but also a third factor, namely that

3. The newer Bond films--the films younger viewers are most likely to know, and to judge the franchise by--basically abandoned what was distinctive about the series (such as would let it stand out from the intense competition), and some would say, also what was fun about it. I recall Bosley Crowther's review of Goldfinger in the New York Times where he characterized Bond as "a great vicarious image for all the panting Walter Mittys in the world." I doubt anyone would say this of the Craig-era Bond--least of all in that incarnation's first and defining film, Casino Royale. The associations people have of Bond from watching the older films may keep them watching--but again, those associations are just not there for the younger crowd, which finds itself treated instead to gleeful stomping on the fantasy that Crowther's generation so enjoyed, by no means the crowd-pleaser that some seem to think it is.

And so they went to see Venom: Let There Be Carnage instead.

Hollywood Takes the Chinese Market For Granted--to its Cost

As even a glance at the box office data from China indicates the Chinese film industry is a powerful competitor for its vast domestic audience. Consider the following numbers:

* Since 2016, in spite of the difficulties for the market over the past two years, nine Chinese-made movies have broken the half billion dollar barrier.

* In the last "normal" year for moviegoing, 2019, 24 movies broke the $100 million barrier at the Chinese box office, of which 15 were Chinese productions. Of the top 10 earners (all of which broke the $200 million barrier), 7 were Chinese productions, while 5 Chinese-made movies took in over $300 million and two broke the half billion dollar barrier, with the disaster film The Wandering Earth making $690 million and the superhero movie Ne Zha taking an astonishing $703 million.

* Wolf Warrior 2, to date the highest-grossing Chinese film, took in $854 million back in 2017--outdoing the much-crowed about global gross of the first Wonder Woman. Translating to some $945 million in 2021 dollars, this falls just short of the billion dollar mark. Think about that--a billion dollars taken in by one movie in a single country.

As all this shows the Chinese market is big enough to support the making of big budget films just for Chinese audiences, without much concern for foreign viewership--with this extending all the way to first-rank blockbusters like the $200 million The Battle at Lake Changjin, which has made almost four times that figure at the Chinese box office in a mere three weeks. And of course, Chinese filmmakers have even less difficulty making lower-cost comedies and dramas suiting local taste.

Of course, much is made of Chinese censorship, which is real enough, and perhaps getting tighter (with three Marvel movies frozen out of the market this year, perhaps costing them the proceeds from hundreds of millions in ticket sales). Still, contrary to what the entertainment press claims it is far from the whole story. Even without censorship being at issue Hollywood has shown itself consistently clueless about what will or will not be a winner with Chinese audiences, or international audiences generally--perhaps as a result of America's culture these days making it less able to connect with foreign audiences like China's. The slogan "Go woke, go broke" represents the grinding of an ideological axe--but the fact remains that there is no reason for foreign audiences to care about an extremely particularist identity politics, with even the successes showing this. Black Panther, for example, was a strong earner overseas, picking up $600 million (and just $105 million in China). Yet while Black Panther was #1 in the U.S. that year, it was far outdone that year by Avengers: Infinity War, taking in close to $1.4 billion ($360 million of that in China). Simply put, Black Panther was received as another Marvel superhero film, and not the major cultural moment it was made out to be in America at the time of its release (with the result that, in China certainly, Infinity War outgrossed Black Panther by a factor of over three).

And of course what went for even the hits went that much more for the disappointments, with Crazy Rich Asians exemplary. The press for the film was extremely heavy on the identity politics angle--but it was far from clear why such American concerns would make the movie a blockbuster elsewhere, and indeed they did not. (Indeed, in a China still nominally Communist, where the social divide is enormous and people less prone to pretend obliviousness to it than in America, a spectacle of the vulgarity and snobbery of the ultra-rich was likely not seen as something to revel in.) Indeed, even when aspiring to be "woke" it showed itself to have significant blind spots. In America Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was celebrated as the first Marvel movie with an Asian lead, while conveniently overlooking the story's evocation of the vicious Yellow Peril racism that produced Fu-Manchu (an oversight the more appalling at a time of increasing anti-Asian racism, and Sinophobic fearmongering); and in casting actors who did not meet Chinese ideals of physical attractiveness, seen by many Chinese filmgoers not as a rejection of "racist" standards of appearance, but rather a Western stereotyping of Asian appearance received as a racist insult. Given what has happened with films like last year's Monster Hunter (the backers of which had bet big on the Chinese market)--after the movie's release--this could have cost the movie dearly even if it had its crack at the theaters.

Similarly reflecting that self-absorption is the place given to nostalgia in making movies for mass consumption, with again, the attempt to sell Star Wars exemplary. When Disney relaunched Star Wars Americans went to see it because they had seen Star Wars movies before, and remembered their earlier experiences in particular fondly--but this was not the case in China, which was in a very different place in 1977. And unsurprisingly the sales pitch fell flat--just as it was soon to do everywhere else, with Episode IX taking in about half of what Episode VII did, and Disney shelving its once Marvel-like plans for a mega-franchise sending two or three big Star Wars movies our every year. Now Star Wars is something people see on TV--and it remains to be seen when, and even if, Star Wars will be a big screen property again.

Altogether in this moment when Hollywood is ever more reliant on the global market it has become more national, even provincial--a fact on which few seem to care to linger these days. The question, however, is what Hollywood will do about it. Will it stop worrying about Chinese and foreign markets so much and focus on appealing to easier markets--or will it attempt to become more cosmopolitan, the better to secure as big a cut of the tickets bought by the planet's moviegoers as possible? The latter seems to me a far more likely outcome than the former--but first it would have to admit that it is having a problem, and at least to go by the tenor of the press that moment has not yet arrived.

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