What makes a language foreign?

Minari, a film by Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, won the award for best foreign language film at the Golden Globe awards on Sunday, February 28th. Widely acclaimed as a gripping and moving portrayal of one family’s struggle to achieve the American Dream, there had been hopes that the film might be a contender for best drama, but a peculiarity of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s (the governing body for the Golden Globe awards) rules meant that Minari was not eligible. 

According to the HFPA’s rules, a film must have “50% or more English dialogue” to be eligible for the best drama or best musical/comedy categories. Thus Minari, a film that was produced, filmed, and set in the United States, with an American and Korean cast that includes such notables as Steven Yeun, late of The Walking Dead, and with an American director was locked out of the nominations.

The consternation surrounding Minari’s ineligibility for best drama has brought to the fore a long running debate about what constitutes American culture — and who gets to take an active part in shaping it. 

The United States has no federally established official language, though English is the de facto language of government and business in most areas. English is official at the state level in some 30 states, and co-official with Spanish (Puerto Rico), Chamorro (Guam), Hawaiian (Hawaii), Samoan (American Samoa), and Lakota/Dakota/Nakota (South Dakota) in other states and territories. 

The first “foreign” languages in the United States were French, Spanish, Dutch, English…languages that arrived on the continent with European colonists and traders. Indeed, the majority of de jure and de facto languages in the Americas are colonial, with still others having arrived with later waves of immigration. 

In that context, what makes a language foreign? English is, after all, no more indigenous to the Americas than Korean, and Korean speakers make up a portion of the roughly 22% of people in the U.S. who don’t speak English at home. Why then should the percentage of English dialogue be a determining factor for the categories in which a movie can be nominated? 

The debate will likely continue for some time, but it’s worth remembering that multilingualism is the norm in pluralistic societies, and that inclusion for all means linguistic inclusion as well.

Michael Reid
Michael Reid, Managing Editor at MultiLingual, is an educator, translator, and language, culture, and diversity consultant who lives in Athens, Greece, with over 20 years of experience. He speaks six languages fluently and another seven to basic competence. He also speaks just enough Klingon to negotiate safe passage through the Neutral Zone.


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