A while back, I re-read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology – a classic, of course. I’m actually quite glad that I read it again, finishing it exactly when I did because immediately after, by coincidence, I watched The 13th Warrior. Mythology had a brief introduction to Norse Mythology, and I had a better understanding of the characters in the movie as a result of reading the book before watching the film (when they were yelling “Odin!”, I understood why). Who knew what the chances were that I would finish reading the book, put it away, then watch a movie, not knowing how the last few chapters of the book would make my movie experience that much more enjoyable.
For those of you who don’t know, The 13th Warrior, is based on a book, The Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton, one of my favorite authors. I really appreciate Crichton’s work as an author because he is pretty historically accurate and well-researched. It took me a quite a bit of time after watching the movie to finally get around to reading the book (try two years). For the record, that is not the order I usually do things. I’m more of a book first, movie second kind of girl. And even worse than that, is that I am a huge Michael Crichton fan and I have quite the collection of his books (books are probably the only things I hoard). That particular book has been sitting on my bookshelf for about ten whole years. Ten years?! Absurd, I know but unfortunately, fiction does not frequently make my “must read” list any more.
So why am I talking about Michael Crichton on a blog about crafts and language? Well, my dear friends, I am talking about them because of one particular scene in the film that has bothered me since I saw it. It is also the reason I finally decided to read the book this week, hoping to gain a better understanding as to why it happened the way that it did. I also have a huge interest in the relationships between books, film and language and how the former two portray the latter.
How Popular Culture (Film) Portrays Language Learning
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (I’m not sure if this counts as spoilers…), there is a pivotal scene where Ahmed, the main character, learns to speak Norse by means of complete immersion. This happens after traveling with the Norseman where he remains silent yet observant, taking in everything that goes on around him (in the book he annoys his translator with endless questions). Then suddenly, he begins to speak “their language” in response to a comment made by one of the men, gaining the respect of the Norsemen for learning their language. You can watch the scene here.
In the book, on the other hand, Ahmed learns a few words of the Norseman’s language (“Herger translated all for me, although I had spent sufficient time among theses heathens to learn a word or two of their tongue.”), but relies on his translator throughout the entire story. Towards the end, he is able to have very basic conversations if the others speak slowly enough for him, but at one point he says that when he spoke in the language he was not very fluent, if at all comprehensible. I should also note that this voyage appears to take a few days in the film but takes months (maybe even a year or more) to complete in the book.
For the most part, I find this scene highly unlikely despite the fact that I know that this type of immersion is a practice that has frequently been used by the military. In France, for example, there is a region where one of the spoken languages is Breton, a Gaelic language. During the wars, when many young Breton-speaking men went to fight with their fellow Frenchmen (late-nineteenth, early twentieth-century), they were thrown into French-speaking environments and were forced to learn the language (their survival counted on it). Considering the situation, one would definitely learn a language quickly. The lingering question, however, is how fast and how well they actually learned it.
This is quite comparable to the situation Ahmed from Eaters of the Dead/The 13th Warrior was in, and being able to speak with those he was fighting with would have absolutely given him the incentive to learn the language. My only question is which reference points (words) he picked up on in order to begin understanding words and eventually sentences. What seems quite amazing (in the film) is that he is fluent the very first time he speaks. Thankfully, the book is more realistic.
I’m really curious about knowing your thoughts on this scene and how probable it is in terms of language learning. Personally, I don’t think it is a wholly accurate portrayal of the results of total language immersion, but they did do a cinematic gloss-over of what it might have actually been like for Ahmed in real life.
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.