I’ve been reading subtitles since I can remember. Consuming media in the original language, with subtitles where needed, has just always been part and parcel of being multilingual and multicultural. At home and at school, we were actively encouraged to think of ourselves as part of a bigger whole. We had sister countries, sister cultures and sister languages with whom we shared origins and often cultural and societal values.

Our peoples often and easily travel in the region, and moving to another Scandinavian country for work, or even commuting across a border, is typical. And then there is the wider world — coming from a region where our connection to the natural world is a strong, our cultural heritage includes a sense of being connected to the world at large. One could say we’ve inherited a legacy of travelling far and wide (this extends to my own family which includes both a Swedish legacy from the west, a Karelian legacy from the east and even Polish from further south-east).

Routes of travel and settlements by the Vikings from the 9th century to the 11th century. Image: Encyclopædia Britannica.

Knowing one language makes it so I can, with a bit of pantomime and some squinting, understand what people from other Scandinavian languages are saying. And picking up “an amended version” of your own language, in case you decide to move country, is easy enough with a shared foundation. It’s just how we are as Scandinavians. And it never even occurred to me that there was another way of thinking, until I ran into an issue with a friend who was not Scandinavian, but Nordic.

But isn’t Scandinavian and Nordic the same thing?

I’m glad you asked. To answer that question, I’m going to first answer this question: what is the Scandinavian Peninsula?

Answer: the Scandinavian Peninsula is made up of Sweden and Norway and extends southward from the Barents Sea in the north, the Norwegian sea to the west and the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic Sea to the east. The Skagerrak strait and Kattegat sea separate the peninsula from Denmark. To the east of the Gulf of Bothnia lies Finland, sharing an entire eastern border with Russia, and west if Norway lies Iceland, situated between the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

Nordic countries and their territories or dependent areas. Image: Encyclopædia Britannica.

The term “Scandinavian languages” refers exclusively to the three languages that are mutually understood (in theory) by speakers of each language: Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian. Finnish, on the other hand, belongs to the Finnic group of Uralic languages — cousin to Estonian and the nearly extinct Karelian and in the same family as Sámi and Hungarian — and has little in common with the Scandinavian languages (though the Swedish language and Scandinavian culture has had a significant impact on modern Finnish language and culture).

Politically and geographically, Finland is part of the Nordic region but not the Scandinavian region. Linguistically, Finland falls into a peculiar category: the country’s majority official language is unrelated to Scandinavian, and even Indo-European, languages.

Because of a centuries-long history being part of the Swedish kingdom, there’s a legacy of Swedish in Finland: Swedish is the other official language of Finland. The Swedish-speaking population of Finland is a linguistic minority, making up about 5% of the total population. This is who I am. We maintain a strong identity and are seen as a separate cultural-linguistic group while still being considered ethnic Finns. We speak a dialect known as Finland’s Swedish (our counterparts in Sweden are the Finnish-speaking Swedes, who are also an official minority).

When I was about nine, me and my monolingual Finnish friend were watching a children’s movie in English, but I was struggling to enjoy it as my friend had her grandmother reading the subtitles to her out loud. To me, the modus operandi was to listen to what was being said while looking at the accompanying actions and shots, then confirm what was being said from the subtitles in the translated language (to me it didn’t matter if the subtitles were in Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, English or Finnish, I habitually read them anyway).

I was used to having my attention flicker all over the screen as I gathered information in two languages (sometimes more). But for my friend, the subtitles moved too fast for her to read. So, in addition to already speeding through two languages, I had to sit there and listen to the subtitles being read aloud at a much slower pace than I was reading them for myself.

Subtitling vs. dubbing in Europe.

There are a few reasons why many European nations dub foreign TV and film. One reason is that it allows for a wider audience to understand and enjoy the programming. Many people in Europe speak multiple languages, but not everyone may be fluent in a foreign language.

Originally dubbing was done for political reasons to do with nationalism and protectionism. Germany and Italy were the first to do so in Western Europe, followed by Spain and France. As a result, that’s what audiences in those countries became used to, and it’s only now that viewers can choose language soundtracks and subtitles on their content.

Other than nationalism and protectionism, dubbing is also an economic issue. Many of the countries that sub rather than dub, do so because they are tiny markets and it’s more cost efficient to simply add subtitles.

Nordic countries and the Netherlands typically have subtitled programmes:

  • The Netherlands: ~16.6 million inhabitants
  • Sweden: ~9.4 million inhabitants
  • Denmark: ~5.5 million inhabitants
  • Finland: ~5.3 million inhabitants
  • Norway: ~4.9 million inhabitants

In Scandinavia, we also start learning English early. As soon as we have mastered reading and writing in our native languages, English introduced as our first foreign language. The specific age varies by country and region, but generally, every student will have undergone at least a year of formal English language education by the age of ten.

This makes Scandinavians less English-phobic than many other countries, as well as dovetails right into a view of global citizenship. We’ve got historic ties to Scotland and Ireland (thanks to the Vikings), which might help explain the influence of the English language.

Larger countries have bigger audiences for a given language, especially since native speakers of the language can vastly outnumber the inhabitants of the country, e.g. Spain:

  • Germany: ~81 million inhabitants but ~95 million native speakers
  • France: ~65 million inhabitants but ~75 million native speakers
  • Italy: ~60 million inhabitants but ~61 million native speakers
  • Spain: ~47 million inhabitants but ~406 million native speakers

Germany, France, Spain and Italy are all in the top ten most profitable countries at the box office (Top 10 Film Countries by Box Office). Additionally, France, Spain, Italy and Germany are respectively 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th worldwide in terms of movies produced per year. Due to a wide availability of locally produced media, means the local audience is used to seeing a lot of programming in their own languages.

It is possible to watch most movies with subtitles instead of as dubbed in those countries, if you’re is willing to consider the indie, more artsy theatres or more restrictive showing times at the usual theatres.

Using different languages changes you.

Anyone who’s multilingual, or has ever tried to master a new language, knows that you change depending on the language you speak. In the words of German professor Christoph Harbsmeier, “I learnt Danish at Oxford, because my wife-to-be, who is Danish, didn’t like my Anglophone personality: when I was speaking English, I was becoming too intellectual. Fortunately, she liked my Danish personality”.

If this resonates, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of feeling like having different personalities when speaking different languages. Some of the common symptoms include, feeling different and acting different when using different languages. You might feel that you’re funnier in one language, and more goal-oriented in another. Your tone of voice changes, as does your speaking pace and body language.

I’ve even found that adopting a persona when learning a new language makes it easier to get the pronunciation and intonation correct. I learned this trick when I was studying French in 7th grade. French, though from the same Indo-European family as my native tongue, has a lot of sounds in it that feel harsh to my throat and mouth, and I was having a hell of a time getting it right.

I was very aware of my taste-skill gap; I knew it sounded wrong but didn’t yet know how to do it correctly. So, purely out of frustration, I decided to take on “French airs”. In practice, this meant I put a slight frown on my face, turned the corners of m mouth down, hunched my shoulders a bit, and adopted a circular motion with my hand as I spoke. Then I spoke in an exaggerated caricature of the French language.

This felt ridiculous at fist, but soon had me sounding exactly like a native speaker! That French attitude was the energy I’d been missing, and once I managed to embody it, speaking French took only a fraction of the energy it had before. How is that possible? Do different languages truly come with different personalities? Can you then develop a new personality by learning a new language?

Here is what research tells us.

As this phenomenon has been widely reported, researchers have two possible hypotheses: either people suffer (or benefit?) from a split personality — quite in line with schizophrenic symptoms (Adler, 1977) — or people only act differently across languages, but personality stays the same, this is known as the “cultural accommodation hypothesis”.

In one study (Chen & Bond, 2010) Hong-Kong Chinese-English bilingual bicultural participants were asked questions by a Caucasian interviewer and by a Chinese interviewer, both in English and in Cantonese. All participants were bilingual and bicultural. This is important because it means that they had internalised the cultural norms of both the English and the Chinese cultural context.

The interviews were rated by external observers, who judged participants to be more assertive, open and extroverted when speaking English as compared to Cantonese, as well as when speaking Cantonese to the Caucasian interviewer in comparison to the Chinese interviewer.

These results speak for the cultural accommodation hypothesis. Different languages activate a set of rules, habits and personality traits belonging to different cultures. When speaking Finnish, a language full of long words and convoluted ways of expressing things — inflection and tone of voice carry less meaning than the actual words spoken in comparison to Japanese, for instance — I speak slower to accommodate for this.

Yet I’ve often been admonished by monolingual native speakers that I “speak too fast” leading to them perceiving me as flighty and lively. Contrast this with my own experience of having to slow down to a glacial crawl when speaking Finnish instead of English. Though this does give me more time to process the words I want to use, as I go through that multilingual speaker’s problem of having to jump through at least three different languages to find the words I’m looking for in one.

A 2006 study lead by Nairan Ramírez-Esparza, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut, and her colleagues, asked bilingual Mexican-Americans to take a personality test in both English and Spanish. The test measured the ”Big Five” personality traits: extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, and found that subjects scored higher in extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness when they took the English version of the test.

The authors speculated that this may reflect the fact that individualistic cultures, like in the US, place a high premium on assertiveness, achievement and superficial friendliness, whereas it’s less important toot your own horn in collectivistic cultures, like in Mexico.

As a follow-up, Ramírez-Esparza and colleagues asked subjects to write a 15-minute description of their personalities, and found that, while writing in Spanish, the Mexican-American subjects talked about themselves in relation to their families, relationships and hobbies. In English, they spoke of their achievements, college, and daily activities, supporting the initial findings.

Ramírez-Esparza ascribed the changes in personality (and the differing focus on values) to the way that language “primes” behaviour, as “the language cannot be separated from the cultural values of that language. You see yourself through the cultural values of the language you are speaking.”

It makes sense that this effect is felt particularly strongly by people who are bicultural as well as bilingual, because they have a strong grounding in multiple cultures. A study (Luna, Ringberg & Peracchio, 2008) where bicultural bilingual and monocultural bilingual (monocultural bilinguals are proficient in both languages, but have not been exposed to one of the cultures) participants were observed, confirmed this.

The study suggested that the different languages (English and Spanish in the study) activated different internal cultural norms, belonging to the Hispanic and Anglo cultures. These cultural norms guided participants in their answers, but this activation was not possible for monocultural bilinguals, because they do not have access to the cultural norms of one of the two languages.

It’s also possible that your own perception of yourself changes as you observe how people react to you in different languages.

You might feel confident speaking English in front of a large crowd, but feel like a bumbling idiot when trying to order a coffee in French. Speaking with other people is also a way of asserting your identity. By speaking in a different language, you’re negotiating who you are, how other people can relate to you, and how they see you.

Despite being bilingual and bicultural, I used to have a slight Swedish lilt when speaking Finnish because I was raised by my mother and my primary language at home was Swedish. I got teased and even bullied for it so much by monolingual Finnish speakers, that I devoted years to ironing out those discrepancies and speaking Finnish like a monolingual Finn.

I got so good at hiding my natural way of speaking, that later monolingual Finns would get very upset, feeling betrayed, when they found out that I was, in fact, bilingual. That led to another type of bullying and ostracism, where I was accused of “concealing” my true identity, people exclaiming “I can’t believe you’re not Finnish!” every time they laid eyes on me, as if I’d pulled the wool over their eyes with malicious intent, and even repeatedly questioning me on the spelling of my name.

“Ask me in English what my favourite food is and I will picture myself in London choosing from the options I enjoy there. But ask me in French and I transport myself to Paris, where the options I’ll choose from are different. So the same deeply personal question gets a different answer depending on the language in which you’re asking me. This idea that you gain a new personality with every language you speak is a profound one.”

— Gaia Vince interviewing Panos Athanasopoulos, “Why being bilingual works wonders for your brain”

I’ve felt the impact of language on identity first-hand, and my multilingual brain has provided me with enough benefits that I absolutely insisted our child be bilingual. I didn’t care which of the five languages that are native in our family, I just cared that she had support for learning it so she became both bilingual and bicultural.

The grammatical toolkit varies from language to language, and this way of describing the world shapes how you see things. For instance, Finnish doesn’t distinguish gender in nouns or even in personal pronouns: hän is “he”, “she”, “they” (singular), or “it” depending on the context. Equality forms a core value for Finland and its people, and this may have something to do, in part, with the Finnish language covering the third personal pronoun with a single gender-neutral pronoun.

In one experiment by Panos Athanasopoulos, professor of psycholinguistics and bilingual cognition at Lancaster University, English and German speakers were shown videos of people moving. English speakers described it as, “a woman is walking” or “a man is cycling”. German speakers, on the other hand, described the action with a more holistic view, including the goal of the action, e.g. “a woman walks towards her car” or “a man cycles to the supermarket”.

Athanasopoulos concluded that unlike German, English has the -ing ending to describe actions that are ongoing. This made the English speakers much less likely to assign a goal to an action when describing an ambiguous scene. He also tested English-German bilinguals and found that the country they were tested in determined whether their descriptions were goal- or action-focused, no matter which language was used.

A steady stream of studies over the past decade has shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks, from verbal and non-verbal tests to how well they can “read” other people.

Athanasopoulos has found that speaking more than one language seems to train the executive system more generally. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), located on the frontal lobe, it is a toolbox of mental attention skills that enables the brain to concentrate on one task while blocking out competing information and to switch focus between different tasks without becoming confused.

Brain imaging studies show that when a bilingual person is speaking in one language, their ACC is continually suppressing the urge to use words and grammar from their other language. Not only that, but their mind is always making a judgment about when and how to use the target language. As I said, I sometimes find that this process slows me down in comparison to monolingual native speakers, as my brain cycles through several vocabularies at once.

So, let’s take a look at Howl’s Moving Castle.

It’s a Miyazaki film that has a widely lauded English dub. I know that a lot of people prefer the English dub over the original Japanese, and is it any wonder with the casting it has? Christian Bale as Howl is the fan favourite, but it’s also got some top-tier billing in the supporting cast; such as Lauren Bacall as The Witch of the Waste, and Billy Crystal as Calcifer.

But even with the good voice acting in English, I can’t watch it (or any Miyazaki film) without feeling like it has lost its essence. I compared both versions side by side, and immediately a few things stood out.

English Sophie is less child-like, she lacks that very typical high-pitched voice the main female characters tend to have in anime. While this isn’t a huge change, it feels noticeable. It feels like English Sophie is too confident. The Japanese original feels like it embodies her low self-esteem and confidence better, lending credence and depth to her eventually discovering courage and self-worth.

More bothersome for me, was the voice of old Sophie. In English it feels like a voice attempting to portray an old woman, where in the Japanese version, I feel like it’s young Sophie coming to terms with her drastically changed circumstances. Though Sophie is still young, her body has changed — a visible sign both of how she feels on the inside and the wisdom and maturity she wishes to have — giving the Japanese performance a sincerity I can’t find in the English dub.

Sophie becoming physically old is an interesting manifestation of how she finally manages to show kindness to herself. She lays down the expectations of others and her own disappointment in not fulfilling them very well, and begins to live life in the present. By gaining this new perspective, her context for who she is and what her intrinsic self-worth is change. But i digress.

Another major change for the worse, for me, is the Witch of the Waste. In spoken Japanese, intonation, especially the inflection at the end of a sentence, carries a lot of meaning. There’s an emphasis on women being kawaii (cute) and using specific endings to sentences. A higher pitch of voice is encouraged, so that you seem more “friendly” and “ladylike”.

Whenever a more mature woman shows up on screen, you can immediately tell that she’s older and more experienced, by the way her voice is quite low and she eschews those typical mannerisms of a “polite” and “approachable” woman.

This is a kind of rebellion against a society, where there’s a lot of pressure on appearances and conforming to traditional gender roles. By not adopting a voice that is “cheerful” and more “feminine”, the mature woman comes in and owns the stage by owning herself. The Japanese performance of the Witch of the Waste is so full of emotion, so layered, that it’s like a narrative in itself, providing us a window into this complex character.

I have the same problem with Madame Suliman’s voice in English, though the opposite way. In English, where her voice is in a lower register, it again feels like a voice portraying the character. Whereas in Japanese, where the voice is at a higher pitch, I feel like I can hear the laugh lines at the corners of her eyes.

And what about Howl? I know you’re just dying to know what I think of his English dub. Surely I can’t dislike Bale’s voicing of him? Ah, but I do. Sorry (not sorry) to disappoint you. I know women go practically rabid over Bale saying “good girl” but I never felt like that voice belonged in that body the way the Japanese voice does. And this was my opinion long before Nolan’s Batman, after which I can’t un-hear the Batman in Howl’s voice (especially when he shifts).


I supposed why dubs really bother me is because they feel like different people.

I think it comes down to that you lose something intrinsic when you translate a show or film into another language. In text, the difference doesn’t feel as drastic, unless it’s an abysmal translation, because in text you’re still reading it yourself, and there are many translations that are as good as the original (because they faithfully translate both the language and original intent of the text).

But on screen, you’re not translating just text. You’re actually changing a lot of things because the medium affects the content. Not only are you translating the dialogue itself, you’re also making sure jokes and concepts remain coherent, as well as timing the translated dialogue to the original. Not to mention that you’re changing the voice of the character, which inevitably changes the feel of the entire character.

You also change or lose cultural meaning in how certain things are expressed. When you’re multicultural, you’re primed to sift through language and communication for those cultural cues because they help you distinguish what makes that culture unique. It’s engrained into you from a young age that you learn about other cultures so that you can tread respectfully and acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate the differences. Especially, coming from a declining cultural minority, preserving culture is one of our core values.

One of the things I enjoy most about Miyazaki films is their inherent Japanese-ness, both how the language is used and how the narratives are filtered through Japanese culture. And when you change the language, you change the cultural context, leaving me with that feeling of the dub being a soulless copy of the original. Even when it’s good, a dubbed film will never be the same as the original.