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MULTILINGUALISM IN THE SERIES UNDERCOVER

Suomenkielinen minitiivistelmä lopussa.


Warning! Spoilers ahead.


During the past few years the online streaming services have brought us a wider selection of TV series and movies than probably ever before. Today, I want to talk about a Netflix original series I watched recently: a Belgian-Dutch co-production Undercover. It is a crime drama series consisting of two seasons and in total 20 episodes (2019-2020) during which Belgian-Dutch undercover agents try to get high-stakes criminals to the courtroom. The series takes place mostly in Dutch-speaking Belgium and IMBD rates it as “Dutch-speaking”, but in reality, Undercover depicts many (European) languages and multilingual repertoires in a way that got at least me excited. In this text I will refer to Belgian Dutch as "Flemish" and Dutch from the Netherlands as "Dutch" for clarity.

A city view of Hasselt, the centre of Belgian Limburg
Hasselt, the centre of Belgian Limburg (Kevin Liebens on Unsplash)

First, a little background. Dutch and Flemish are linguistically very similar Germanic dialects spoken in the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium: they are mutually understandable, but vary in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary. Typical to many other contexts too, Flemish and Dutch speakers tend to joke about each other’s dialects. It is also important to know that Belgium is a country with two dominant official languages, Flemish and French (whose speakers traditionally don’t hang out with each other) and a less-dominant official language, German. The Netherlands considers only Dutch as its official language. Nevertheless, English, French and German are widely studied in schools.


Character Role Languages Actor

Bob a Belgian Flemish, French and Tom Waes

undercover agent English (German)

Kim A Dutch undercover Dutch and English Anna Drijver

agent

Ferry the main criminal, Dutch, Flemish? and Frank Lammers

Dutch English

John Ferry’s right hand, Dutch, English, Raymond Thiry

Dutch Spanish, Flemish?

Carlos a police officer, French, Spanish Rubén

French? Spanish? and English Ochandiano

Gino a small-time Dutch, Italian, Michael Pas

criminal, supposedly English, German

from Italy

Laurent & J-P criminals of the 2nd Flemish, strong William Willaert

season, Belgian Flemish dialect, Sebastien

English, French Dewaele

Vincent J-P’s right hand, French, English Mourade

Belgian writes Flemish Zeguendi


Languages spoken in Undercover: Flemish, Flemish dialect, Dutch, English, Spanish French, Italian, German, Polish, Armenian, Chinese (?)


In the table above you can see the linguistically most interesting characters of Undercover. Next, I will briefly analyse the use of different dialects and languages in the series.


Dutch and Flemish and local Flemish


As described above, the events of Undercover take place mostly in Flemish-speaking Belgium. The cast members come both from Belgium and the Netherlands and mostly the country of origin of the actor seems to correspond to the country of origin of the character. Interestingly the choice of a dialect varies a lot. The most Dutch-sounding character is Kim, which makes sense based on our knowledge on her life trajectory: she is from Amsterdam and comes to Belgium only for the job. Also Ferry and John are played by Dutch-origin actors, but even to my low-level Dutch knowledge their speech sounds different: possibly Southern Dutch, Northern Flemish. At the Flemish end of the spectrum there are the Belgian police officers, whose speech is unmistakably Flemish, not Dutch. Again, makes sense considering they come from Belgium. During the second season, the Dutch-Flemish spectrum is extended when Laurent and J-P speak a strong Flemish dialect among themselves and switch to “standard Flemish” when speaking to others.


So what is interesting in this? To me it is the rather authentic depiction of the varieties of Dutch/Flemish in a context in which the authors could have left it out. This has been quite common at least in Finnish TV, in which the use of local dialects seems not to be neutral but used to create a difference, e.g. between rural and urban people. Considering the international audience of Netflix, most of the people do not recognise the subtle differences between Flemish and Dutch. However, Undercover aired also on the Belgian national TV (a co-producer of the series) which means there were many people to understand the differences, too.


European multilingualism


I counted 11 languages spoken during the two seasons of Undercover: Many of them were used by habitants of other countries or Belgians with immigrant backgrounds. The interesting part is how the main characters’ linguistic repertoires (= language skills) become visible: all of them speak more than one language. Surprise, surprise, everybody can speak English. Interestingly, the Dutch characters (Kim, Ferry, John) use English when speaking to French people but all Belgians (Bob, Laurent & J-P) speak seemingly fluent French. Is this a reference to Belgians being officially bilingual and Dutch being not? Or something else?


Then there is of course Gino, a Belgian businessman with Italian roots, who speaks at least Flemish, Italian, English and German. What a refreshing change for American and British series using only English!


There are two more characters whose language use I want to discuss. First Carlos, who is a police officer helping the Belgian police in the operation in France. Language seems to be Carlos’ disguise in the undercover operation. In the first season, he plays the right hand of a Spanish speaking drug lord (who, in fact, is a French police officer). Carlos balances his tricky mission by speaking French to Bob, English to Ferry and Spanish to the “drug lord”. However the cover is almost blown when Ferry's right hand John declares he can manage the business negotiation in Spanish. In the second season, Carlos takes the role of the right hand of a Colombian revolutionist and speaks only Spanish and English, this time to Bob as well. Would this kind of language disguise be plausible in real life? If you are an undercover agent reading this, do let me now!


The second interesting character is Vincent, the right hand of J-P, who is the only French speaking Belgian in the series. Everybody speaks French (or English) to Vincent even though in the last episode we see him texting in Flemish! In other words: apparently he can speak Flemish but chooses not to. The question remains whether this is an intentional or unintentional pun from the Flemish-speaking screenwriters. My guess is intentional, as Vincent’s behaviour reflects a stereotype of a French-speaking Belgian.


Why does this matter?


Lastly, the most important question. Why spend time analysing a fictional series when there are plenty of examples in the real world? As a researcher of multilingualism, I find Undercover fascinating. It reflects better (yet not perfectly) the type of multilingualism that is all the time around us but often goes unnoticed. The multilingualism in Undercover is everyday multilingualism: everyday needs for communication. In order to succeed, the characters use the resources they have. The makers of Undercover take part (intentionally or unintentionally) in the work that is being done for normalising multilingualism also through popular culture. Popular culture affects us more than we like to admit, and therefore it is important to depict multilingualism in a way that is not racist or xenophobic. Popular culture can inspire us to learn languages but most of all, it can validate the multilingual identities so many of us have and so many of us hide.


written by Venla Rantanen


Tässä bogikirjoituksessa kerron Netflix-sarja Undercoverista ja siinä esiintyvästä monikielisyydestä. Useimmat sarjan hahmoista puhuvat useita eurooppalaisia kieliä ja murteita. Pohdin myös, ovatko tekijät valinneet monikielisen lähestymistavan tarkoituksella ja jos ovat, mitä hahmojen käyttämät kielet meille mahdollisesti kertovat eurooppalaisesta monikielisyydestä. Populaarikulttuurilla ja sen tarjoamilla mielikuvilla on iso vaikutus ymmärrykseemme moninaisuudesta ja kielellisestä todellisuudesta, ja siksi on mielekästä analysoida myös fiktiivisiä kielenkäyttötilanteita.


Read more, lue lisää:

Blommaert, Jan (2011). The long language-ideological debate in Belgium. Journal of Multicultural Discourses 6(3).

Belgium: the endless language disputes (European journal)

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