Posted by: patenttranslator | December 19, 2010

Why Are There Only Monolingual Talking Heads on Sunday TV Talk Shows in America?

I used to watch Sunday talk shows such as “Face the Nation” and “This Week with Whoever” on one of the alphabet channels (ABC, NBC, or CBS), but I stopped doing that a long time ago. I still watch talking heads most Sundays on TV or on Internet, but usually in French or in German. It may be mostly a waste of time to watch news on TV these days, but at least it is good for my French and German.

I wonder, why is it that only people who speak only English are allowed on American Sunday talk shows? The French Channel TV5 Monde has no problem finding foreign correspondents from countries such as Sweden, Poland, United States, England, Russia and India who speak fluent French with an interesting mixture of foreign accents for their Sunday discussion program called Kiosque. And on the German Deutsche Welle’s program called Quadriga, there is no shortage of well informed foreign speakers of German for their Sunday discussion among foreign correspondents from Europe, Asia and America. Quadriga actually has two editions, one in German and one in English. I realize that Deutsche Welle and TV5 Monde are channels that cater mostly to foreign (non-German and non-French) audiences. Still, I find it strange that the only foreign correspondent who is allowed regular access to American TV and radio programs is Katty Kay from BBC. She is very charming, very well informed and intelligent, but I am pretty sure she is basically monolingual. Her biography on the BBC website says that she is fluent in French and Italian, but I’ll believe it when I hear her interview somebody in French or Italian.

I would prefer if Katty Kay had an Italian or Indian accent. But Katty Kays with foreign (non-English) accents simply do not exist on TV in America. Probably never did. At least I can’t think of any. There could be only three reasons for this that I can think of:

1. Foreign correspondents in America don’t speak fluent English. Hmm …. I think there must be quite a few here who speak English. Some probably speak better English than the politicians who are being interviewed by the talking heads on TV.

2: We don’t give a damn what foreign correspondents think about anything, unless they are English. Or maybe not really that much even if they are English, except when they are blonde. That is probably true, depending on how one defines “we”. But some Americans do give a damn, including this patent translator.

3: It is much more difficult to predict what a foreign journalist who is not English will say. Who knows how these people who grew up in foreign countries speaking a foreign language think? Unlike their monolingual counterparts in America, they might not be exactly “au courrent” or “auf dem laufenden” about what they are supposed to be saying and what they are most definitely not supposed to be saying. It is really much safer to give the mike to people who know only English. They are much more predictable, easier to control and less likely to ask questions that would be difficult to answer without causing some measure of discomfort to American viewers.

I wonder how many people still watch these talk shows on TV. It must be much less than for example 10 years ago before the age of Internet. Many people must be going straight to blogging heads instead of turning on the talking heads on TV now. But in a country of more than 300 million people, quite a few million of them must be still tuning in to a TV show on Sunday, out of habit if for no other reason. It must be quite reassuring to advertisers, and the main purpose of the Sunday talking shows seems to be to create suitable fillers between advertisements, that their TV viewers will not be burdened by unnecessary questions that could be potentially asked by some strange foreigners who may or may not know their proper place in the food chain.

Finally, a word of advice to monolingual talking heads on TV: although it is a common practice on American TV, it is not a good idea to pretend that you are not completely monolingual. If you don’t know how to pronounce simple foreign words like “Zeitgeist” or “Cherchez la femme” in the original language, say it in English or keep your mouth shut.

Otherwise you will sound like a complete moron to people who actually understand German and French.

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Responses

  1. Actually Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria are both multilingual. Zakaria does the GPS show on CNN Sunday mornings, and he has often had fascinating non-American guests (Bjørn Lomborg, Afshin Malavi, Christine Lagarde, Gordon Brown, Paul Kagame, Tony Blair, Irshad Manji, Fawaz Gerges, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Niall Ferguson, David Millibrand, Ernesto Zedillo…plus lots more). Obviously watching non-American broadcasts online is a terrific idea, but I recommend Zakaria’s show strongly for non-American voices. He is great interviewer, too (insightful, intelligent, and he takes time to get way more into a topic).

    If you get CBC, that’s another good option for a different perspective as well.

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  2. I stand corrected. You are right and it’s good to know that there are 2 bilingual talking heads on news cable channels in America – Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria. I forgot about them because I don’t watch cable news much any more, although I used to. I’ll take your advice and try Fareed Zakaria.

    But I think that my general point stands. It should be fairly easy to keep these two people on a short leash as they must know that if they say something that would be kind of frowned upon upstairs, they could lose their jobs, careers and very nice salaries. Especially since they must know what happened to Ashleigh Banfield after she blurted out the truth in a speech to students at a university.

    If you had a group of foreign journalists frankly discussing politics among themselves on an American TV show the way they do it on Kiosque in French or Quadriga in German and English, it would be very difficult to hold all of them on a short leash.

    I think that is why we don’t have anything like that here.

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  3. […] wrote a post a while ago, which I called Why Are There Only Monolingual Talking Heads on American TV? and in which I talked about weekly discussions in French of foreign correspondents in France […]

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  4. […] American viewers are not likely to see any time soon on their alphabet “news channels” as I wrote in this post, 100,000 to 200,000 Indian farmers committed suicide since 1997 as suicide was the only way for […]

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