Bilingual Radio

Today we have a guest post from James P. in Chile:

I was listening to Catalan radio the other day (long story: short version, I’m thinking of whether to live in Spain and if I can be bothered with learning Catalan or whether it would just get mixed up in my Spanish).
They had interviews with people about the Madrid Spanair crash, and the people were talking in Spanish. No big deal really, as all Catalan speakers in Spain will know Spanish too. However , I’ve just been listening to Radio España 5, and they had clips of untranslated Italian, which assumes mutual intelligibility in all listeners. That reminded me of one time on Colombian Radio Caracol, when they had untranslated (Brazilian) Portuguese in an interview with a footballer. Again, they assumed that all listeners would be able to understand the Portuguese.

Do others have examples of bilingual radio, which assumes mutual intelligibility at a general level?

(I have strange half memories of listening to Italian radio and hearing an interview when one person spoke in French, and the other in Italian, but I may be hallucinating.)


I’ve heard people on Irish language radio (Raidió na Gaeltachta) speaking Scottish Gaelic without translation.

27 thoughts on “Bilingual Radio

  1. I can speak Catalan upto about A Level standard and I think it is worth learning it if you are going to live in Catalonia. I speak French a bit better than this and a tiny bit of Spanish. Anyway, I think Catalan is a beautiful language and it seems different enough from Spanish not to get too mixed up and similar enough to be easy to learn if you know Spanish. The truth is, everyone there can speak Spanish as you say and they don’t mind doing so, but if they are all speaking Catalan around a table, you want to be able to join in the conversation.
    My site ( has some good Catalan lessons (projects), with audio from a native speaker.

  2. On Norwegian radio (and TV) it is quite common to have untranslated swedish and english, since most norwegians speaks both, some times even danish, but even though it is closer to norwegian than swedish, it is really hard to understand without some warmup 🙂

  3. BBC Reidio nan Gaidheil, Scotland’s Gaelic radio station, sometimes has an untranslated foreign language on it: English.

    I think I’ve heard untranslated Irish Gaelic too, but I’m not sure. Sometimes when an Irish person is speaking Scottish Gaelic (but with a strong Irish accent), it is genuinely hard to tell whether it’s Irish or Scottish Gaelic.

  4. On a related note, it’s interesting the assumptions speakers and writers sometimes make as to the languages their audience will understand. I was reading a book on translation theory recently which contained lots of examples in various languages. All were glossed in English, except those that were in French! The author obviously assumed that French would be so widely understood by the target audience that English glosses would be unnecessary. It irritated me a bit because I don’t actually speak French (yes, I am an unsophisticated bafoon).

  5. On Uzbek news, they frequently interview speakers of Karakalpak and the highly divergent Oghuz dialect of Uzbek. It’s kind of a shock to go from hearing the Iranized sounds of Uzbek to hearing languages with productive vowel harmony.

  6. Ha… well that´s the point. If I did live in Barna I would want to learn Catalan, but it´s not the only option and is, frankly, a point against Barcelona, as I am only now just getting to the point where my Spanish is starting to feel natural, and would rather just stick with that rather than having to devote energy to something new.

    I´m maybe a bit different from some of you: I´d rather speak 2 languages at educated adult native level rather than 5 “fluently” or 10 “well”.

  7. I’ve occasionally seen Spanish speakers on Brazilian TV speak with no subtitles. The speaker was usually not speaking very quickly.

  8. Omrop Fryslan ( does it’s news reporting in Frisian, but if an interviewee does not respond in Frisian, they do not translate. I do not know if there is an underlying assumption of mutual intelligibility.

  9. In Denmark untranslated Swedish and Norwegian is sometimes heard in radio programmes, but in TV programmes Swedish and Norwegian speakers are always subtitled.
    If it is a programme aimed at young people then untranslated English is sometimes encountered.

  10. Czech TVs and radios broadcast untranslated Slovak and even employ Slovak journalists (especially as reporters from Slovakia or Hungary). The mutual intelligibility is assumed (correctly). On the other hand, the next closest language, Polish, is always translated. (Not sure about local radios in border areas.)

  11. Here in the Ukraine, it’s perfectly normal on a lot of TV shows for the host to speak Ukrainian, while the guest speaks Russian or vice-versa. There’s usually no subtitles or anything.

    However, on all Russian serial TV shows, Ukrainian subtitles are mandatory. Whereas any show in Ukrainian doesn’t need Russian subtitles.

  12. Yes indeed Omrop Fryslân does not translate Dutch speakers. That’s because all native Frisians speek and write Dutch too. In Fryslân people are usd to switch over from Frisian into Dutch and even into “Stadsfries”. The last one is a mixture of the other two and is spoken in a number of towns and cities.

  13. it´s an interesting question as there are a number of dynamics involved (1) minority language not translating universally spoken majority language (spanish on catalan radio for example) (2) languages which are not spoken in the country in question, but which people can guess because of geographic proximity (italian on Spanish radio, but never on Colombian radio) (3) prestige languages not translated for socio-linguistic reasons (English on Norwegian radio).

    Does anyone know how intelligible arabic dialects are to each other and if they ever need to translate? I ask as Chilean telenovelas are dubbed into standard LA spanish for use in other countries as noóne understands the Chileans (I sympathise)

  14. Hi, great language blog you have here! Would you be interested in doing a link exchange? Just send me an e-mail with your URL and I’ll add your link to my blog. You can add my link as “Learn That Language Now”. I look forward to reading more blog entries from you. Thanks!


  15. Tor Erling said: “…danish, but even though it is closer to norwegian than swedish…”

    Closer based on what? The written language (Bokmål)? Doesn’t mean it’s true for the real language.

  16. I am guessing that the intelligibilty of Catalan by Italians is greater than their intelligibility of Castillian.

    If you want to integrate in catalunya especially if you live north of or inland of Barcelona learning catalan’s essential. I speak from experience!

  17. in thailand, a basic understanding of english is often expected of people … there are certain laws that signs and menus have to be in thai in additional to any other languages, but there are often examples of where english is only used.

    the odd thing is that most thais assume that foreigners don’t speak a lick of their langauge, they often seem surprised that someone would even bother. i’ve even been told by thais that they just think it is too weird to talk to a white person in thai so they don’t bother ….

  18. In reaction on James P’s question about the diversety of Arabic dialects:
    This week I came across a booklet: “What and how in Moroccan Arabic” and discovered, to my surprise, that there was, in many phrases, a difference between the phonetic (semi IPA) text and the written text in Arabic. The last was in standard arabic. A professional translator confirmed that this is normal in his country. So they write: ithnain (two) but speek: “jouz”.

  19. Sorry, it’s not a comment on this entry but I don’t know where else to put it. The links on your blog (About Me, About The Blog, FAQs) are not working – causing a 404 page not found error.


  20. On Maltese television, not only is Italian not subtitled or dubbed, but there are even adverts ‘imported’ from Italy and left in Italian. Other times the adverts are dubbed in English or Maltese, according to the intended public (i.e. their ‘social class’) or perhaps also according to the personal preferences/prejudices of the advertising company.

    The Maltese have a generally high passive competence in Italian due to the fact that we have been exposed to Italian television for several years. This situation is changing, as the new generations are being brought up with cable television in English, and a (thankfully) slightly wider choice of channels in Maltese, even if the standard of Maltese used on television is not as high as one would desire. Television can sometimes be quite anti-linguistic…

    If you plan to live in Catalunya, by all means study Catalan! Firstly for the sake of consistency – if one feels compelled [or better still, “compellingly encouraged” 😉 ] to study Welsh when living in Wales, Aymara or Quechua when living in western Bolivia, Maori when living in New Zealand, then the logical thing would be to follow suit, whichever nation-state you may happen to be in.

    Secondly and more importantly, out of respect for the local people -which as you know does not necessarily entail the political support of separatism in the cold, artificial game of nation-states, thought the static notion of nation state should quite rightly be questioned-; and above all, to acquaint yourself with another of the 6,000+ (but heartbreakingly descending) different ways in which one looks at the world through their language.

  21. haha if I lived in Barna I´d learn at least some Catalan: I´d not be able to resist 😉 But what I am trying to work out is whether that is a reason not to live there. I´m just starting to feel fully human again in Spanish, and am not ready for the horrors of being basic/intermediate again (though I suppose it would be easier this time, as if I get stuck I can easily do everything I need to in Spanish)

  22. I live in Zurich and I was watching a german TV program last night (not swiss german). The host was interviewing various people in the street about what they thought of a famous person. One person was english, so the host switched to english for the question. The person answered in english and no translation was given.
    A lot of people speak english here, especially young people. Also, I think the program was mainly aimed at young people; maybe if it was a program aimed at mainly older people, a translation would have been given.

  23. To James P on Arabic,
    my guess would be that a program airing in eastern half of ME (say Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Gulf states) would need to provide subtitles or translations of Morrocans speaking in their dialect.

  24. Also I’ve seen subtitles on US programs that feature English speakers from Kenya, Liberia and other countries where English fluency is wide spread.

  25. I just this morning heard untranslated Galician on Radio España (it was about desires for autogobierno in Galicia)

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