Passing for a Native Speaker, Part 2

Language lessons from Fauda

Posted Oct 15, 2018

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

As the second season of the hit Israeli TV show Fauda is taking the world by storm, conversations among the fans turn, once again, to its linguistic premises: Can Israeli undercover agents really blend in as Palestinians on the streets of Nablus and Ramallah? Can Palestinian students, with their meager university Hebrew, clear Israeli check-points as Orthodox Jews? And what about the rest of us: Can we ever pass, even for the briefest, most ephemeral moment, for speakers of a language we weren’t born into? (See here for an earlier post on this).

Insiders will tell you that most of the Fauda actors wouldn’t pass. Their second languages (L2s) are tinged with accents and some, like the French-born Letitia Eido, who plays charismatic Dr. Shirin, had to memorize their parts with the help of a language coach. Yet the actors are not the point. The inspiration for Fauda comes from a real-life phenomenon: the undercover units, known in Hebrew as Mista'arvim, Arabized Jews. Trained to disguise themselves as Arabs, they carry out secret missions in Palestinian cities and gather intelligence across the Arab world. The creator of the show, Lior Raz, served once upon a time in such a unit. So, what can we learn about passing from Lior Raz's fictional Mista'arvim? (If you haven’t seen the show yet, linguistic spoilers alert!).

Undoubtedly, not everyone can pass for a native speaker – ideal agents are bilingual from birth, like Lior Raz. Born to Jewish parents who immigrated, respectively, from Iraq and Algeria, he grew up speaking Arabic and Hebrew, and so did his on-screen counterpart Doron. Intelligence services know this. Research by Juliette Pattinson reveals that, during World War II, British secret services recruited agents for missions in France from mixed families, favoring people who spoke French from birth and went to school in France.

At the same time, a perfect accent can only take us so far. What often gives the game away is not the accent but the automatic use of first language expressions in the L2, as seen in an episode, where a truck driven by Palestinian students disguised as Israelis breaks down on Israeli territory and a soldier comes over to see if they need help. Eager to get rid of the intruder, a Palestinian reassures him in Hebrew that everything is OK, adding “God willing!” as an afterthought. The In-shallah that lurks beneath places the Israeli soldier immediately on alert.

The makers of Fauda are also aware that extended encounters test our linguistic knowledge above and beyond automatic habits and pronunciation skills. In one of the show’s critical moments, Naor, an Israeli undercover agent posing as a Palestinian from Gaza, is placed in a cell with Walid Al Abed whom the Israelis are trying to crack. Yet as the two continue talking, it is Walid who exposes Naor – the Israeli’s knowledge of Gaza cuisine is hopelessly flawed and his Palestinian slang is out of date.

The twists and turns of Fauda converge with current research on two critical points – passing is not an all or none phenomenon, and the age of L2 learning is less important to passing than commonly assumed. The easiest way to pass, notes sociolinguist Ingrid Piller, is by not saying anything at all. Fleeting encounters are the second easiest and several German-English bilinguals in her study reported passing as native speakers of languages learned later in life in everyday interactions, thanks to the right looks and clichés dropped in a confident but casual way.

Pattinson’s study of British secret services also identified a few agents who learned French in adulthood and still managed to pass as French. One strategy, successfully exploited by such agents, was to position themselves as speakers of a different variety of the same tongue (Soviet spies adopted the same strategy, as discussed in an earlier post here). Another strategy was to make their looks and manners as inconspicuous as possible: a British agent from New Zealand, Nancy Wake, for instance, excelled at imitating the mannerisms of Parisian belles. The notion that passing is not just in the ear but in the eye of the beholder is the red thread in Fauda, where Palestinians clear the Israeli check-point by disguising themselves as Orthodox Jews.

The connection between the eye and the ear is well-known to researchers, thanks to the now classic study by Donald Rubin who asked English-speaking undergraduates to listen to a recording of a lecture, accompanied by an image of either a Caucasian or an Asian woman. The recording, made by a native speaker of English, was the same across the groups but students who thought the speaker was Asian were sure they heard an accent. Even more strikingly, the imagined accent interfered with real understanding. Asked about the content of the lecture, students who thought the speaker was Caucasian and a native speaker of English remembered it much better than those who thought she was an Asian and a non-native speaker, difficult to understand. Our looks, apparently, can disguise our foreignness but also conjure an accent where there is none.   

The cult show also teaches us a more subtle lesson – passing may create problems of its own (just watch the tangled relationship between Doron and Shirin). It is a lesson I learned firsthand, when I visited Poland for the first time as an adult. Having learned Polish at an early age, I discovered to my surprise and delight that, as long as I said little, people mistook me for a native from the East. Soon, however, the delight turned to distress – I realized that I had no idea of local conventions and conversational etiquette. As I blundered, I began noticing pity in strangers’ eyes – one reserved for slow-witted adults. And since I would rather get the assistance offered to ‘dumb foreigners’, nowadays, I play my accent up.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

References

Pattinson, J. (2010) “Passing unnoticed in a French crowd”: The passing performances of British SOE agents in Occupied France. National Identities, 12, 3, 291-308.

Piller, I. (2002) Passing for a native speaker: Identity and success in second language learning. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 6, 2, 179-206.

Rubin, D. (1992) Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education, 33, 4, 511-531.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.