Updated: Jan 27, 2021
If you've watched the third season of Stranger Things, you know that the actor Brett Gelman, who plays private investigator Murray Bauman, had to speak A LOT of Russian for the role. He couldn't speak Russian beforehand, so the showrunners hired him a coach. For the rest of us plebeians over here, what do we do when we're handed a role with a bunch of lines in a foreign language? Here are some strategies to help you out.
Getting Acquainted With the Language
If the language is completely new to you, take some time to get adequately acquainted with it. You need to get a good feel for what the language generally sounds like, the rhythm and the melody. If applicable, make sure you're paying attention to the particular regional dialect or accent of that language. Be careful not to get languages mixed up! For example, Cantonese (spoken mainly in Hong Kong and other parts of southern China) is NOT the same as Mandarin Chinese. Though related, they are two separate languages and sound quite different.
1. Watch some foreign films in that language.
This is particularly helpful because you can actually observe actors doing their thing in that language and you can follow along with subtitles. Feel free to mimic some of their lines for fun and to get used to what it feels like to speak the language.
2. Listen to some radio or news programs in that language.
Have them on in the background as you're doing other things. It's okay that you don't understand what the people are saying. Listen for the "music" of the language.
3. Take some lessons in that language.
Download some free language learning apps. Do some lessons on Duolingo. Of course, most likely you aren't actually going to learn the language fluently in time for your performance. That's not the purpose of this. This is just to help you get a basic familiarity with the language structure and get some rudimentary words under your belt, so you're not starting at zero with it.
Practicing and Remembering Pronunciation
1. Find a native or fluent speaker of the language.
Do your best to find a native speaker or at least someone who is fluent in that language and have them say the lines for you. Have them translate the text into English for you, if it's not already translated. Have them walk you through the pronunciation. Record them so you can have something to practice with. This may be a little tricky depending on the language. For languages that don't use the Roman alphabet like we do (Russian, Chinese, Arabic, etc.) the lines in your script will most likely be a Romanized transliteration. Generally there are formal systems of transliteration for the purpose of language learning (pinyin is used to transliterate Mandarin Chinese characters), but a native speaker might not be familiar with that system; give them your script and they might have trouble knowing what it says! Instructors and students of that language should know the system of transliteration. So ideally, you would find an instructor who teaches that language but is also a native speaker.
If you have a college or university in your area, go to their website and find their foreign language departments or office for international students. You should be able to contact a professor or administrator who can probably help you out or put you in touch with someone else who can. If you happen to live in a fairly large city, there are probably some local businesses that offer language learning classes. Contact them and see if you can get in touch with an instructor or student. You might not even have to meet up in person if that's just not possible for you; you could schedule a Skype session with them instead.
2. Have fun with the sound.
One advantage to not understanding a language is that you are removed enough from the semantic meaning of the words enough that you can appreciate it from a purely sonic perspective. Speak your foreign language lines aloud and take delight in the novel sounds. Some of the words may feel really fun to say. Pay attention to what the sounds remind you of. Do they sound like funny words in English? Do these funny words evoke any images for you?Do they remind you of an animal? A machine? Sneezing? Etc. It's okay to remember the lines that way starting out.
3. Make sure you know what each word means.
Knowing what you are saying will of course help you remember what you are saying. Think about each word and what each one actually means. At this point, don't just imitate the sounds, but actually speak with the intention to actually communicate. Imagine you're actually talking to someone and need to get this across to them. It may help to go back and forth between the English version of the line and the actually line itself, speaking with the same intention.
The Acting Work
Lines in a foreign language are still like any other lines. You still need to do the acting work on them, and that work will also help you to memorize the lines.
1. Determine what your character's relationship is to the language.
Are they a native speaker, born in the country where the language is spoken? Are they a bilingual child of immigrants where the language was spoken in the home, but the surrounding environment speaks another language? Is this a second language to the person but they are fluent? Or are they new to the language and struggling? What exactly is their history with the language? Did they take some classes and do a study abroad program? Determining all of this will inform how you speak the language as your character. Generally, the more uncomfortable they are with the language, the more conscious, careful, and effortful they will be in their speech.
2. Decide the intentions or objectives behind your lines.
Just like your other lines, figure out what your character is trying to achieve with those lines. What is their goal? What's the reason behind their specific word choices? What are they trying to change about the other person in the scene?
3. Circle or underline the important key words.
Determine the most important key words in your lines. These are the ones that carry the most import and the bulk of the message. They naturally will be emphasized in some way.
4. Hook your lines to your scene partner's lines.
If your character is dialoguing with another person in that language, you need to make sure you're listening. You'll have to put a little more effort to build that in. Your character's relationship to the language also determines how they will listen in that language. If they're not super comfortable with the language there may be a slight lag time in their understanding; they might be doing some internal translating. They might have to listen really hard!
Look at your scene partner's lines and circle the key words or phrases that your character is responding to. (Look at your own lines for clues. Look for connections between your lines and your partner's lines.) How does what the other person does or says impact you? What does it prompt or trigger in you?