How ‘Westworld’ Uses Multilingualism to Explore Prejudice

From Japanese to Lakota, the show's foreign language episodes spotlight themes of identity and memory.

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Jun 11 2018, 6:19pm

Image: HBO

Since its pilot episode, HBO’s Westworld has used dream sequences to channel the show’s central theme of awakening into consciousness. The park’s robotic hosts, haunted by shadowy memories that hint at their past lives and deaths, learn to follow these recollective landmarks out of the conceptual maze of their programming.

For Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), these dreams manifest as idyllic memories of her young daughter, and then take a horrific turn when the child is abducted by a member of the park’s indigenous Ghost Nation. It’s Maeve’s worst nightmare, which is why it was so gut-wrenching to see it come true in the June 3 episode "Les Écorchés."

But in “Kiksuya,” which aired Sunday night, Maeve comes to realize that this long-dreaded kidnapping is an act of grace—a rescue. The secret behind her epiphany? Her newfound fluency in all the park’s languages. With this development, the show has established that unlocking multilingualism is not only a potent superpower for hosts, it could also be their greatest unifier against the human tourists.

Indeed, “Kiksuya”—meaning “remember” in Lakota—is the second example of Westworld making a deliberate choice to advance the plot largely through non-English dialog (the first being “Akane no Mai,” a Japanese language episode set in Shogun World).

“Kiksuya” unflinchingly allows Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon)—the spectre of Maeve’s nightmares—to divulge his story in Lakota to Maeve’s daughter. As a plot device, this means that the Man in Black (Ed Harris), who lies nearby riddled with bullet holes, cannot eavesdrop on the tale. But more importantly, it alludes to the enormous significance of freely speaking one’s language of heritage.

This is an especially poignant point for American indigenous peoples, who suffered generations of forced linguistic assimilation in residential boarding schools. To lose a language is to lose identity, and Westworld seems to have been building on this premise, which dovetails with its central themes, across several episodes.

Indeed, for Aketcheta to recall his past in Lakota is itself a sign of his deliverance from Westworld’s predestined script. His anchor is the memory of the sweet nothings he exchanged with his lover Kohana. She once told him: “Mi cante ki yu ha ya ye” (“Take my heart when you go”). As implied by the name of the episode, he does not forget, and it’s this memory that leads him out of his own cognitive maze.

The phrase returns to close the episode in a beautiful twist that confirms Akecheta is using Lakota to commune directly with Maeve. He knows that even as she lies bloodied and ravaged on a gurney at the Mesa Hub, she can hear and decipher his intentions to safeguard her daughter. Maeve’s fearful memories of him, informed by race-based prejudices that are coded into the park, evaporate when she hears his version of events in his own tongue. “Mi cante ki yu ha ya ye,” she responds to him.

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This powerful kicker adds new dimensions to Maeve’s encounter with her Japanese counterpart Akane, who is forced to witness the murder of her own daughter figure, Sakura. Akane literally removes Sakura’s heart as part of her funeral rites, taking it with her as she goes. The parallel implies that fluency in many languages is a signifier of a growing heartfelt connection between hosts. It’s a welcome sentimental layer to a show that is often more fixated on the cerebral.

Plus, it’s refreshing as a viewer to be exposed to new languages, especially in light of the rise of language militancy in English-speaking countries. The recent viral video of lawyer Aaron Schlossberg harassing restaurant workers for speaking Spanish underscores a broad upswing in language policing in American culture, and demonstrates how intimidating the sound of foreign words can apparently be for some people.

This is especially troubling because research has correlated multilingualism with greater cognitive abilities, capacity for tolerance, and economic benefits, compared to monolingualism. In real life, as in Westworld, immersion in multiple languages—or even just basic respect for those who speak them—is a reliable route through the maze of a rigid worldview.

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