It happens a lot that characters speak in Spanish most of the time, but sometimes they switch to English.

Why do "Colombian" characters speak in English sometimes? Is this a movie technique, or does it reflect the way Colombians really speak?


1 Answer 1


This is an out-of universe thing to make it easier for the viewer.

It would be more realistic if they kept talking Spanish (in most cases, at least), but the characters switch to English because that's the target audience's native language.

There are some examples of this in other movies/shows:

In The Hunt for Red October, Sean Connery plays a russian captain. The movie starts off in Russian, with all actors speaking Russian. But once the viewer is familiarized with the fully Russian setting, all Russian sailors start speaking English.
However, in-universe, the Russians are still speaking Russian (as is evidenced in their communication with the Americans).

While both sides (Russians and Americans) are speaking in English (in the movie), they are actually speaking different languages (in the story).

In Vikings, there is a clever shift between languages. Before I explain how it occurs, a small listing of the languages and how I'll refer to them:

  • In universe, the characters speak either Norse or Old English (OE).
  • Out of universe, the actors speak English, and some lines are spoken in their true language. When I say "English" in the rest of the answer, I'm referring to the language spoken by the actors, not the language that's being spoken by the characters (OE or Norse).

Vikings shifts English as the "current" language, after both parties have shown to speak the same language. An example:

  • A enters a room, B is already inside.
  • A says something in (actual) Norse
  • B replies in (actual) Norse
  • From this point on, A and B speak English for the ease of the viewer, as the scene has already established that both characters are actually speaking Norse.

A language switch can occur:

  • C interrupts the conversation, and says somethin in (actual) OE to A
  • A responds in (actual) OE.
  • From this point on, C and A speak English for the ease of the viewer, as the scene has already established that both characters are actually speaking OE.

But then:

  • B wishes to interrupt the conversation between C and A, but he does not speak OE. Therefore, he makes his statement in (actual) Norse.

Notice that the language used by B's actor changes based on the context of the scene. When there was a Norse conversation going on, the actor spoke English (as he was partaking in the conversation). But when an OE conversation was going on, the actor speaks Norse because English is currently being used to represent the OE conversation.

  • However, if B was capable of speaking OE (and he did actually say something in OE), then B would be making his statement in English.

English (the language spoken for the viewers) is basically "the common language", which can shift based on which characters are currently conversing.
In order for it to shift, two characters speak to eachother in a given language, which makes this shared language the new contextual "common language", which is then represented by speaking English.

  • This is more a Viking language shift explanation, which I totally get. I don't understand why they switch to some phrases in English and than back to Spanish, when all conversation participants are Spanish native speakers.
    – Advicer
    Sep 18, 2017 at 12:04
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    @Advicer: I'd have to review the script to be sure, but it's possible that they shift to English when subtitles just don't cut it (e.g. intonation, sarcasm, hyperbole, ... may get lost in subtitles which do not carry the tone) or when it's important for a viewer to see the speaker's facial expression (which they might miss when reading subtitles). But I would have to agree that Narcos uses language switching more inconsistently (some always speak Spanish, like Pablo himself, while Peña tends to switch both in-universe and out-of-universe when it suits him) compared to my other examples
    – Flater
    Sep 18, 2017 at 12:18
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    I agree this is commonplace for American movies set in foreign countries in general, however, having watched Narcos I'm not convinced that's the case here. Usually when the characters switch to English in this show it's because there's at least one American/English-speaking person present for whom speaking in English would be beneficial. There are plenty of emotional scenes done entirely in Spanish, so I'm not really buying the "so people can hear the intonation" idea.
    – Steve-O
    Sep 18, 2017 at 13:14
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    @Steve-O: Peña's father suddenly switches to English in a conversation between him and his son (and the father has a relatively thick Spanish accent, so it's implied that his English is not that good). There is no logical reason for him to switch to English, when talking to his own bilingual son. You're right in some cases (Steve Murphy's lack of Spanish was often a reason to switch to English), but language switches also happen for illogical reasons in Narcos (like Peña and his father)
    – Flater
    Sep 18, 2017 at 13:16
  • They do tend to switch to English only when both characters [as well as the actors] could conceivably be bilingual. Though I agree it's sometimes arbitrary - & sometimes I wonder where the subs went & then have start paying attention to the actual words in the dialog. [I speak no Spanish]
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 18, 2017 at 18:07

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