Ten Non-Native English Speakers Who Made it Big in the US

Land of the free, home of the brave, America has always drawn hopeful dreamers to its shores, their hearts set on finding that illusive American Dream. While it may not come true for everyone, a lucky few have made it to the top, through sheer grit, determination, hard work – or just fabulous good looks.

Luck plays a part of course, and as these American stars show, a non-native tongue can actually be an advantage too!

Arnold Schwarzenegger The Austrian born bodybuilder, actor and athlete was raised in Graz before crossing the pond to the US in 1968, speaking very little English. Starting out as Hercules in New York, he made his way over to the west coast, becoming a Terminator and a Kindergarten Cop along the way.

While his athletic achievements might not have required a great deal of linguistic skill, his subsequent work as an actor did.He might never have been able to shift that strong Austrian accent, but it hasn’t been an obstacle. If anything, it served as an asset in Hollywood, where his accent made him instantly stand out from all of the other beefcake actors on the scene. Arnie’s deep Germanic tones meant he was always instantly recognizable, a larger than life star, and it certainly didn’t hinder him on his way to his most incredible achievement – becoming Governor of California.

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Antonio Banderas

José Antonio Domínguez Banderas is another start who made his natural accent work in his favour. Seducing the ladies with his husky Spanish tones in roles such as Evita, Desperado and The Mask of Zorro, the award-winning actor would go on to become one of the most respected in Hollywood.

Born in Benalmadena, Malaga before moving to the US in 1991, he spoke very little English when he crossed the pond to appear alongside Madonna in Truth or Dare. Retaining his Spanish identity rather than trying to cover up his accent meant that he was in huge demand as for Hispanic roles, as well as movie roles back home in his native Spain. As the Hispanic population in the US continued to grow, and still does, Antonio’s popularity does too.

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Penelope Cruz

The “Spanish enchantress”, Penélope Cruz Sánchez was born in Madrid, and always loved to perform. Starting out as an aspiring ballet dancer, she soon moved into theatre and began winning roles on Spanish TV. Her big break came when she was spotted by cult Spanish director Pedro Aldomovar. She has remained his muse ever since, appearing in many of his finest works, and it was her teamwork with Aldomovar that gained her recognition in the US.

Starring in the US remake of his Open Your Eyes, Penelope not only bagged Tom Cruise but a huge new American fan base too. Also known as the Madonna of Madrid, her captivating looks, as well as her deliciously exotic Spanish accent, made her one of the most sought after actresses in the business. Today she lives in LA with her equally gorgeous husband Javier Bardem, making them a true power couple when it comes to non-native speakers conquering Hollywood.

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Marlene Dietrich

Marie Magdelene Dietrich von Losch was born in Berlin, Germany on December 27, 1901. She started out on the cabaret circuit in the 1920s, which was then an exciting, boundary-pushing, taboo-baiting theatrical scene. Landing the odd movie role, she was spotted in the German production of The Blue Angel and in 1930 was given a crack at Hollywood.

Strikingly beautiful Marlene stormed the American motion picture industry with that unforgettable face and boldly modern androgyny. She had an unmistakably rich accent that truly worked in her favour. While Hollywood was crawling with blonde starlets at the time, none of them had that terrifically lackadaisical Germanic drawl – and it got her noticed. Putting her unique voice to good use in talking roles as well as musicals, her style has been often-imitated, but never bettered.

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Ingrid Bergman

One of the biggest movie stars of her generation, it is hard to contemplate the level of Ingrid-worship that followed Bergman in her heyday. Never before had a foreign-born star shone so brightly in the States and made such an impact on its culture. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Ingrid had an unsettled childhood and sought out acting as a comfort.

Spotted by David O. Selznick in the Swedish film Intermezzo she was given her first break in Hollywood starring in the US remake. Her face lighting up the screen like no other, and her subtle Swedish accent lending her a cool je ne sais quoi, she would go on to seduce the American audience, bag three Academy Awards and star opposite the hottest leading men of the day, including Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart in the legendary Casablanca.

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Joseph Pulitzer

The famous newspaper publisher, and he of the highly prized journalism awards, was born on 10 April 1847 in Mako, Hungary. Immigrating to America at the age of 17 he went straight into the First New York Cavalry to serve in the American Civil War. After this inauspicious welcome to the US of A he began his newspaper career as a writer for the German-language daily in St. Louis.

Becoming naturalized in 1867, he went on to buy and merge two St. Louis newspapers before purchasing the New York World – and rapidly turning it into the most widely read paper in the country. A non-native speaker who really made his mark, on American language to say the least, before shuffling off this mortal coil in 1911, he pledged to set up a journalism school. He also introduced his highly coveted Pulitzer Prizes, which are now considered the most prestigious awards in the field of journalism.


Salma Hayek

One of Hollywood’s most vivacious actresses, Salma was born in 1966, in the oil boomtown of Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. She freely admits that she was a born performer, spoiled rotten by her rich businessman father and opera singing mother. Like her good friend Penelope Cruz, Salma made a name for herself back home with roles in leading TV soaps.

Then, trying but failing to make it as an actress in LA, she vented her frustrations on a Mexican chat show, where her hilarious, opinionated and highly intelligent appearance won her the starring role opposite one Antonio Banderas in the cult classic Desperado. She’s now one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, always happy to send herself, and Mexican stereotypes, up whenever she can – most recently in Ugly Betty.

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Wolfgang Puck

Wolfgang Johannes Topfschnig Puck overcame more than just a language barrier to become one of America’s leading celebrity chefs. Originally from Austria, his father abandoned Wolfgang and his mother, leaving her to struggle alone with a family of small children. It was from his mother that Wolfgang first learned about food and the joys of cookery.

He made the move to the United States in 1973 after training in restaurants and hotels in Paris. Opening his first restaurant in LA in 1982, he steadily but surely expanded his restaurant empire, going on to publish bestselling cookbooks, award-winning cookery shows, and making appearance on TV and films as diverse as The Smurfs and The Weatherman!

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Albert Einstein

Born in Ulm, in Württemberg, Germany, on March 14, 1879, Albert Einstein moved to Munich just six weeks later. It would be the first of many moves that the Einstein family would make around Europe. From Germany to Italy, then on to Switzerland, Albert’s language skills were forced to grow as the family hopped from country to country.

Appointed Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute in the University of Berlin in 1914, he remained there until the Nazis made it impossible. In 1933 he renounced his citizenship for political reasons and emigrated to America to take the position of Professor of Theoretical Physics at Princeton. Revolutionising the world of physics, and retaining a sharp sense of humour, language was no barrier to his ability to communicate his groundbreaking ideas.

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Eva Green

French born actress Eva Green has recently been making waves in the US thanks to landing her first role as a Bond girl. Growing up in Paris, she started out in theatre before making a name for herself with her role in the controversial cult film The Dreamers. And talking of dreams, Eva admits to being smitten with the American version:

“Everyone wants to work in America,” Green says. “Maybe not blockbusters or Terminator, but to have the choice.” It seems that no matter where we’re from, and whatever our mother tongue, America retains a sense of the promised land, and still draws the dreamers to it like a magnet.

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