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Mariska Hargitay is best known for her long role as fan favorite Detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. In the show, Benson is a smart, capable, patient police officer who uses a combination of instinct and well-honed skills to get the job done right. She’s equally capable of connecting with a victim to convince them to open up about the crime and chasing down a criminal with speed and grace to save the day.

In real life, Hargitay channels a lot of her famous character’s persona. Fans feel like they get to know the actress through her portrayal of Benson. The real Hargitay is also caring, smart, and capable. One of the many impressive things about both fictional Benson and real-life Hargitay is their multilingualism, a skill that the detective joyfully gets to show off on screen.

Mariska Hargitay
Mariska Hargitay | Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Detective Benson speaks multiple languages on the show

On the show, Detective Benson can often be found speaking in multiple languages to victims and perpetrators alike. When a character does not know English, Benson is often able to communicate in languages like Spanish or Italian in order to get the information she needs to solve the case. Hargitay calls upon her actual language skills in these portrayals, and the ability adds a layer of depth and interest to her character.

Hargitay’s real-life talents may shape Benson’s role, but Benson’s story has shaped Hargitay, too. Portraying this talented and tough cop has had an impact on Hargitay’s interests and passions as well.

In an interview on The View, Hargitay chokes up as she reveals that fans of the show started writing her with letters about their own assaults, and she knew she had to do something to help them. She was inspired to start a charity foundation called Joyful Heart, which aims to help sexual assault victims to heal and recover. 

Multilingualism runs in the family 

Hargitay’s famous mother Jayne Mansfield was also incredibly intelligent and multilingual. Mansfield tragically died in a car accident with Hargitay was only three years old. Although Mansfield was best known for her time as a Playboy playmate, Hargitay wants the world to remember her mother fondly for her skills and talents beyond the spotlight. 

“My mother was this amazing, beautiful, glamor­ous sex symbol — but people didn’t know that she played the violin and had a 160 IQ and had five kids and loved dogs,” Hargitay explained.

Mansfield has been referred to as Hollywood’s “smartest dumb blonde” to showcase how her actual talents and abilities were often masked by her public persona. The actress was also fluent in five languages: English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian. 

Hargitay carries on in her mother’s footsteps when it comes to mastering languages. The SVU actor can speak Hungarian, French, Spanish, and Italian. She credits spending time in Hungary and Italy with her Hungarian father for her mastery of the languages. 

Hargitay is also raising her children in a household rich in language diversity. Her husband and fellow actor Peter Hermann frequently speaks to the children in German to help support their language growth.

“I want them to be multilingual,” Hargitay explains. Growing up in a household full of different languages and expressions is sure to give her kids an excellent start to their own language skills. 

With so much overlap between Hargitay’s real-life abilities and the portrayal of such a skilled character as Detective Benson on the screen, it can be difficult to say which one influences the other more.

As Hargitay gears up to play Benson in the 21st season of the show, it’s clear that life and art have merged to bring fans a smart character and a talented actress they have truly grown to love.