Being Foreign Without Sounding Like a Dork

Foreign languages are hard to use in fiction. Probably because most of us don't use them in real life (really, we don't). So here I present some tips for helping the reader get that foreignness is happening, without feeling hit over the head by it.

USE LANGUAGE TO BE UNDERSTOOD. First and foremost, the purpose of speaking is to communicate ideas. If a character is fluent in both English and Thai, but her listeners understand only English, she will not toss in a Thai word here and there. If someone did that in real life, we'd think they were just showing off their knowledge. And here's a big surprise: that's how it comes off to the reader too -- like the author is showing off some language they picked up on their trip around the world.

THINK LIKE THE CHARACTER. What if the character ISN'T fluent in English? In that case, there will be words for which the Thai (or other language) comes to her mind first. Speaking fast, she may correct herself, which not only sounds natural, but gives you a natural way to translate what she says:

"Come on! We have to hurry to catch the rotfai. The train."

If her listeners are also bilingual, even only a little, she may not correct herself at all. In this case, you'll have to provide the translation some other way, either through direct telling or (better yet) through context. (Assuming you need the translation at all. Sometimes it just doesn't matter.)

She clapped her hands. "Children, our guests will be here soon. Gep your toys. Reoreo!"

DON'T MAKE THE READER READ UNINTELLIGIBLE GIBBERISH. I once read a novel in which the villains occasionally spoke in Vietnamese. It was cool except when the author strung together a long sentence of Vietnamese phonetics. It was pronounceable I guess, but pointless; I don't understand Vietnamese nor did any of the other characters. It felt like the author was just showing off how much Vietnamese they knew. Take a look at these two examples (with Thai, of course):

The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" one of them shouted. "Lukkheun diawnii!" She didn't know what they were saying, just put her hands on her head and sobbed. "Tah mai lukkheun diaw ja ying kah man. Ow mai! OW MAI!"

This isn't bad, but by that last sentence probably most of you aren't actually reading it anymore. Even if you did read it, you might wonder why since you gained no meaning from it (unless you speak Thai of course, in which case I kindly refer you to this post). But we can change it so it still conveys foreignness and Bernice's terror, without forcing the reader to slog through a bunch of meaningless phonetics:

The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" One put a gun barrel to her mouth, shouting in a language she didn't understand. She didn't know what to do. She put her hands on her head and sobbed, but it only made him scream louder. What did he want from her?

PUT FOREIGN WORDS IN ITALICS. This goes along with not making the reader work. Italics signal the reader that these are words they don't necessarily have to know (also that they're not typos). This even goes for words that you think everybody should know.* A good rule of thumb is if it's not in the English dictionary, italicize it. For example:

"You're hungry? No problema, I'll pick up some burritos."

* I've noticed this problem especially with Californians (like me) who assume everyone took Spanish in high school (like me). Also with British authors and French. I'm American, I don't speak French!

USE FOREIGN ACCENTS SPARINGLY. If English is someone's second language, they may have an accent. You've probably read stories where a character's accent was annoying or really hard to read. It's hard to do right, but the general rule is: be subtle. Imply the accent rather than hit the reader over the head with it.

Also, think like the character. If the character's first language does not have definite articles, they may drop them when speaking English. A common Thai mistake is to get 'he' and 'she' mixed up (although that could be confusing for the reader -- it is for us). When I'm playing a game with my daughter, she sometimes says, "You're going to win me," because that's how the word for 'win' is used in Thai (they have no separate word for 'beat').

It helps to know an ESL speaker, or to know a foreign language so you can work out how the character might process English. If you're not sure though, then don't do it. The character can just use simple words and sentences, with the occasional foreign word tossed in where appropriate.

So to sum up. If you're using foreign languages in your fiction:

  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.

Got any other tips? Annoyances with how some authors handle it? Tell us about it in the comments.


Matthew Delman said...

Russians drop "the" and "a" regularly. They also tend to put the most important information at the front of the sentence, as in "To car we are going" instead of "We are going to the car."

For the major European language families, there are resources that talk about common speech patterns as well. Hiberno-English (what Irish grammar is called) also has some very interesting quirks.

What I hate with foreigners in writing though? Phonetic spelling of the accent. Makes my eyes bleed every time I try to read it.

fairyhedgehog said...

This is all good advice. I especially hate it when I'm assumed to understand Spanish, so I can guess how you feel about French.

I love it when slight differences in word order or choice have me hearing the accent in my head.

writtenwyrdd said...

Great post!

Like FH says, word order or faulty grammar can imply an accent, especially if it mimics how someone speaking a certain language might flub up the grammer or verb tense. A little of it goes a long way, and you can be in danger of creating an offensive stereotype. (I'm thinking of the Jar-Jar Binks brouhaha when I say that last.)

I think that where I've used an accent, that dialog has taken a lot of tweaking to get so it doesn't sound off and is clear to the reader.

Sherri said...

De-lurking to say how much I needed this advice! I have a Scottish character and a Spanish character in my wip, and trying to get the accent right is my biggest worry. I want to imply the accent, but not beat the reader over the head with it.

Natalie Whipple said...

Nice post! I try to be really careful with accents, since people can get offended by how you represent "broken English."

Like in my ninja book, both of Tosh's parents are from Japan, but I don't write their dialogue exactly how they speak. I make a note in the text, like, "he said in his accented English." Or "he spoke in Japanese."

When I use Japanese, it's very minimal. I save it for just a few scenes where it's important.

Joshua McCune said...

I have yet to write in a foreign language other than slang or British (which was more difficult than expected and I'm sure I crossed dialects).

Myrna Foster said...

My favorite example of writing an accent well is "The Wee Free Men," by Terry Pratchett. The Nac Mac Feegles crack me up every time.

Thanks for another great post!

Adam Heine said...

Very, very glad this was helpful for you guys. Makes it all worthwhile :-)

MattyDub said...

Bro, I can't even be domestic without sounding like a dork. This foreign thing is beyond me.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I was lucky to have a Polish speaker in my crit group. I only used the polish sparingly (although my MC was fluent, there wasn't a lot of need) -but I was amazed at how much Google Translate just doesn't do very well, even with short phrases. So much of language is context-dependent.