5 Tips for Using a Foreign Language Without Sounding Like a Prat

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

1) USE LANGUAGE TO BE UNDERSTOOD. First and foremost, the purpose of speaking is to communicate ideas. So if a character is fluent in both English and Thai (say), but her listeners understand only English, she won't toss Thai words into her speech. If someone did that in real life, we'd think they were just showing off their knowledge. And (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.

2) THINK LIKE THE CHARACTER. If the character isn't fluent in English, then there will be words for which their native language comes to mind. Such a character 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, she wouldn't correct herself at all (this is called code-switching; it happens in our house a lot). In this case, you'd have to provide the translation some other way, either through direct telling or (better yet) through context -- assuming you need the translation at all.
She clapped her hands. "Children, our guests will be here soon. Gep your toys. Reoreo!"

3) DON'T MAKE THE READER READ UNINTELLIGIBLE GIBBERISH. What if you've got a character who only speaks Thai? Is it cool to drop a whole string of Thai on the reader then? Take a look at this example and see what you think:
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 until that last sentence. Shoot, I speak Thai, and even I got bored parsing it. And if you don't speak Thai, you'd get no meaning from it at all. Let's revise 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 temple, 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?

4) 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: 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. Guys, I'm American, I don't speak French.

5) USE FOREIGN ACCENTS SPARINGLY. You've probably read stories where a character's foreign 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.

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.

(remixed from an older post)


Christina Farley said...

Fantastic tips. Thanks for sharing.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great tips, Adam!

One tip I learned the hard way is: double check that you idioms mean what you think they mean. I once wrote what I thought was 'he is hot' in Spanish, but what I really wrote was 'he is horny'. Not quite the same thing. lol

maine character said...

Not using a long string of foreign words goes double if it's a fantasy.

One of the best experiences with foreign words I've had was in "Shogun," where you actually learn a bit of Japanese as the novel progresses, simply by picking it up as you go.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I just read a book where one of the characters would throw in random japanese phrases and words, but without any context, you didn't know what he was saying (and i speak some japanese, too). It definitely fell into the "author showing off" field

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm totally with you on the foreign language side (as we have discussed). When it comes to accents, I'm still making my mind up. There are certain ones for which a little goes a long way. Others ... I struggle to find the right balance between authenticity and ... whatever the opposite of that is. Showing off, I guess.

Cap'n Heine said...

I've been reading through the Wizard of Oz books and for some reason Dorothy went from having no accent to randomly cutting out half a word to put in an apostrophe in it. Sometimes I can sort of almost maybe decipher the accent from it, but most of the time it just makes zero sense.

Jack said...

This is JUST what I needed! I'm writing a book where everyone speaks English but they also speak their native language. So I have French, Russian, Italians, and Germans all hanging out together. I'd read somewhere else to not write out the accents, but it is nice to know this is a rule more then one person uses. I did a Cockney accent, I think that is the term, for fun every now and then, but I left out the rest and just put in, "He had a thick French accent." And such.

But the different languages had me nervous. One character, when angry, will shout in his native language. At first I simply said, "He shout 'You're dead!' in French." But that didn't seem to work when it was actually on paper. So I began to italic all of it in French, then next to it write it out in English. Which seems to work better. Would that annoy the reader though, after awhile?

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I have one scene where a character is injured, and he speaks several languages. I had my POV character describe his proficiency with multilingual cursing, and left it at that. Her description was far more effective than a string of random, unintelligible words would have been.

Deniz Bevan said...

Awesome. I've got Turkish and Spanish and French and all sorts of other languages (not necessarily all in the same story!) and these are great tips to edit by.

linda said...

Great tips! I'm curious about your opinion on this scenario: if the characters are only speaking/thinking one language which is not English but the narrative is in English, which words should be in English and which, if any, should be "foreign"? Your post made me think of this one fantasy book that, from the reviews I've read, sounds like it had massive problems with incorporating foreign words (in addition to a host of other issues).

Also, I'm Californian and I took French instead of Spanish in high school. Yeah, I'm a rebel like that.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Great tips, Adam! I write a lot of multi-cultural characters, too, so keeping all this in mind is very important. You're absolutely right that we have to stay in our character's mind and not try to show off our great knowledge. ha! :D

Danielle said...

Lovely tips! I'm actually writing fantasy -- three separate, non-English languages -- so these tips are particularly helpful. Thanks for the post! :)