Writing Foreign Characters and Non-Native Speakers

Finally taking a time-out from life to post. Yay!

I love writing culturally and linguistically diverse characters. As a linguist, I can’t help but consider how such characters would interact. For example, an English-speaker gets pulled into another world; what are the chances of people there also speaking English? Uh, zilch, unless they originally come from an English-speaking country in our world. So then I have to come up with a logical explanation for why my character can communicate with them, because my linguist brain kind of draws the line there for suspension of disbelief.

Seriously. Portals to another world? Sure, taken for granted. Language discontinuity? Stop right there.

One thing I see a lot with bilingual characters is a tendency to defect to their native language for words they don’t know. TV and literature alike are rampant with lines like “Look at that humongous gato!” This in and of itself is fine, but the way I most often see it handled makes me think the writer has never encountered an actual English Language Learner (ELL).

Take the above example. There are a few things that strike me as highly unlikely:

1. The speaker knows the word “humongous,” but not “cat.”

2. The word he/she defaulted on was a noun. Statistically speaking (from experience as an EFL teacher), nouns are easier to remember than most other word types. I’d say the hierarchy of difficulty actually looks something like conjugated verbs -> adverbs and adjectives -> nouns -> interjections.

3. Using gato is fine if the speaker knows the other person will understand, but if not, they would probably try to find another English word to explain. Think about it: If I don’t know the word in your language, why should you know it in mine?

So in a realistic scenario, the person is more likely to say “Look! Big gato!” or “Mira — the big cat!” or even “Look at the big — uh, there!” (with gestures).

If you don’t functionally speak your character’s native language, be sure to do your research. Check Youtube for actual clips of people with that native language trying to speak English. And don’t assume that all ELLs are going to make the same kinds of mistakes. My former Korean and Japanese ELL students, for example, always had the hardest time using “almost.” They would all give me sentences like:

“Almost Japanese people love karaoke.”

“Almost my coworkers go home after eight.”

Literally EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. It didn’t matter what their age, what level their English, or what kind of school they had gone to. Even my co-teachers in Korea, otherwise fluent, did this. They were told that “almost” was the same as “most” and it took hours of conditioning to make them drop the habit. My Saudi Arabian students, on the other hand, didn’t really have this problem.

They also have trouble choosing between “a” and “the” because Japanese and Korean don’t have articles. But you can bet Spanish and Italian speakers have got that down.

These few minor considerations can really give your characters an extra dimension of realism, even if your readers/viewers don’t consciously register why.

On the flipside, here’s an example of how badly things can go wrong if you take the easy way out.

Can you think of any instances, literary or otherwise, where a character had an awkward or unlikely line as a non-native speaker?

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