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?

Teaching, Week 1

I have now taught two classes at Geumseong High School, and while they have not been epic failures, they definitely both came with twists.

My first lesson plan revolved around two things: the students asking me questions, and me teaching them about naming conventions as a segue into choosing English names. I had a little handout and a painstakingly compiled list of names for this activity, in which they were to explain the meaning of their Korean name and then choose an English name based on the meaning that best suited them.



As I had to introduce myself, I had the first class ask questions first. No one wanted to volunteer. Fortunately I’d foreseen this and brought some paper squares, which I passed out. “Ask me anything,” I said.

Now, this is a high school containing 80% boys with gender-segregated classes. I knew what was coming, and had left myself open to it on purpose because I had to show them that it wouldn’t get a rise out of me.

The only reason this may have failed was because one boy asked something so utterly ridiculous that I had to laugh — probably leaving every dirty-minded boy in the class to think I was laughing at their “What is your ____ size?” instead the more innocent question that it was.

I liked my second class during this activity, though; I didn’t receive a single inappropriate question. The trade-off? They weren’t really paying attention to my answers. Oh well.

Other very popular questions: “How tall are you?” “Which Korean singers do you like?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?”



Again, this activity went a bit more smoothly in my second class, but by then I’d already had to change the premise a lot. Most of the boys had no idea that their names mean something (Korean names are chosen for meaning and are often meant to be auspicious), effectively ruining that “getting to know you” part of my lesson…

Class one: “Teacher, my name, no mean anything.”

Me: “I think it does. Do you know the Chinese characters?”

Class one: “No, teacher! No Chinese. No mean.”

Me: “Alright, well, just choose an English name.”

Some fifteen minutes passed while they worked in “groups” but actually don’t move from their seats. I walked around, helping out where I could, waking up students who looked like they haven’t slept in three days. When I noticed we were out of time, I told them to pass their papers up.



Other answers filled in, no English name.

So much for giving them name tags next week.

Take 2: Instead of even trying to compare English and Korean names, I went straight to the point: You’re choosing a name with a meaning that suits you. Fill out the paper, turn it in when you’re done.

This time I made my non-workers squirm. “You can’t find a name you like?”




“You don’t like English names?”

“Yeah…” (Meaning no, he doesn’t.)

“Should I pick a name for you?”

“No! Is okay!”

This worked on all but one, who somehow slipped away in the commotion of the period ending.



Oh my god. Each class really does have different dynamics. Where my Monday class was sleep-deprived (likely because it’s an afternoon class) and somewhat perverse, my first Wednesday class had a ton of energy and was never quiet — literally, not for ten full seconds. Thanks to yesterday’s typhoon, I haven’t taught my four Tuesday classes yet, but one of them is supposed to be a fair amount of trouble, while another is full of jokesters on jet fuel.

So, I did feel sorry for my Tuesday classes, since we’ll be meeting about 3/4 as much as any other classes this semester due to holidays… but I got over that soon. 😄 While I know I’m going to love my students, I am, unfortunately, still mildly introverted. So I think that in order to show these kids my best side, it might actually be beneficial not to meet too often, especially with four classes in one day sapping my energy. I’d rather make the most of the little time that we will have together than begrudge it every week.

That being said, discipline is my weakest point as a teacher, as evidenced both today and on Monday. Writing class rules is one thing, but there’s always going to be a situation I can’t prepare for, or that I just don’t know the proper way to handle. Sometimes I just want to laugh with my students instead of punish someone for trying to be funny. It’s a tough balance find, and the line between “fun teacher” and “mean teacher” tends to slide around in the minds of students.

Well, maybe with my next class I’ll get a better feel for it; they’re supposed to be very high-energy.


Update: I feel the need to reiterate this — BOY does each class have its own dynamic! My last class today was great. Lots of energy, but all I had to do was count down from five and I had their full attention for whatever I wanted to say. They are supposed to be a low-level class in comparison to the rest of the school, but they were absolutely wonderful at following directions. Only two or three look like they might require some more strict discipline. But their main thing will be having to overcome their shyness of speaking.

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