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?

My New Perspective on Transience

The trouble with having a blog that focuses largely on one’s wild adventures abroad is that the novelty wears off. All those things that were strange and exciting when you first arrived become mundane. You find yourself taking for granted just how different things actually are from home. And because nothing seems worth writing about, you stop writing.

Even though you still feel like an outsider.

I have now been living in Korea for almost one full year, in which time I’ve tried to be a high school teacher, a writer, and a decent human being, at varying levels of success. I’ve traveled to big cities and rural islands, climbed mountains, gone spelunking, toured the DMZ, survived snow and half a year of winter. I’ve eaten octopus bits that were still moving, and taught my kids about Doctor Who, and been severely disappointed in Korean coffee. I’ve lost both parents. I’ve looked out my office window, seen sunlight on green mountains, and felt so lucky to be here. I’ve fought to hold on to someone I love, and wished desperately that I was with them instead.

In many ways, my life in Korea was always going to be a transient thing. One year ago, even before I arrived, I knew this was not going to be the country I settled down in. That knowledge led me to give up on learning Korean. It led me to brush off those little cultural tensions with my host mom. (I’m just a visitor here; she can’t expect me to know this little thing, and it’s okay if she doesn’t bother to explain it because I won’t be here long.)

It led me to feel, sometimes, that I wasn’t really living.

It’s only now that I feel I might have gotten the hang of this whole 우리나라 thing. Now I can tell host mom what time I’ll be home without mixing up the numbers. Now she knows not to feed me fish for any meal. Now I can intuit what clothes I can wear to school without giving my first graders “culture shock,” and when to pursue conversation with my kids versus when to stop at hello, and what flavor of candy they want from my reward box.

Now, when I’m only two weeks away from never seeing them again.

This is a reminder to myself, and a word of advice for anyone about to embark on an extended journey abroad; for anyone who’s already living a life in a foreign country, and who didn’t expect it to pan out quite how it is; for anyone, anywhere in the world, who feels like they’re just passing through, and that it doesn’t matter:

STOP. Look up from the screen. Look at the knick knacks you’ve collected on your desk, or on your shelves, and remember where they came from. Look at the people around you and remember their small gestures of kindness. Look out the nearest window and put yourself in the shoes of a random person on the street.

Everything is transient, but we shouldn’t go through life alienating ourselves, or letting ourselves feel alienated by our environments. The world is strange, and people are strange, and everyone is a stranger to someone else. Don’t let the little things discourage you from living your life where you’ve chosen, at least for a while, to live it. Don’t even let the big things discourage you.

This is your LIFE, that thing you only get one shot at. Stop thinking “it’s just one year, I can get through it” and start thinking “this is a whole year of my life, and I don’t have time for blah attitudes.”

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