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?


Just thought I’d clear this up once and for all.

Since beginning Korean language classes, several of my fellow ETA’s have commented on the fact that I’m so good at picking up the language. “Well, you’re a linguist,” they say. “It’s easier for you.”

This has also come up a few times while I was trying to tutor someone. I could understand her frustration — being under a lot of pressure to learn a language so unlike English, in so short a time span, can really do a number on you. At the same time, “you’re a linguist” was quickly becoming this person’s number one excuse as to why I “got it” and she “didn’t.”

1. Linguists are not professional language learners.

As the slideshow emphasized, we are scientists. I didn’t get my degree by learning Japanese; I earned it by conducting research and experiments, by memorizing statistics and writing formulas. Though yes, having a background in a foreign language was one requirement of the program. In any case, while I can’t tell you the Quechua word for “antidisestablishmentarianism,” I can give you such trivia as this:

  • Fewer than 9% of the world’s languages do not have fricatives.
  • Object-Subject-Verb is one of six potential word orders in language, yet there are perhaps only 5 languages in the world that use it — close to 0%.
  • In linguist speak, “a lower low-central unrounded oral vowel followed by a voiceless grooved aspirated alveo-palatal affricate with egressive lung air followed by an extended high back rounded oral vowel” is the description for a sneeze.

2. Being a linguist doesn’t entail having epic language learning skills.

We have to memorize vocabulary and practice our grammar and verb conjugations just like everyone else. Being a linguist does not mean that every aspect of language learning suddenly becomes easy. Sure, I can tell you that the Korean ㅃ is a tense, non-aspirated, voiced bilabial stop — but does that automatically mean I can pronounce it? And I’m not even physically capable of articulating that lovely French R, which is actually a voiced uvular fricative.

Likewise, does knowing that a language is agglutinative and that its word order is Subject-Object-Verb mean that I automatically know how to add and conjugate each individual verb ending?

That’s not to say that having some familiarity with the concepts doesn’t help. But that’s not something you get solely from studying Linguistics, either…

3. Not being a linguist does not mean you are doomed to forever live in a linguist’s shadow.

First, for most any language you can take a formal class on, there is a multitude of textbooks you can use, and each takes a different approach. I have one Korean textbook, for instance, that actually takes a lot of time to explain just the concepts in Korean that are completely foreign to monolingual English speakers. If I didn’t have a background in Japanese, this would be my number one resource.

Second, if you are fluent, near-fluent, or even conversational in just one language other than your native tongue, picking up your third language will be a lot easier because you now have about twice as many neural connections in your brain than a monolingual — congrats! And for every language you add on, you build more connections. It just keeps getting easier!

Finally, there is one thing I will concede to here: things do tend to click and stick with me in class more than with my classmates, and not just because I read ahead and know Japanese.

Yes, it is because I am a linguist — I love language! I get excited for real-life encounters with linguistic phenomena I’ve read about, as well as those that are completely new to me. I love the speech patterns of native speakers, and so I notice their intonation and pronunciation and hence acquire it more quickly myself. I also love comparing Korean with Japanese because, guess what one of the greatest debates of the last decade was? The historical relationship between them! Now I can examine the research of my linguistic heroes right in the field!

You don’t need to have a degree in Linguists to find the subject fascinating, though. Think about it: of all the billions of people on this planet, not one of us lacks a language. Whether we use our mouths, our hands, writing, dance, you name it — we all need and use language every day. Everything we will ever want to communicate to another living being must be done in language. And yet so many of us are barred from doing so because our arbitrary collections of sounds and symbols doesn’t match those used by speakers of other languages. Heck, even sharing a language can’t avoid all miscommunications!

But without these thousands and thousands of languages, entire cultures wouldn’t exist. With every language lost to time, assimilation, or prestige, we also lose words carrying concepts that exist in no other language. No German, no schadenfreude. No Korean, no neunchi.

Feeling more inspired to learn a new language? I’m going to open this up:

What language would you like to learn, and what is its appeal to you? 

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