Foreign Languages

Your Character Arrives in Foreign Land: What Happens Next?

Your character travels across the mountains to reach a new country, or perhaps just the next village over. Hark! They speak a different language here that your character has never spoken, at least not outside a lesson! What does your character do next?

  1. Recognize their language as a bastard version of their own and begin speaking it after a few bungled attempts, but feel very stupid saying the equivalent of “YOU MAKE BEER GIVE ME.”
  2. Pull out a guide book, ask the next native for directions to a hotel, and then make this face O_O as the native replies very rapidly in a language MC cannot understand.
  3. Recognize a restaurant by the pictures, go inside, smile and look very helpless, then point a lot and gesture and end up with something other than they thought they ordered.
  4. Use the one phrase they learned in school and get laughed at for pronouncing it wrong.
  5. None of the above. You character can speak the language perfectly in less than a week. Duh.

The correct answer is, of course…

Depends. Except for 5, of course. If you have picked 5, congrats, it’d better be a pretty darn good book or I’m putting it down, because you know what happens when you are immersed in a language you cannot speak or understand or read or write? Dumb crap, mostly. Weird things. Almost anything, except spending a couple days learning the lingo, then proceeding to happily converse with every citizen they meet in charmingly accented foreign. No, no they won’t, shut up and listen, they won’t. Not even if they’ve studied the language in a classroom for years and years, or spoken it with their grandmother since childhood, or read it in foreign letters to their Papa since they were a wee little dumpling.

No, seriously. And I will explain, but first, let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, when I was a newly-arrived exchange student in Japan at age eighteen, after a year of Japanese language study in America, I decided I wanted some food from home, so off I trotted, to the McDonalds.

I’d been in Japan for less than a week, at that point, but in Japanese 101, we had spent extensive time learning to order food, repeating the words over and over again. “Hamubaagaa onegaishimasu.” A hamburger, please. Simple, yes? I had studied Japanese for a year in and out of the classroom, had made excellent grades, top of my class back in America, etc. I was ready.

Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha.

Me: Hamubaagaa onegaishimasu. [A hamburger, please.]

Clerk: [Insert words I can’t understand.]

Me: ?? *maybe she didn’t understand my accent, I should speak more clearly.* Hamubaagaa onegaishimasu. [A hamburger, please.]

At this point, the clerk pointed to the menu in front of me, where they showed meals. It became clear that she had been asking if I wanted a meal or just the hamburger. Lighbulb!

Except for one little problem: I didn’t know how to say “meal.” However, when in doubt, use the English word with Japanese pronunciation. I kid you not, that is an actual strategy in Japanese. …I’ll explain later, just take my word for it that that was not as dumb as it sounds…

Me: Miru, onegaishimasu. [Nonsense word that I think means “meal,” please.]

Clerk: …Miru? [The heck is this word?]

Me: Hai, Miru. [Yes, nonsense word, please.]

She shrugged, rang up my order. Two minutes later, my order was ready: a hamburger… and a milk. She had figured I was mispronouncing milk. Miru = miruku.

I laughed it off, and it wasn’t a big deal. I told a friend later, who explained that I should have said seto, or set, not meal, and all was fine the next time I went to McDonalds until the bit where she asked “for here or to go,” but that’s another story. But the point is, this was after a year of Japanese study. A year.

Now, what does your character do, again?

The fact is, language learning is incredibly hard. It is nuanced, it requires huge logic leaps, and there isn’t a perfect way to do it. Even in English, tell me the difference between thin and skinny? A stop light and a traffic signal? Than and then? And why is something a piece of cake?

This post is the first of a weekly series on common pitfalls of writing your characters into a foreign setting.


Week 2: Not All Languages Are Created Equal (Not Like That, Just Listen)

Week 3: Culture: Can’t Live Without It, Can’t Pry It From Language’s Cold, Dead Hands

Week 4: Sometimes It Pays To Be Silent: Language Is Not Always Helpful

If you have any questions, feel free to ask them below or on Twitter and I’ll either answer them there or in my next post. Thanks for reading!

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