Foreign Languages

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

This is part two in a weekly series on writing characters in a foreign language scenario. Your character is visiting somewhere that speaks a new language: what happens next?

Last week was a general overview of the sheer difficultly of learning languages in Your Character Arrives in a Foreign Land: What Happens Next; this week, we’ll take a look at some ways you can make things easier on a character—or more difficult, of course.

Languages are not all the same. This might seem stupidly obvious, but it isn’t. If I say the word “potato,” you expect that there is a corresponding word in another language for “potato.” But in French, I have to say “apple of the earth.” That, right there, is a difference in what a language will allow you to say. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take a look at the big things to watch out for.

  1. Not all languages have a word for that thing. I say “potato,” you say “apple of the earth.” Now, one level, that’s an example of a corresponding word, because both mean the brown thing that comes out of the ground and tastes great fried. But what if I want to say “shy” in Japanese? I could hatsukashi. That’s shy, sure. It’s also “embarrassed,” though, which isn’t the same thing at all. If I say osoi, do I mean someone is late, or that they’re slow? In one language, a word might do double-duty where it doesn’t in another, have a connotation that isn’t carried. And that’s only the tip. If I want to say “rat” in the same language, too bad: there isn’t a word. Oops.
  2. Knowing a certain language might mean you can understand another. Maybe. I recently had the opportunity to discuss language with a Brazilian man. According to him, as a Portuguese speaker, Spanish is like listening to someone speak Portuguese very badly. He can understand it, and speak it imperfectly after a fashion. However, the other way around is much more difficult, as a Spanish speaker would need to learn many more rules in order to speak Portuguese. Likewise, as someone who can speak a small amount of Spanish, I can often “read” packing in French. Not outloud, no, but I can scan through it and understand the gist. If you want your character to have an easier time of things, send them somewhere they can do something like this.
  3. Grammar moves in horrible ways. Where does a verb go in English? In the middle of the sentence. Japanese? The end. Is “like” a verb? Guess what. In Japanese, it’s an adjective. In Spanish, the word “que,” or “what,” can work as the word “that” in English. It all gets mixed up. For someone trying to speak a new language, if they’re just taking a stab at it, they’ll be forgetting this and trying to say “I the market go” and “You are wanting what the one there.” Anyone speaking a foreign language is going to have imperfect grammar, bar none. Nope, nope, bar none.
  4. It’s the little things that will get you. In English, we like to do awful stuff like stick the letter S onto plurals, except when we don’t. We like dogs, not dog. You pronounce the word “the” as “thuh,” except when you say “thee.” Why? What is the rule for this? Can you explain it? If you can’t say it in the next three seconds, assume anyone speaking this language will get it wrong a fair amount of the time. And your character will do the same in any other. This marks them as a non-native speaker, and they will share this trait with others who come from their language. There’s a reason native Mandarin speakers often leave out “the” in English, or everyone messes up “did.”
  5. Not every word translates. One of the phrases anyone who watches Japanese television or movies is going to hear is ganbate. Ganbate is a simple phrase. It means “please work hard and do your best in an enthusiastic way with good luck because I’m on your side and I want you to do well even if things are difficult because you can do it.” Yep. A variety of translations are used depending on the situation, but the fact is, in Japanese, this is one simple word to explain an entire concept that doesn’t exist in English. Every language has these. Watch out—if you’re not told ahead of time, they’re very hard to learn. A character could easily be puzzled by it for days. “They said that word again! But why??”
  6. Just because you can recognize a written word, doesn’t mean you can say it out loud. Think about yourself, reading a book. You come across the word “genre.” Simple word, right? Look at it. If you don’t know to say “zshjan-rah,” the obvious pronunciation is “gen-ray.” English has an awful writing-pronunciation correspondence. Gh can be silent, and so can K, C can be “ss” or “k,” ph makes an “f” sound, etc. But some languages, like Spanish or Korean, are exactly what they say on the box. Letters make the same sound every time, bar no exceptions. On the other hand, languages with a character system, like Chinese, rely on the speaker understanding the meaning to choose the correct pronunciation. You might be able to recognize a character–like those that appear on an exit sign, 出口–and not be able to say the word. As in, they can find the exit, but can’t ask somewhere where it is. (That word is pronounced deguchi, by the way.)

Feeling confused yet?

The thing to remember is: it’s very easy to make things more or less difficult for your character, depending what language you immerse them in. If you’re writing a fantasy world where the sky’s the limit, choose accordingly.

Don’t want to spend much time on language or have many mix-ups? Tell the reader that the language of This Kingdom sounds like the language of That Kingdom, but overly formal. Or simple. Or with all the words in the wrong order. Conversely, you can have the plot totally foiled by non-compatible language skills between two places. It’s up to you.

For those of us sticking to the world as we know it, the differences in languages means we need to carefully consider what our character knows before dropping them off at the airport. If you don’t want your character to rely on the goodwill of others or have to learn a new language with all that entails, either say they’ve been there before and can manage to get around, give them lots of lessons and drop a line about how they spent a week bumbling around the new place, or put them in somewhere that speaks a lot of their language.

Your English-only character will have an easier time in Sweden than Japan, in Singapore than rural Cambodia, in England than just about anywhere (cultural differences not taken into account). Consider how much time you want to spend on language difficulties and plan your destination accordingly.

The fact is, your character is just that: yours. If you absolutely are dying to have them live in a bilingual world, there’s no reason they can’t—so long as you understand what you’re asking of them.

Research keeps the story interesting, and it keeps readers like me from going bald because we’ve torn our hair out after your protag has flawlessly navigated another political conversation with a random woman in a bar after just getting off the plane and stepping into a place that doesn’t speak his or her native language. Research cures reader baldness! You are part of the solution! You heard it from me first.

Thanks for reading this. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them below, or on facebook or Twitter. Check out the rest of the series:

Week 1: Your Character Arrives In A Foreign Land: What Happens Next?

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

Join me there!

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