Foreign Languages · Words · Writing

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

Your character is visiting a land where they do not speak the language, but they still need to communicate with the locals. In week one’s post, we talked about how much they will have trouble learning the language. Week two was all about the differences between languages and why one language might be easier to learn than another, to give your books variation. For week three, we dived into the subtle cultural differences that can be indicated through dialogue and where your character might run into trouble.

For our final week, I suggest an alternate strategy: just shutting up.

Yes, I know. You’re a writer, and you want dialogue. You want characters to talk. But let me tell you, never challenge someone who has spent a few months living abroad immersed another language to a charades contest. You will lose, every time, I promise, and there’s a very good reason for that.

Let’s take a look at a common situation in many novels that have a character visiting a foreign country.

Having just arrived, Character A hits the marketplace in Al-Tokyo-Kaput. They need to buy some goods, find some food, and get some sleep, all with the three vocabulary words they know and a fifty-year-old guidebook written in another dialect. To do so, they adopt the silent approach.

First, they:

  1. Smile. Look friendly. Look pleasant! If everyone is bowing, they’d better bow too. Or shake hands. Or kiss. Or whatever it is the locals are doing when they see people. Basically, your character wants the marketplace people to say, “Gosh, what a nice foreigner,” not, “Gosh, what an easy target.” (Hint: they’re still an easy target, but you can’t change that.)
  2. Point to what you want. Now, in some cultures, this is rude, but I find that if I’m in a pointing-is-rude culture and I point to something I want to buy and smile well-meaningly, capitalism wins every time. If you’re determined not to be rude, have your character point with the whole of their hand, like one of Bob’s Beauties in The Price is Right. “I’d like to buy… a newwwwww shirt!”
  3. Don’t sweat the numbers. In the modern world, whoever’s selling you stuff is going to hold up a calculator to show your character how much it costs. In less modern settings, they can show your character this on an abacus, or write the price down, or hold up fingers, though fingers are more to show how many of something your character want to buy. Or how many people are eating in the restaurant, that’s important too. Fact is, this is the easiest part of the transaction.
  4. Offer cash. MC want something that theydon’t see readily available, but which they are willing to pay for. How do they get it? By walking up to someone, buying an item, then asking or miming their question. For example, if I wanted to find a hotel, I might buy a dinner at a restaurant. Then when I finish paying, I would spread my arms (question), and put my folded hands under my head and snore a bit (sleeping). Would I look stupid? Oh yes. But I bet they’d point me to a hotel. I might also say “hotel” in my language a bit in hopes they’d recognize it. Don’t forget to tip them after, either!

You’d be amazed the things it’s possible to mime. I have mimed everything from “fireworks” to “I don’t think that will fit me” to “Your dog broke its leash, here it is.” Anyone who’s just starting out in an immersive situation is going to do this, simply because there isn’t a good alternative. Even if you are pretty advanced, sometimes, you just don’t have the words.

Not that this doesn’t get old pretty fast, or to say that this is an ideal solution. At a certain point, with gaining fluidity in their speech and understanding, even the most mild-mannered character will no longer want to look like an idiot every time they go out in public.

Unfortunately for them, others might still expect them to. Nothing infuriated me more than a server who insisted I point at what I was ordering because they couldn’t understand my accent–even when it was something I’d ordered a hundred times before without problem. But that, too, is part of the experience. It’s not all roses, but at the same time, if that’s the most annoyance your character encounters, they may consider themselves lucky.

But many times, not only were people quite sympathetic to my willingness to act things out, my actions would spur them to act things out back, in hopes of clearer communication. Or get out a bit of paper and sketch something, or hold up a picture on their phone. Or, in the case of directions, take me by the hand and lead me there (which was rather a weird experience, but such is life.)

So there you have it. In four weeks, you have learned a bit more about the basic difficulties of immersing your character in a foreign language and culture. They won’t learn the language perfectly in a month, they will take a while to get used to things even if the language is close to theirs, they will constantly be adjusting to the culture, and they’ll end up looking incredibly silly a large percentage of the time. All part of the fun!

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

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

If you have enjoyed this series, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or the social media hub of your choice. Questions? Post them below and I’ll do my best. Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on “Sometimes It Pays To Be Silent: Language Is Not Always Helpful

    1. Thanks! I managed to only visit countries where I could at least vaguely speak a few words or read the menus, until I visited Macau for a day. Portuguese and Chinese, almost no English–I just smiled and mimed and handed over cash, haha. And then got really lost.

      Liked by 1 person

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