1. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Writing a non-English speaker

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by KaTrian, Apr 4, 2013.

    Hi everyone,
    I'm rather new here, so bear with me (still feeling out this forum), I may have utterly failed with the search engine, and there is actually a thread about this subject. Yet I couldn't find any, so here we go, I started a new one.

    The question(s):
    How do you feel about non-English speaking characters in novels, does broken English bother your reading experience? Would you mimic their English in dialogue or, to spare the reader, write them speak like natives (sans some regional slang, perhaps)? And would you actually find it even racist if a character who doesn't represent your own nationality made a few grammar mistakes?

    The reason I'm asking:
    I and my writing partner are working on a sci-fi story with an international law enforcement/military force. We are EFL speakers ourselves and have knowledge of (or speak fluently) several languages including English, Swedish, Finnish, French, Bulgarian, Russian, and a bit of Italian, plus I'm an English teacher, so we've also got some idea what kinds of grammar errors certain speakers tend to make (or what they struggle with when it comes to English). So the temptation to play with the dialogue is the size and shape of a proverbial very large, cream-drippin' chocolate cake. But will it just drive readers crazy? Even the little erros in speech? Any ideas how to minimize the effect of readers throwing the book away because the goddamn Swedish heroine can't remember all the correct terms and this minor French character doesn't always pronounce the -s in plurals when they speak English?

    Thanks in advance!
     
  2. SwampDog
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    SwampDog Contributing Member

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    I don't know why you raised the subject of racism. Nothing to do with anything in your context. And playing with dialogue like that would just detract from your tale. Would your average reader really spot these errors? I don't think so - not unless they were multi-lingual themselves.

    He shouldn't be pronouncing any 's' in a French plural. ;)
     
  3. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    SwampDog: thanks for the reply! :)

    We've been accused of racism in this context. That's why. Just wanted to know if people here would perceive it racist if e.g. a Swedish character didn't speak perfect English.

    You misunderstood, I think. I have observed Francophones drop -s from English plurals when they talk in English, in particular certain French-Canadian MMA fighter...
     
  4. SwampDog
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    SwampDog Contributing Member

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    OK - understand now. A native French speaker dropping the 's'. Hear it all the time! :D

    If you said that no Frenchman can pronounce 'th', and therefore that made them inferior, that would be racist. If you said that no Frenchman can pronounce 'th', that's not racist, but you may be called upon to prove what you meant by a 'all'. But that is simply a point of argument/figure of speech, and nothing to do with racism.
     
  5. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    One should give the flavor of the speech without trying to duplicate it, IMO. If I'm writing a character who's from the Bronx, no way am I going to write the dialogue using all the accents and nuances one hears in real life. I will toss in an occasional reminder, either with a phrase or word, or a thought from another character's POV, but as long as I've let the reader know that's how they speak, I have no reason to hit them over the head with it, especially since they would have a difficult time reading/understanding the linguistic maneuvers needed.
     
  6. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    I like to read unusual speech, but it's a thin line and it can become annoying easily - or annoying to some people while others still enjoy it. So be careful.

    And I agree with shadowwalker that you should show it much less than in reality, just hints, not a copy.

    Also, you can convey bad speech in other ways than just making mistakes: simpler language, halting speech, searching for words. All those might be less jarring (if used carefully, of course), while it's clear that it's the character's failure, not the author's. :)
     
  7. Ubrechor
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    Ubrechor Active Member

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    In the same way that crafted speech is generally very different from spontaneous speech, I wouldn't put too much effort into make the dialect read as authentic.

    As for whether you and your partner want to include this at all, it's completely up to you. Yes, a lot of people find it annoying to read imperfect writing - even deliberately imperfect writing. I remember looking at the first page of "Flowers for Algernon", not knowing anything about it beforehand, and just thinking " :eek: ". But it turned out to be a fascinating read, precisely because of the imperfections.

    But no, it's not racist just because a Swedish character doesn't speak perfect English imo. :)
     
  8. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @SwampDog: I get what you mean by racism, and I share your sentiment. The problem isn't exactly how I perceive it, but I was curious to hear what others think, especially because in the past the racism card has been flashed at us when one single Swedish character has made mistakes with grammar and vocabulary. Curiously enough, our EFL beta readers have been positively surprised that our heroine "feels so real" when it comes to her way of speech (sorry, tootin' our own horn a bit there) and been supportive about the decision. In contrast, some native speakers (not all) have given negative feedback, ranging from "it's racist to write grammar errors" to "no reader ever bothers to read this."

    @shadowwalker: thanks for your insight as well :) Not sure if I gave the impression that we are hitting the reader over the head with it or if you just pointed out just in case, but I do have to ask if you mean that, well, we aren't talking of a slang or register here, it's about speaking in another language. So do you think it'd work better if she, our Swede, made a couple of mistakes at the beginning, but then we dropped them altogether? Like we have let the reader know she makes mistakes, but we "spare" the reader from further mistakes? She's actually quite untalkative and her thoughts are, of course, in grammatically correct English (unless we blunder unintentionally).

    ETA:
    Whoopsy-daisy, got two more replies. Thanks for your thoughts!

    @idle: Good point about other techniques. Yes, we've also employed simpler language and searching for words by now (not in abundance though). I guess the hard part is to try to do your thing yet not be annoying x)

    @Ubrechor: Good point about the authenticity. It's kind of like... we want to create an illusion of authenticity yet keep the dialogue readable.
     
  9. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't say drop them altogether - an occasional reminder shouldn't hurt. But you don't want to make reading the dialogue a chore. It's like having a character with a limp - you don't state they limp every time you have them walk from one place to another, but you would mention it if, for example, they're trying to hurry and get frustrated because of it.
     
  10. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    Unless the characters' imperfect English is used for character development (may be a scene or two when the character is introduced) or even plot twist (plane crash due to misinterpreted non-English speaking pilot's radioed message) you should refrain from mimicking them in dialogues, that is, if you want me as one of the readers who won't put that book down :) Your knowledge and ability to mimic a swede's accent in your dialogues won't be of much help to a reader like me because I simply don't know how a swede speak accented English. You still have to explain. Your story being a sci-fi one there will be many action packed scenes, and if those scenes contain dialogues and if I have to interpret those accented dialogues then I would really hate it! (This will be a case of distracting the readers). To sum up, you can't get away from using accented dialogues, but use them sparingly and wisely.
     
  11. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    Not necessarily, I think.
     
  12. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Interesting discussion going on here. :cool: I'll have to take the heat for whatever annoyance the character in question causes because she's one of mine. So far we've gotten about 90% positive feedback and only one native Swedish speaker grumbled about racism because, according to her, portraying one Swedish character speaking less than perfect English is racist. Needless to say, I don't agree with her and have chosen to disregard her comments since she appears to represent a minority. Luckily enough.

    We know most of our readers will not be familiar with how swedes speak English (those who don't have it down perfect), but our intention is to use the accent and lack of understanding of American slang as spice: a tiny bit here, some there. Some is done for comedy (when she misunderstands a joke and thinks another character is being serious), some just for "authenticity" (in small amounts, of course) kinda like we know most of our readers are unfamiliar with guns and the art of combat shooting, but we still might mention things like MOA, double feed, or cold zero. Again, without turning the book into a rifle manual.

    We have experimented with the extremes and hopefully have managed to find the middle ground between authenticity and annoying the readers. At some point we'll probably post the beginning of the story in the Writing Workshop and then you can tell us how well/badly we've done.


    That's exactly what I'm going for: now and then she has to stop to recall the right word, sometimes she doesn't remember it at all and has to use other means to convey her idea, sometimes she remembers only the Swedish equivalent, sometimes she gets a word a bit wrong, and she generally uses simpler language/words. At times she misses the meaning of what someone else has said (especially if the person is being sarcastic without being obvious about it).

    But all in all I don't do any of this that much, just here and there. She's been a hoot to write even though I probably won't repeat this linguistic endeavor in the future because it has been a chore.


    Edit: Idle, I suppose killbill was correct about the story having quite a bit of action scenes even though not all sci-fi does. We do mellow out the story a bit with romance and psychological horror though so it's not all blazing guns and blood.
     
  13. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    To illustrate a point, In your original post, you used the phrase, "I and my writing partner..." To use the correct English format, it would be "My writing partner and I..." (naming the other party first and yourself last). Now, I'm pretty sure no one here thought, "Wow! Is this person making fun of us? Mocking our language?" Of course not. Everyone appreciates the difficulty in always getting the grammar-y "stuff" right. We all stumble now and again, even in our own first language. And I've mutilated more second languages than I care to count. But my foreign friends are kind enough to forgive me.

    Now, granted, some people will automatically assume that, if you write a character speaking a second language and include those natural trip-ups that do happen, you are mocking either the second language speaker or those who speak that language as a first language. And people will even look for reasons to find something wrong in it and will jump on things such as your use of colloquialisms and irregular grammar and structure as a means of showing the character in a second language world. But, if you are true to your characters and yourselves, then you are okay.

    I have a ms. wherein a character uses what, in America, may well be considered the worst pejorative racial slur ever, "The dreaded N-word!" I worried for a long time over use of the word. But the character is not glamourized and, in fact, is shown in a decidedly negative light. The scene is a period piece right after the American Civil War and slavery was still a very sensitive topic for both blacks and whites. I finally accepted that, to be true to the characters and to the timeframe in which the scene takes place, it was not only okay to use the word, but absolutely necessary both from a character standpoint as well as a story standpoint.

    In other words, don't worry about people thinking you are being racists. You have to honor your characters and your story and your readers as well.
     
  14. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @WordSmith: Thanks for your input. Haha, yeah, the word order was wrong there (or "wrong," suppose it depends on how we look at it, wrong in terms of communication or grammar or something else). I should probably fix that... unless I pretend I was being ironic and DID IT ON PURPOSE! ;)
    Anywho, thanks for sharing your own story and advice. It's not possible to please everyone, of course, but when one is accused of racism, well, it's a pretty big thing, so that's why I wanted to mention it in this context.
     
  15. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My opinionated opinion: To avoid reader confusion and annoyance, I would urge you not to make any attempt whatsoever to reflect pronunciation, including those dropped s's. Any effort to reflect a non-native-English-speaker's patterns of speech should, IMO, be confined to word choice, order, and so on. I wouldn't consider this to be racist or offensive, unless you milk it excessively for comedy or to imply that the character is unintelligent or childlike. However, I might, again, find it annoying and distracting, if overdone.
     
  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Listen to real people speaking in a second language

    As someone who has written a novel with a few characters speaking English who are not native speakers, I can certainly understand your problem. I worked on mine by listening to everything I could find - YouTube, films, interviews - that included a person of the nationality I'd chosen for my story (in my case, Hungarian) speaking in English. I listened and took notes.

    Some of the speakers I chose used grammatically flawless English, and the only difference was accent. Others chose particular words over other words, got word order 'wrong,' occasionally used the 'wrong' word, or left out an article ('the' is a good word to leave out.) This kind of thing is not glaring, but it does differentiate speech.

    The word choices AND more importantly the pronunciation and cadences of the native language can all be used - sparingly, of course. Perhaps they may lapse into their own language for a word or two. You can also have other characters 'notice' that this person speaks with a certain accent, or notice how they might roll their 'r's, or use deepened vowels, or accent the first syllable of every multi-syllable word, or whatever. If you can pick a particular characteristic of a non-native speaker, use it. I wouldn't want to hammer the reader with a phonetic translation of every piece of dialog, though. Just use hints, and let your other characters notice.

    As for racism - your character is multiligual. This is not cause for disparaging them, but rather, to respect them. Racism will only be leveled at a writer if he/she uses a character's linguistic 'mistakes' to make them look bad, or worse yet, to make them look stereotyped.
     
  17. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've arrived to the same conclusion. It was just emphasized last weekend when a Norwegian friend of mine mimicked the Swedish accent (very accurately too), and I just realized there's simply no way I could ever accurately and fluently portray in writing how it sounded, so I have to stick with grammatical errors and the like, much as I'd like to have the other stuff in there too. I suppose this is one of the few occasions where writing has its limitations as a medium.
     

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