1. OurJud

    OurJud Contributor Contributor

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    Dialogue in foreign accent, without sounding comical?

    Discussion in 'Dialogue Development' started by OurJud, Sep 17, 2017.

    I'd like to flavour my novel with a very fine sprinkling of foreign characters. These will be one-offs and very likely only have a few lines.

    Whatever accent I choose, does anyone have any advice on how I go about getting it 'right', so that I don't make them sound like some terrible comedian doing the stereotypical take on it?

    I tried some translators (yes, accent translators do exist) but what few I managed to find gave laughable results.

    One other method would be to listen to youtube clips - from the horse's mouth, so to speak - which I'll certainly do when the time comes, but if it's something you yourselves have tackled I'd like to hear your input.

    And before anyone reminds me it's an outdated devise, or that editors will remove accents, I understand this. Hopefully my method would be very subtle, with just the odd change in syntax to give the reader a clue the person speaking is of another descent.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
  2. Laurin Kelly

    Laurin Kelly Contributor Contributor

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    Personally I'd just establish in the narrative that the character has a strong French/Italian/Whatever accent and just write the dialogue without trying to convey foreign pronunciation. I've found that the reader's imagination will fill in the voice of that character.
     
  3. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin A tombstone hand and a graveyard mind Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Oftentimes you'll be better off writing in dialect instead of the accent to avoid the funky spelling, which can get annoying.

    "How yous doing?"

    "Do what I aks." (Not "ask")

    "We gonna steal they car."

    "I no like him."

    Once you start altering the spelling to write phonetically you end up with Italians who talk-a like-a this. Mario Puzo dealt with this in The Godfather and basically just dropped words to convey accent.
     
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  4. izzybot

    izzybot (unspecified) Contributor

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    Binging shows or movies with ESL actors / from distinctly accented English dialects is a good route, I think.

    Something that might be more tricky but definitely helpful would also be to ask ESL folks whose native language is your target one about the differences between the two. I think I heard that Russian, for instance, doesn't have any articles (don't quote me on that, it's total hearsay but I can't think of another example), so Russians speaking English can tend to forget / drop them. Understanding why someone garbles things means you'll be more accurate and consistent about portraying it.

    Personally, I'm into @Laurin Kelly's method. I have a French character who just speaks in ordinary English - granted, I'm not gonna have him using particularly difficult words, because I don't think his English vocab is stellar, and I might have him give blank looks to people who do on occasion, but that's nothing to do with accent. He also gets to interact with someone else who knows French, and will occasionally lapse into it when speaking to him just to keep other people out of the loop, so I don't think anyone can forget the dude's French however I write his actual dialogue.
     
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  5. OurJud

    OurJud Contributor Contributor

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    Sorry, @izzybot. 'Binging'? 'ESL'?

    Thanks for the advice, all. I think I'll go with the combined method of establishing race in the narrative, and an off-syntax in the dialogue.

    I'll know if it's right when I write it.
     
  6. izzybot

    izzybot (unspecified) Contributor

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    Oh - binging as in 'to binge', ESL = 'English as Second Language'.
     
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  7. KaTrian

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Contributor

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    I'd only show it for comedic effect. Other than that, simply describe the accent / lilt with similes and adjectives to give the reader an idea of how it should sound like.

    Or EFL = English as Foreign Language.

    If your second language is English, it usually means you live in a bi/trilingual country where English is an official language, but you haven't learned is as your first language. Say you live in Canada but learn French before English.

    In countries where English is not an official language, like Russia or many European countries (aside from the UK of course), you learn English as a foreign language -> you're an EFL speaker.

    These two terms do get muddled though. Some EFL speakers speak English better than ESL speakers.
     
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  8. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    I think just establishing that they have an accent works well,
    without forcing it into dialogue. Unless you mainly use the
    accent in dialogue, you could do that too. Just depends on
    how you go about it. Sometimes it just seems a bit over the
    top, if they are well spoken. Just use little things like they
    use a native word in their tongue to replace a similar word
    in English, or on occasion have them speak a bit in their
    mother tongue.

    For a comical approach I guess it would be alright to go a bit
    overboard with making it more pronounced. But for a more
    serious story, it would just come off as tacky.
     
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  9. OurJud

    OurJud Contributor Contributor

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    I went with my plan of explaining in the narrative, and using the odd hint in the dialogue.

    I suppose an extract would help determine if I've gone over board. Hendrick is the foreign speaking gent. My MC guesses Nordic or possibly Russian.

    WARNING: LANGUAGE!

    -----------

    'You have money?' Hendrick said, pulling a waxed apron over his head.
    Alarm bells already.
    'Money?' Miller replied. 'You mean that fucker Quinn didn't pay you?'
    'Ya, he paid. But it's not enough. Many of these things. I buy fresh for today.'
    'No, no, no.' Miller stayed near the door, suddenly aware of the fat wad of slips in his pocket. 'You agreed a price with Quinn. Don't pull this shit on me, Hendrick.'
    'Look, it is... how do you say, unexpected expenses, ya?'
     
  10. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    I don't have a problem with this, as long as it stays to a relative minimum. I might be annoyed if a major character spoke like this throughout an entire novel, but you said that's not the case.

    And here's the thing: You can always change this in an edit. Just keep that forward momentum going and if you decide later on you don't like it, change it. :)
     
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  11. OurJud

    OurJud Contributor Contributor

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    Thanks, @Spencer1990. I've recently learned I need to plan if I want to get anywhere with my attempts at a novel, now I just need to learn to stop worrying over trivialities. That element may take some time.
     
  12. Laurin Kelly

    Laurin Kelly Contributor Contributor

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    I agree with @Spencer1990; if it's kept at a minimum and towards the beginning to establish the accent, I think what you've got is fine.
     
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