1. IHaveNoName

    IHaveNoName Senior Member Community Volunteer

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    How to portray a non-native speaker

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by IHaveNoName, Dec 2, 2016.

    I met a French girl at work today; her English was very good, but she apparently wasn't up on her idioms - at one point, she said: "It's, how do you say... 'Right on?'"

    It got me to thinking: how do you portray someone who isn't fluent in a given language? I mean, obviously idioms and slang would trip them up, what are some other ways to do it?

    (I ask because one of my characters isn't very good with languages; he can speak Imperial, the lingua franca, but he isn't fluent.)
     
  2. Stuart B

    Stuart B Member

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    My father-in-law is Dutch and he's always determined to speak English to me. My wife is always telling him he should speak Dutch to me so I can improve my Dutch but he always replies that he wants to improve his English. Anyway... What he tends to do is replace any word he does not know in English with one he thinks is close (I also tend to do this when speaking Dutch). This always confuses the hell out of my wife. She can speak English perfectly but she knows it by its rules so when something breaks those rules she is easily confused. I on the other hand, being a native speaker, am more used to how English can be fluid and can usually work out what he is saying (even though it sounds crazy).

    Some of his most memorable lines have been:
    "That tower. He is not going straight upstairs." (He meant, "That tower is leaning.")
    "You can only buy these when shopping with Christ." (He meant, "You can only buy these at Christmas time.")

    And one from my mother-in-law when speaking to my parents for the first time:
    "You're son is a very good kok." (She meant, "You're son is a very good cook," but unfortunately she used the Dutch word for cook which is kok and is pronounced cock.)

    And I've made a few Dutch language mistakes of my own like this one:
    The Zoo Mishap

    I hope these few examples help.
     
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  3. NiallRoach

    NiallRoach Contributor Contributor

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    I'm being an English teacher and I see that the most mistakes non natives make are with the tenses and the articles.
    Please to not fall into trap of writing this character like idiot. Choose a few mistake to focus on and repeating them.

    Joke over, don't mix fluency with speaking impeccably. I'm fluent in German, in that the words flow and I can deal with a variety of situations and topics, but I don't speak perfectly by any stretch.
     
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  4. IHaveNoName

    IHaveNoName Senior Member Community Volunteer

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    That's awesome. Thanks!

    Oh, yeah - I should've thought of that. I see lots of non-native speakers on the internet, and they're pretty easy to spot because of tense and articles. I know a Ukrainian woman - she's a regular of ours - and she speaks English fairly fluently, but she often leaves out her articles and sometimes searches for the right word. I'll just channel her when I think of my character speaking. :-D
     
  5. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Benevolent Ochlocrat Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm also an EFL teacher. It sounds like your story is SF or fantasy? If so, my advice for you would be to pick a human language and assign its grammar and structure to your non-native speaker's language. I'm far from a linguistic expert, but I've got experience in Korean, Turkish, and Japanese, and believe it or not, they are quite similar in a lot of ways. All of them put the verb at the end of the sentence, and all of them alter the verb (tense, question, imperative etc) with a series of prefixes or suffixes. Korean and Japanese, h0wever, don't require the use of subjects (racking my brain trying to remember if Turkish does)or articles, so a native of either of those languages might say "Saw orange cat", rather than "I saw an orange cat".

    Turkish, on the other hand, puts the adjective before the article, so a Turk might misspeak and say "I saw orange a cat."

    Anyway, the thing is, if you pick a language and skim its grammar and structure, you can use it as a base for the errors your character is going to make.
     
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  6. mikasa

    mikasa Member

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    I recommend youtube for audio samples of these things, if you are brain storming. May help you in picking out something or lead you to other interesting thoughts.
     
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  7. IHaveNoName

    IHaveNoName Senior Member Community Volunteer

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    It's a fantasy setting; the lingua franca here is Germanic, and the speaker's native language is closer to Persian, so it shouldn't be hard to compare them to figure out reasonable errors. That's good advice - thanks!

    Good idea.
     
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