1. madeofhearts

    madeofhearts New Member

    Jul 10, 2018
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    Question about Accents and Cultural Sensitivity (how not to be an accidental racist jerk)

    Discussion in 'Dialogue Development' started by madeofhearts, Jul 10, 2018.

    I’m writing a story, and two of the main characters are a 17-year old girl and her young mother, both Filipino immigrants. Some background: both characters were born in the Philippines, and are currently living in America. They came to America when the mother was in her early 20s and the daughter around 5-8 years old (haven’t decided the exact age yet). They both speak Tagalog, but communicate significantly more in English, as it’s the language the daughter is more fluent in.

    Their background isn’t really a key point in the story, but it’s important to me that their heritage is a part of their characters to some degree, and that they’re not indistinguishable from the characters who are white, or Hispanic, or Black, etc.

    My question is: how do I write dialogue between these two characters; particularly, how do I write the mother’s dialogue in a way that indicates that she’s not a native English speaker without being horribly racist?

    I want to avoid Anglicizing her dialogue to the point that she seems like the Generic White Mom character, as Tagalog is her mother tongue and the language she feels most comfortable speaking. On the other hand, I *definitely* don’t want the way I write her dialogue to be insensitive or offensive in any way.

    Any advice for how to write dialogue for a character whose native language isn’t English?
    honey hatter likes this.
  2. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

    Aug 8, 2015
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    Probably spend a bunch of time listening to people talk, have some conversations with people who share the accent you want to study, then write it the best you can and ask some sensitivity readers to go over it and tell you what you can do to make it more authentic.
    honey hatter and madeofhearts like this.
  3. Midge23

    Midge23 Active Member

    Jan 22, 2015
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    Hertfordshire, UK
    As said above, some research about Filipinos use of English would be needed. I would suggest that the 17 year old girl has been in the US long enough to speak perfect English (provided she went to a US school). It takes us adults longer, so I will give you some suggestions based on my Czech wife: missed articles, incorrect word order, and direct translation from the mother tongue.

    Not all languages use articles, a/an/the, (I don’t know about the Philippines, so this is just an example), so she would sometimes say ‘Please, get suitcase from car’.

    Incorrect word order. My all time favourite. The British phrase for knocking back a drink ‘Bottoms up’ became ‘Up your bottom’.

    Direct translation. We say ‘I am hungry’ whilst the direct translation from Czech is ‘I have hunger’.

    Using thoughtful variations of the above, and strong characterisation, you can let the reader ‘hear’ the accent when reading her speech.
    Grenwickle, matwoolf and honey hatter like this.
  4. Jenissej

    Jenissej Professional Lurker Supporter Contributor

    Mar 28, 2018
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    two feet off center
    Not so much experience with portraying foreign language characters but from a reader's perspective I'd say, keep it to a minimum. If she's a main character you'll probably have it pointed out early that she speaks English with an accent so you don't need to show it with every sentence. Rather describe the way she talks beforehand and keep her dialogue fairly "clean". Maybe have her use words or phrases of her native tongue once in a while or ask her daughter to help her come up with a phrase but not too much so it does not distract from the dialogue itself. My two cents.
    Besides that, what @John Calligan said, when writing outside your experience it's best to talk to people who have it.
  5. Shnette

    Shnette Active Member

    Sep 18, 2016
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    What everyone else said.
    Also, I think it would be great to see some Tagalog in the story. When people get angry or excited they revert back to their native language and accents.
    honey hatter likes this.
  6. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

    Mar 9, 2010
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    Assorted thoughts:

    - Avoid phonetic reproduction of accents. If they're using English words, just present them as English words.
    - The daughter, if she arrived at age 5-8, could IMO be totally fluent.
    - You could flip the language that they're using now and then. When they're speaking English, Mom will commit a lot of errors and the daughter won't. When they're speaking Tagalog, Mom won't and the daughter will.

    The last idea is a little messy, because of course all (or almost all) of the dialogue will actually be English, and you'll have to communicate which language they're speaking in, but books do this frequently...somehow. :) But it gives you a way to paint the mother more subtly.

    The last idea is also a little messy because you'd have to know what errors the daughter would commit when trying to speak Tagalog...it might make more sense for her to be more fluent in hearing the language, and for her to respond in English.
    honey hatter likes this.
  7. cherrya

    cherrya Active Member

    Jun 6, 2013
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    I'm french canadian so english is not my native language, and my mom is from Africa so she also speaks a different language.

    The thing about languages is that it's all about the rules of grammar. At school we had to learn that in english adjectives (I think) have to be placed before a certain other type of word (I don't remember which).

    For example, in french we say: "Le chat noir s'éloigna dans la prairie." which translates to "The black cat wandered away in the prairie."
    (noir = black / chat = cat)

    The only matter is, if you don't interchange the adjective and the noun, it sounds like this: "The cat black wandered away in the prairie."

    Perhaps you'll want to look up the grammatical rules of Tagalog, I'm sure you can easily find that on the internet. I have no idea how Filipino people speak, so let's say that this was about Japanese. Knowing that they have difficulty in pronouncing the rough r letter, you might want to avoid doing things like "I'm light hele!" instead of "I'm right here!" because this is where it gets offensive.

    Also, one thing I've noticed about my mother is, despite the fact that they speak French as a second language in the side of Africa she's from, they don't actually say please in their native language. This means that all my youth she'd say things to me like "Get me that", "Go do that". It used to drive me crazy because it felt super rude and like I was being ordered around, but I later learned that they just don't say please. It might sound insane to us but they just don't have a word like that, and it shows. After talking to her about it she tried to implement it in her sentences, but it just comes out a bit wrong : "Go do that, please.", "Go over there... (a minute passes) please." It's like it doesn't occur to her to say "Can you do that?" She wouldn't even need to say please, but it just doesn't come to her naturally. I don't think it ever will.

    I think the best way to do this is to ask questions to Filipino people or on a forum or such thing. Maybe try to be specific : Is the grammar really different from english? What about the structure of a sentences? Are there words that we use that you just don't use? Things that we don't use? (For example, the "eee" in french that people always make fun of in imitations (which is actually 'euh' and a legit word but whatever) "And eee I said-eee..." That sort of thing.

    I wrote a lot more than I expected. I hope this helps.
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2018
    Grenwickle likes this.
  8. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

    Dec 30, 2010
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    Maybe check out the book Girl in Translation: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Translation-Jean-Kwok-ebook/dp/B003VTZRQO/

    It's about a girl from Hong Kong who emigrated to the US when she was 11 or so, and how she makes a life for herself in the US and how she acquires English as she goes. There're some interesting ways where her English is portrayed as non-native at times, such as translating Chinese idioms literally, or italicising words she hears from other English speakers that she does not understand.

    The most obvious way I'd use would be drop in Tagalog words in the middle of an English sentence. Cultural sentiments should come across too. One reason why Girl in Translation was so interesting to me was precisely because the character's experiences - some of them anyway - were identical to my own. I'm also originally from Hong Kong and emigrated to the UK when I was 8, and also acquired English that way. I laughed and smirked throughout the book because it was just accurate. The shock the girl had when she realised everyone was changing into their PE clothes right there in the middle of the classroom - I had exactly the same shock. No one even realised this at the time but I remember just quietly watching everyone around me in utter awe. Like... they're all... stripping. They're half-naked. It just wasn't done in Hong Kong, not even between kids.

    So you'd need to tap into Filipino culture and find out what sort of clashes they might have. The best would be if you spoke to a few.

    Food and popular culture are usually things that might set you apart. You can be as integrated as can be, but there will always be some snack or dish you miss from back home. Humour and desserts don't tend to translate well cross-culturally - I still don't get Monty Python or Little Britain, and still prefer Chinese desserts.

    I also don't know what the US is like in this regard, but in Hong Kong, Filipinos are considered a lower-class population who generally go to Hong Kong to become domestic workers. So there would be discrimination that'd come with that. How would the US regard a Filipino immigrant? What assumptions and stereotypes exist there that might not be true?
    Grenwickle likes this.

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