When Your Characters Don’t Speak Your Language

On the early drafts of my first novel, I assumed I could get away with writing the German-born character’s speech based on what I thought German people sounded like in the movies.

I was wrong.

What I churned out was a strange twist between German, Russian, and Transylvanian, creating the kind of uber-villain you see in kids cartoons. If I’d been trying to create a back-up character in a Mel Brooks musical, it might have passed. For the villain of an otherwise well-researched period piece, it was terrible.

Of course, I couldn’t see this at first.

It was a writer friend – an immigrant himself – who convinced me that I’d reduced my otherwise intelligent character into a laughingstock by getting this wrong. I’d had him randomly misusing words and pronouncing things in a way that sounded like I was making fun of his accent (not my intention). He said “zis” and “zat” a lot, until one draft had him replacing every “th” with a “z” which nearly gave me a headache to write. I pity the readers if I’d stuck with that version.

The only logical choice was to rip out his dialogue and start over.

I wanted something authentic, but also something that would be easy for my English readers to follow. And I didn’t know a word of German.

I turned to DuoLingo. If you haven’t heard of this language-teaching service, it’s amazing. It’s fun to use, 100% free, and you can either download the app or do it on a web browser. Easy peasy.

(This isn’t meant as an ad for their service, but I’ve tried several other language programs and Duo is the best I’ve found for jumping into a new language. I recommend them to everybody. They even have a great community of users to answer questions or help you practice.)

So, yes, I spent a year studying German. And, yes, I am well aware that I tend to go overboard on research. I’m not advocating that every writer go that far. I stuck with it after I had what I needed because the language was interesting and I enjoyed the challenge.

For non-masochistic writers (if there is such a thing), here’s what I learned from the experience.

  1. Do your first draft with all your characters speaking in plain English. You’ll likely change 80% of this, but at least you’ll know what the person is trying to say before you adjust how he says it.
  2. Find a learning app or website for the language you are looking for. You only need a few classes for this, so stick with something free.
  3. Study just long enough to learn the rhythms of speech and the basic sentence structure.

    For example, in Spanish, declarative sentences and questions are structured exactly the same. It’s the inflection at the end of the sentence that changes it to a question. So instead of “Are you putting on your shoes?” it would be “You’re putting on your shoes?”

    In German, the structure changes radically depending on what else is happening in the sentence. To explain it in the simplest way possible, the verb stays put and everything else shuffles around it. If you are translating a sentence with multiple clauses, the word order will become something that still makes perfect sense in German but is almost indecipherable in English. This, of course, is the biggest challenge in learning to speak both languages.
  4. You can also try scouring the forums for German-to-English speakers to find the things that trip people up most often when learning English. There are a ton of common-use phrases that don’t translate well, like “in the near to the hospital” instead of “near the hospital.” Google “German to English mistakes” and you’ll find a treasure trove of websites helping people navigate these challenges.

    Don’t try to use all of these, but keep a notebook handy before you start rewriting your story.
  5. This should give you enough flavor to get started revising your dialogue. Look at each sentence in comparison to the way the sentence would be translated from their language. Try to find ways of making their English less than perfect by sticking more closely with the rhythms and rules of their native language.

    My method was to occasionally allow my German character to move nouns around the sentence in a non-English way, or split his verbs when asking questions.
  6. Use this information sparingly! Remember that the more you pepper dialogue with misused words, mangled phrases, or mispronunciations, the more that character will come off as unintelligent.

    This is primarily because, in listening to everyday speech, we filter out the smaller discrepancies if we can still understand what is being said. Talk to someone new and if you remember an odd word he said or a mixed-up phrase she used, you likely only remember the ones that struck you as funny or confused you while they spoke.

    With story dialogue, a hint of how they are pronouncing words is great for setting the scene and showing more of the character. Steven King does this all the time with his rural characters. But if he stopped to tell us how the characters pronounced every sentence, it would ruin the story.

After a complete rewrite of my German character’s dialogue, I ended up with a much more subtle accent. Since my guy was a respected scholar, it didn’t make sense to have his English as errant as I had originally written it.

For me, it was better to have his English mistakes happen when he was excited or upset, as he was speaking too quickly to plot out the correct translation before speaking. This became a fun way to show the audience his moods as well.

I am certainly not a linguistics scholar, but I won’t make the mistake again of trying to write a character’s foreign accent without at least a rudimentary understanding of his native language.

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