HOW TO: Bilingual Characters

Hiya! :yellow_heart: :sunflower: I’m back with another writing guide to help fellow authors grow and improve the quality of their writing.

Bilingual characters are very commonly written incorrectly in stories, on Episode and outside it. But before I go on to explain how you could improve your way of portraying them, let me provide you with some information. For those of you who don’t know, to be bilingual, you have to be fluent in two languages. Check out this info-graphic for more information!

Now, let’s begin.

The very common misconception is the whole “Oh, haha, sorry, it’s hard to switch back sometimes,” cliche that annoys true bilinguals to the core. That’s not how our brain works. We also don’t randomly drop words in a sentence that are in a language that the person we’re speaking to doesn’t know, unless it’s completely accidental, minor, and makes sense. For example, I speak both Arabic and English, whereas my grandmother only speaks Arabic. Sometimes, I accidentally say words like “always” or “sometimes” or “actually” or “like” when speaking to her because I’m so used to using both languages in my sentences, but I don’t do it too much as I try to focus as much as I can to stick to one language. So basically, we use filler words a lot.

Which leads us to the next topic: for some of us, focusing on trying to speak only one language can kind of send our brain into an overdrive, if that’s the right word to describe it. I become more likely to make mistakes and slip up, but it isn’t a “it’s hard to switch back” as much as “I know this word in one language and can’t for the love of God figure out what it means in the other.” So conversations like this are very likely:

CHARACTER A: Hey, I’m off to the supermarket, do you need anything?
CHARACTER B: Yeah, can you get the thing? You know… the thing?
CHARACTER A: What thing?
CHARACTER B: You know! The thing! With the stuff! Yel3ana battalt aaref shu esma bel English… MUSHROOM!

  • It translates to “Damn it, now I don’t even know what it means in English…”

However, this doesn’t apply to all bilingual people, as many are strongly fluent in both languages and are less likely to experience something like this, as well as a slip-up.

We only speak in a mixture of the two languages we’re fluent in when we’re speaking to other bilingual people. For example, I’ll say something like, “Hey, fike please teb3atile the homework we had for today?” which translates to, “Hey, can you please send me the homework we had for today?” And we’re more likely to swear in our native language when we’re around people who speak it, unless we’re not focusing at all and let it slip. I tend to swear more in English, mainly just saying stuff like “shit” or “crap” because I’m embarrassed to swear in my native language in front of my family LOL, which I think might be common for other people too.

The following post is actually a very helpful one to help you with writing bilingual characters! These are the true struggles LOL:

When your character is in pain they will likely make a sound of pain associated with their native language, like “AY” in Arabic, or “AKH”. They may also swear or yell in it, but they are still likely to speak in their secondary language if they’re around people who do.

This is an excerpt from a Tumblr post which is actually quite accurate IMO:

  • if two people start speaking another language in public there’s a 40% chance they’re talking shit and a 60% chance they’re having a conversation like: “where’s the bathroom” “i don’t know, ask the waitress she’s right here” “i can’t just ask -”

You don’t have to transcribe accents. We generally try to pronounce words in another language correctly, and even so our pronunciation will most likely stand out given that we have different accents in our native language, but phonetically transcribing it is a bad idea. Just have another character mentally note it or something! Or just narrate it once.

I hope this helps! If you have anything to add or feel as if I was mistaken at some point, please do tell me! :yellow_heart:

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This thread is very helpful!

And this is very true. I definitely don’t have “switches” that I suddenly forget.
If I do forget that I’m supposed to speak English, it’s only a few words on accident but very rarely because I’m fluent. I did it subconsciously without thinking of it like a switch only because I was speaking the language to a parent right before speaking to an employee. It’s only happened once or twice in my life :ok_woman:t2:

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I’m glad you think it is!
And yes, I totally understand and relate to this, though I am more prone to making these mistakes due to having such poor concentration lmao.

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Yes :clap: Sometimes there are also words that don’t have a translation in another language so I just use them. It’s so funny to me how some stories represent bilingualism, especially when they use italian only for cheesy nicknames :joy:

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As a multilingual person (I’m a Malaysian), I can totally relate to this.
The most common thing we do is directly translating the word to explain the meaning of a word.
For example: instead of telling you the meaning of ‘eat’ is the act of eating, we will just tell that the ‘eat’ is ‘makan’, which is actually also eat in the Malay language.
And another thing, like you mentioned, is adding English language in the language you are speaking. As a Malaysian, we call it ‘Manglish’, in which we will mix 4 of 5 languages we know in a sentence. And somehow, all Malaysians will understand you, eventhough you don’t know 1 or 2 of the other languages mixed in it.
I guess any Malaysians reading it can totally relate :sweat_smile::joy:

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exactly!!! i hate it when stuff like that happens

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yeah lmao i completely forgot about that, this is common for me too!! i’ll see when i can add it back to the post

also that’s so cool!!! you guys are talented :grin:

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Hahah, some of us may be weak in English (including me), but all Malaysians will at least know 3 languages.:joy:

Glad I could give you a different perspective in this☺

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Yaaaassss!
Especially with my family! Most of my family members (the older generation) speak Mandarin but I grew up in a government school (which we must learn the Malay language and English) so my Mandarin isn’t the best. Usually when I don’t know some words in Mandarin, I’ll say it in Malay cause they generally understand it. :joy:

I often mix languages as a Malaysian too and it’s perfectly alright for us.

An example of Manglish: Why you never belanja me? (belanja means paying for the bill, usually for food and drinks or what we say treating you for a meal)

We also tend to have slangs like lah which is a really popular slang. For example, you can hear us say, Aiyo, can lah can lah!

I really love how diverse we actually are lol :rofl:

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you really are!

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Very cool relatable post :blush:

Haha this is me, I’ve never actually said ow :laughing:

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This is super helpful! I’m fluent in English as it’s my mother tongue but I’m also currently learning Spanish in school and German in my own time :3
I’ve always enjoyed reading about bilingual/multilingual characters but I wanted to know how to write them correctly without sounding cliche or stupid.
Thank you for this! <33

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I speak Spanish, English and Italian and I say thing multiple times :skull_and_crossbones::tired_face:

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you’re welcome!! i’m glad i could help, good luck with writing and language learning <3

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Moved to Episode Fan Community since this doesn’t belong in any Creator’s Corner categories. Make sure to check out our Forum Tutorial for more info about creating topics, and feel free to PM me if you’ve got questions. :wink:

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As a person who is trilingual I think this is really cool, I know I speak yourba when I’m upset or angry about something, it makes english hard for me sometimes

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Hahaha, I love this thread and I appreciate that you brought this up (I laughed so much!) Though I feel like this mostly point to Latin-based languages as I can’t type Chinese Characters on Episode, which is a bit of a bummer. I really do so many of the things that you mention, though my first language is English so it’s usually the opposite. Anyways, thanks for this insightful thread!

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i hate having to use romanisation

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Oh, I don’t even know that! I’ve read books with romanization, but they really threw me off; For example, 李白 being Li Po when it sounds like Li Bai. I am just horrible with that, but it would also suck if I had to use pinyin for Mandarin- which is why I don’t have a story I’m working on with that.

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Everybody gangsta till the badly written bilingual breaks out into speaking French
Bumppp

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