Hiya! 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!