A quick Google search tells us that over 40% (nearly half!) of the world’s population speaks two languages. Fiction doesn’t always have to mirror reality (and, in a lot of cases, the opposite is the desired effect), but writing bilingual characters into your novel can add a degree of authenticity.
So, how do you make sure your bilingual characters are accurate? As a bilingual person myself, I have read some good and some questionable characterisation of bilingual people. Because of this, I thought I would share some general tips on how to write bilingual characters that won’t have your readers go ‘what?‘.
If you are a bilingual person meeting someone new, there is a high chance that this is the first thing that comes out of their mouth when they learn that you speak a language they don’t. It’s not a bad thing, but sometimes it does make you feel like you are a circus monkey performing tricks. Asking to translate a certain word or sentence is one thing (and if so, it’s usually swear words or insults), but this just puts the bilingual person on the spot.
If your POV character is bilingual and in a situation like this, awkwardness is the way to go. This won’t be a bragging-type of situation unless the character is currently learning a new language. Even then, they are being put in a position where they can easily say something wrong and be embarrassed.
I doubt any bilingual person has a prepared response to this ‘performance’ request, or will easily come up with an answer. This is a moment that you can include in your novel that a lot of bilingual readers will relate to.
‘Your English is so good!’
This is the other thing that native English speakers often say to people whose first language is not English. If you are including this in your writing, please consider that a lot of bilingual people, especially those fluent in English, find this incredibly condescending, and your character should react accordingly.
Even if the character has only recently started learning English and this is being said in a supportive, encouraging way, there is a high chance that the bilingual person will be mentally eye-rolling. If they are fluent they know they are good at it; if they are not they will assume you are being patronising.
English is widely considered one of the easiest languages in the world to learn. People might mean this as a compliment, but it can very easily be considered backhanded.
What’s that word again?
Bilingual people often forget words, not only in their second language but also their native one. It doesn’t even have to be very complicated, rarely used words; I once forgot the word ‘plate’ for a good five minutes.
Sometimes, a bilingual person will only remember a word in their second language, even if they are not fully fluent, or they will only recall it in their first. This happens at all levels of fluency, so do include moments of forgetfulness if you are writing bilingual characters. That being said…
‘I ablo like this, verdad?’ No!
This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to poor writing of bilingual characters. I have never met a single bilingual person that speaks a mixture of both languages like his.
The exception to this is if the bilingual person is speaking with another bilingual, and has forgotten a certain word. Then, they might say it in their other language, so that the other person will fill in the gap. In any other situation, if they don’t know a word they will find another way to put their thought across.
Bilingual people will often find themselves ‘locked’ in a language for a period of time. They will not really jump back and forth between the two, as that requires a lot of mental energy. If a bilingual person is speaking their second language and they suddenly hear their native language, it can take them a second to switch back and they might not even understand what is being said straight away. Different people can have their particular quirks: I, for example, use English 99% of the time since I live in an English-speaking country (even when thinking), but when I’m counting I need to do it in my native language or I will easily lose track of numbers. Think of this when fleshing out your bilingual characters!
Foreign vs Native
Even if your bilingual character is white, they can still be a victim of xenophobic attacks for speaking a ‘foreign’ language in an environment where most people will not understand what is being said. I put ‘foreign’ in quotes because the use of the word (alongside ‘foreigner’) can be offensive. In fact, several languages have terms for ‘foreigners’ that are considered slurs.
What is ‘foreign’ to you is not so to them, so do play around with the use of such language, especially if you do want to include some tense/negative moments involving your bilingual characters (more so if they are POC).
Everything has a gender
Remember when I said that English is one of the easiest languages to learn? That is especially true for people whose first language genders everything. While in English nouns are simply preceded by ‘the’ (the car, the book, the dog), a lot of languages attribute genders to them.
Do your research when it comes to your character’s native language. If it does gender nouns, make sure that anything you include of this language in your writing is accurate. The same goes for grammatical differences and sentence structure. One simple way to guarantee this is to consider that…
Beta readers are your friends
Writing bilingual characters, especially if you are including some of their native language, can be a challenge. A good way to take away the anxiety of ‘Oh my God, did I write this right?’ is to have a native speaker of your chosen language read through the passages you included.
While you’re at it, also ask them questions about their culture, habits, and experiences as a bilingual person. There will be nuances to each person’s feedback, so reaching out to a few people is always a good idea. Social media makes this incredibly easy to do.
Google Translate is not
Please, please, do not rely on Google Translate to translate things (especially full sentences) into a language you are not fluent in. Different languages have varying grammar rules and sentence structures, so there is a high chance you will include errors in your novel. Not to mention idioms/expressions that just don’t have a literal translation. If you have nowhere else to go you can use it as a starting point/placeholder, but do try to have it checked by a native speaker before publication!
Sofia Matias is a professional writer, editor and proofreader. She specialises in working with independent authors of Young Adult and genre fiction, arts and humanities students, businesses, publishers and publications. She is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Learn more about her and her services on her website and connect via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.