I’m fluently multilingual (English, Spanish, and Catalan). Even though I read almost exclusively in English, I’m a big fan of seeing other languages incorporated into a story through dialog and cultural immersion.
However, it’s frustrating to see foreign languages get butchered by native-English writers. So…I guess I’ll offer a few tips? Just a few, very broad brush strokes, at least. Definitely not trying to be pretentious. But I this is one of the few areas where I feel I have some small say in the matter.
I’ll be using Spanish to give made-up examples, since it’s one of my languages of fluency as well as a frequent victim of misuse.
Try not to…
#1. Rely on stereotypical catch-phrases
“Well, amigos. It’s time for my siesta. Buenas noches!”
I don’t mean to be harsh, but this is lazy writing. Your seventh-grade Spanish class notes aren’t enough.
#2. Insert translated phrases/vocab at random
“Say, that party at Jacob’s was muy divertido! Such a huge casa!”
Unless you’re writing Dora the Explorer fan-fiction, don’t. Bilinguals don’t talk like this. If we don’t know a certain word or phrase in our second language, we use a synonym. Or we find another way to say what we want to say, even if it means making mistakes. OR we just gesture wildly and say “the thing” until someone understands us.
Mixing languages is fine. Multilinguals do it all the time when we speak. But when we mix languages, we do so chaotically and messily. Not this neat, organized, one-word-per-sentence method of substitution.
#3. Use Google translate
Google translate (usually) works fine for single words or short phrases, though even then you can get some funky results. But for anything longer, don’t even bother. Besides, Google translate gives you a stale version of your text. Spoken language rarely mimics such results.
#4. Comment/highlight how difficult English is for the character
“Today I have to go to…how do you say? English is not my language. Oh, yes. The doctor!”
This comes across as really condescending. And again, we don’t talk like this.
Instead, try to…
#1. Be willing to learn
Invest the time and energy it takes to understand how bilinguals think and speak in their second language. What’s their level? How long have they been learning/speaking it? If they struggle with vocabulary/grammar/expression, how are they most likely to compensate?
If you have bilingual friends, ask them questions. Second-language speech is complex, and it rarely fits the mold your Spanish/French/German 101 textbook taught you.
#2. Treat foreign language dialog the same way you’d treat English dialog
When I speak Spanish or Catalan, it’s imperfect. It’s messy and full of idioms, incomplete thoughts, fragments, subtext, implications, etc, just like when I speak English. The same is true for anyone who speaks any language.
Yes, that probably makes it frustratingly hard to write foreign dialog (or mixed dialog), because it means you have to understand the language well enough to be able to break its formal rules naturally.
But a lack of effort almost inevitably leads to The Things You Should Not Do, as laid out above.
#4. Understand cultural/regional influences
When your bilingual character DOES fall back on their native language, remember that language is heavily influenced by region, culture, social upbringing, etc.
For example, the Spanish I speak here in Barcelona differs (mildly) from the Spanish they speak in Madrid because of the strong Catalan (regional language) influence in Barcelona. Furthermore, there are vast differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish spoken in, for example, Chile.
Idioms, expressions, forms, and even basic vocabulary can all depend on where your character is from in a very specific sense of the word.
And maybe Spanish is one of the more extreme examples, since it’s such a widespread language, but the principle still applies to bilingual characters of any native language.
Here’s an image I found on Pinterest that captures the essence of what I’m getting at. I took the liberty to black out some unsavory language, but honestly, these snippets are about as accurate as it gets.
To sum things up, bilingual characters go through thought and speech processes far more complex than many writers realize. If you’re not fluently bilingual, get help from someone who is. We don’t mind imparting our knowledge! If you put in the time and effort, your readers will enjoy the authenticity of your diverse dialog.
It’s worth it for us and for you!