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Writing Bilingual Characters

October 1, 2019

PROMPT: Open Prompt

This isn't a story or song or anything I usually write, but I've seen a lot of short stories and such that feature bilingual characters, and I figured I could give some tips on how to make them seem more natural!

#1 : Language Switches
God have mercy on every writer who has attempted to write a bilingual character and made them switch into their second language by accident. I can promise you, this will almost never happen in real life. 
    "Ay, ay, ay! No puede dejar su basura aquí!" Terry shouted before pausing. "Oh, sorry. Sometimes I let my Spanish slip without noticing."
No. No. No. Language is a conscious action. You know what you're saying and you know which language you are saying it in. To play it safe, never have a character accidentally switch languages. If their native tongue is English, they will always speak English unless the need arises to speak another language.
The keyword here is "accidental". Bilingual people switch languages on purpose all the time. Heck, I do it more times a day than I can count. Sometimes someone will playfully switch languages or use it as a personal touch. For example, I don't actually say "thank you" that often. I always thank people with "gracias", but I say it as almost a joke, like an indicator I'm in a pretty good mood. This can also be used for emphasis. For instance, the other day, I was asking my dad to give me his phone so I could Google something, but he kept putting it in my reach before holding it away. As playful emphasis, I yelled at him, "dame tu teléfonoooo!" 
Another time someone will shortly switch languages is when they forget a word. People do this all the time. When talking in a language that isn't your first, you'll forget how to say certain things. You'll try to explain it using circumlocution, but it may not work. You may attempt to point at what you're talking about, if it's visible or tangible. But sometimes, you just have to switch to your native language for a moment. This also works if you're talking crap or muttering something you don't want anyone to hear :)
     "Oh, your cat is so cute! She has a little heart on her.. her, uh..." She trails off as she begins pointing towards her chest. "This one, the, the pecho."
As far as I can tell, the final exception, and the only true "accidental" switch I can think of is with extremely young kids. Kids are terrifying if they can easily speak more than one language. They don't really understand a language barrier yet, so they may switch languages without even realising. Because even if you don't know what they're saying, they do, and that's all that matters to them. As an ethnically mixed one, when I was a kid, I could speak English, Spanish, and Tagalog. It was horrible for my family, because I would have a tendency to start a sentence or story in English, suddenly switch to Spanish in the middle of it, and end it with Tagalog. Sadly, I don't know any Tagalog anymore apart from a few words. This tendency, though seen in children, typically goes away around age 6.

#2 : Types of Bilinguals
Contrary to common belief, not all multilingual people are entirely fluent in all of their language. Yes, being legally considered "bi/multilingual" does mean they know a fair amount of each language, but they aren't gods. Most native English speakers don't know what petrichor is unless they're authors or super into weather. For instance, I am a native English speaker, but I know Spanish and am learning Korean. In no way am I fluent in Korean, but I know simple sentences and phrases. Similarly, I'm somewhat advanced in Spanish, I can carry conversations and write essays, but I don't know as much as my father.
So what does this mean? 
- There are multiple types of bilingual people. There are the types who can go back and forth, completely fluent in all of their languages, so well that you can't even tell which is their native tongue. I envy these kinds of people.
- There are the types that are fairly decent in both languages, but is obviously more skilled and comfortable speaking their native language. These types of bilinguals, as far as I know, are most common. 
- There are the types that speak mostly one language, but can slip in certain words based around what they're talking about. One of my best friends has grown up in a Spanish/English-speaking household, and while they speak mostly English, they incorporate Spanish words into their everyday lives. This is different from jocular switching. While I can say "can you hand me the remote? Gracias" with a playful smile, if I were to be more formal, I would say "thank you". These types of bilinguals use words in their everyday lifestyle, formal or informal. My friend, for example, when giving a tour of her new house, she'd tell us, "and after you leave the kitchen, you can head straight into the sala". She doesn't say "sala" as a joke or an accident, she knows what she's saying, and she's grown up calling it that instead of the "living room".
- Not only is the fluency a factor, but comfort. There are many bilingual people (including myself) that can read and write and understand their second language with ease, but they're uncomfortable speaking it. It may give them anxiety, as they can overthink their sound. This is my biggest obstacle right now. 
- Another factor is accent. This may tie in with how comfortable someone is speaking another language. There is not a number large enough to symbolise how many English speakers that can speak a language just fine, but only because they use an American accent. When you say something like "kamsahamnida", sure, you can say it like "com-suh-ham-nid-duh", but that will earn you many eyerolls. Study the accent, figure out the sound and try to produce it. The biggest tip I've learned in speaking Korean is you want to sound lazy. You sound more natural pronouncing it like "kaamsaamnida" than the first way. Correct me if I'm wrong on this one, Koreans or Korean enthusiasts. 

#3 : Formalities and Informalities
In some languages, you can get away with calling your friend the cruelest insult ever. In others, you can't call someone by their first name unless you're especially acquainted. Pay attention to this. 
Slang is very, very important! Do you ever hear an English speaker casually say, "yes, I agree with Jenny because she is a very analytical person with much knowledge"? No. You hear an English speaker casually say, "oh my god, Jenny's so right, it's actually insane. She's just so effing smart, wig". No one knows what English speakers are saying at this point. But! Slang!!
In the same way, you don't want to sound lame when you speak another language. Study the slang! ¡Eso!
This is also very helpful for nicknames. "Honey", "babe", "loser", we all have our terms of endearment. Only weird uncles scream "Wife!" across the house. Personally, I'm a sucker for these names. I call my best friend "mi sirena/sirenita", another friend "my prince". It's just a bonding thing. Let your character show their love!

#4 : Pain
I read somewhere that when in pain, a bilingual will make a sound of pain in their native language, but still speak in their weaker if they happen to be around people who speak the weaker. Use of a language is heavily influenced on the public.
But what does pain sound like? This may or may not come as a shock to you, but each language has its own exclamation of pain. A common one is swearing. How many times have you stubbed your toe and immediately felt the fire of Hades spilling out of your lungs as you belted the F word? Yeah.
This obviously won't be all of them- I'm a bilingual author, not Jesus
Pain sounds with Ace!
English: ow, ouch, ah, gah, fff, any swear word, yelping, groaning, whining, crying, screaming
Spanish: ay, ai, oi, au, also swear words, groaning, shouting
Korean: ah, kyaa, sss (inhale), aya, sighing sharply, inhaling sharply
French: aïe, ouille, hii
Dutch: au, auw, iek
Japanese: gyā, kyaa
Feel free to correct me or add onto these tips! Remember, every bilingual person is different and is at a different level with each of their languages. If you'd like more examples for slang or such, ask away! Be creative with your characters! Happy writing~


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  • October 1, 2019 - 10:19pm (Now Viewing)

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  • Dmoral

    Your PSA is wonderful! I feel like so many beginners should read this

    11 months ago
  • Maryam Q

    So true!! I'm fluent in English and can also speak French, and seeing your first point in books/movies is so cringy. Just no. It doesn't work like that.

    about 1 year ago