foreign characters in fiction

Hi, one of the things I learned while studying creative writing is that you should avoid using accents when creating characters. That is, if you have a foreign person speaking English you should avoid trying to make them sound like the country they are from, for example ‘I theenk you are very eenteresting,’ for a Spanish person. It is acceptable to have the person speak in ‘broken English,’ however, as this is often the case in real life. ‘I think you very interesting.’ This is how I portrayed a Spanish girl in my last novel and the feedback was very good, people loved her (probably more for her actions than her speech) My conundrum now is that in my sequel the girl has been living with English people for the last 3 years, so would she still speak in broken English or is it more plausible that she would be more refined in her conversations?

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  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    It is my experience that accents soften and mellow over time. I have trouble distinguishing the "About" of a Canadian who has lived in American for a decade from that of, say, a Minnesotan.

    I find it better to concentrate on the word order, instead of the pronunciation. For example, a character in one of my novels says, "I tell him I come to pray for his soul, because he does not graduate, only God can help him, what I will do to him." You can probably tell the ethnicity from the word order. Or in my most recent, a character says,

    “This is a danger in that place,” said Joachim, in slightly stilted English. “I myself never wager, lest a same thing happen for me.”

    A European might tend to exchange this for that, or a for the, or for in place of to. Other common exchanges are these/those, where the difference is largely a perception of distance.


  • marquesamarquesa Creator
    Yes, but would she still speak that broken English 3 years later, living with well spoken English people?
    By the way: "said Joachim, in slightly stilted English" when you’re tagging your dialog, all you really need is “said” or “asked.” Everything else can be gleaned contextually. For example, if we read, “Look out!” we understand that it is likely being shouted or exclaimed. What about “replied” or “answered.” These are rarely needed.

    Those types of attributions call too much attention to themselves and remind the reader that they are reading. Psychologically speaking, we tend to read over the “he said,” “she said,” without paying any attention. It gets us the information without taking us out of the story. That’s what we want. We want the reader to forget they’re reading and simply experience the story. Which is my original subject: broken English...yes...3 years of living with a well spoken English family...would she still be still be speaking broken English?

  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    Yes, but would she still speak that broken English 3 years later, living with well spoken English people?

    There are people in the UK who emigrated here decades ago who cannot speak English at all. But their offspring, usually if they were born here, often speak English and often with the local accent they are raised in. And to be honest there are not many people nowadays who speak "well spoken English." Even the 'posh' speak, well, poshly. There's also genetics. Many races find it impossible to pronounce words 'correctly' in some other language, no matter how long they live in some other country.


    By the way: "said Joachim, in slightly stilted English" when you’re tagging your dialog, all you really need is “said” or “asked.” Everything else can be gleaned contextually. For example, if we read, “Look out!” we understand that it is likely being shouted or exclaimed.

    The ! is a clue because it is the exclamation mark. But it could be whispered in some situations, not always shouted.

     What about “replied” or “answered.” These are rarely needed.

    There are many words that mean almost the same thing, but can also indicate how a person replied, he retorted.

    Those types of attributions call too much attention to themselves and remind the reader that they are reading. Psychologically speaking, we tend to read over the “he said,” “she said,” without paying any attention.

    I would hope that like myself, most people read every word and pay attention to them, because that is why they were written.

     It gets us the information without taking us out of the story. That’s what we want. We want the reader to forget they’re reading and simply experience the story.

    But all the words are part of the story.

     Which is my original subject: broken English...yes...3 years of living with a well spoken English family...would she still be still be speaking broken English?

    It depends on if you mean broken English or an accent. Many still retain an accent. But attempting to write either is not easy unless you know such a person to use as an example, but even so, it may be seen as racist if one is not careful, or even stereotyping, which is about the same as racist.

    It can depend on where in the world they are from, though, because English is still the commonest language in use in the world. The UK still has a vast Commonwealth.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • marquesamarquesa Creator
    edited March 24
    Most creative writing courses will steer the author away from elaborate speech tags as this is the author showing him/her self and not telling the story. In other words, it can be a distraction. But thanks for your comments on accents. I would never attempt a regional accent. Sebastion Faulkes in his novel 'Birdsong' had troops from many countries and counties of the UK in the 1st world war trenches. None of them spoke with an accent.
  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    Thorne Smith, the author of, among other things, the classic "Topper" novels had a neat trick for making someone sound as though they are English-speaking foreigners without resorting to silly tricks like having a Frenchman say "zee" instead of "the." He would simply translate the dialog word for word from English into the language of whatever nation the character was supposed to belong to and then, word for word, back into English. The effect was often pretty subtle but, for that very reason, worked perfectly. The dialog sounded exactly like someone speaking who was unfamiliar with English. You could very easily do the same thing today by using Google Translate to translate a phrase from English to, say, German and then back again into English...though, to tell the truth, you would probably get better results using a German-English dictionary since Google Translate is sometimes too good! A machine translator like WordLingo works better. For instance, you might want to have a German policeman say

    "Come with me, I want you to see where the murder was committed last night."

    WordLingo translates that into 

    "Gekommen mit mir, wünsche ich Sie, um zu sehen, wo der Mord gestern Abend festgelegt wurde.."

    Then, back into English

    "Come with me, I wish you, in order to see, where the murder was specified last night."


  • Papi_SoñolientoPapi_Soñoliento Southern Escarpment Hill Country Librarian
    Another trick relates to make versus do, since there are languages where the two words are the same. German has machen, Spanish has hacer, French has faire, and so on.

    "Look what you have made" would most likely be used instead of "Look what you've done" as it would be more ingrained.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    That's a good idea Ron.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    edited March 24
    And that is what I tried to do with poor Joachim, above; to use his word order to tell us that he was not a native speaker, and even to hint that his primary language was in the Germanic family. Did I need "in slightly stilted English," -- well, perhaps not. But the tag exists to give the readers who might not have picked up on it a clue. And, yes, sometimes clues need to be a bit blatant.

    In my most recent novel, I strongly feared that the murderer would be too obvious -- after all, he was the only person with the requisite knowledge and the opportunity -- and yet not one of my beta-readers said that they knew his identity before the big reveal. We can sometimes be more subtle than we think we are. As a youth, I used to read Piers Anthony stories, where any subtle hint was usually followed up by a reveal in short order, and from this I learned that while we do want the clever reader to feel clever, we also want the slower reader not to feel left out.

    (speaking of "Clever," I just saw a headline that a girl's request for a puppy was "Cleaver." This, in a major "big-name" news outlet, mind you. It made me wonder if she had held her parents at knife-point until they met her demands for a pet, which would not only explain the word "Cleaver" but also why the story was front-page news. But I digress).

    So, noting the general wisdom of your comments wrt Joachim, I will take it under advisement.

    WRT the question at hand, and the softening of speech over time, I will refer you to Hilda, above, who is concerned for her son's education: For my purposes, Hilda is a "First Generation American," but I have heard second and third generation Americans speak with the sort of speech patterns that Hilda uses here. So while there is a trend towards the softening of speech patterns over generations, there is also a hysteresis effect, because one tends to speak as one's primary influences speak.

    On the other hand, I know a man from Oaxaca who arrived in America without a single word of English, and taught himself English by watching television. His English, while slightly accented in the vowel sounds, and in the upward inflections at the ends of phrases, is otherwise excellent. Clearly, his English improved dramatically.

    As regards the hysteresis effect, consider a lad from the East End of London who goes off to Eton, through some twist of fate. Among his classmates and his teachers, he will quickly learn to to speak in the dialect Kevin calls "Posh" (Received Text), but among his friends back home during holiday, he is more likely to say "Innit, Bruh?" and similar constructions rather than make them think he has risen above his station.

    So the short answer is, "Perhaps."
  • Papi_SoñolientoPapi_Soñoliento Southern Escarpment Hill Country Librarian
    Having taught ESL I have seen how people can take a new language and run with it just as I've seen people who grew up with a language struggle with comprehension.

    Then again I never took a creative writing course, so I can't attest to what the experts may or not advise. What I would say is a writer should strike a balance between accuracy in accents and the varying astuteness of different readers.
  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    Well-said. Balance in all things.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    As regards the hysteresis effect, consider a lad from the East End of London who goes off to Eton, through some twist of fate.

    It would be a big twist of fate. It costs around £30,000 a year to go to Eton.

     Among his classmates and his teachers, he will quickly learn to to speak in the dialect Kevin calls "Posh" (Received Text),

    That's rarely the case, any more than foreign students there rapidly learn to speak 'perfect' Queen's English.

     but among his friends back home during holiday, he is more likely to say "Innit, Bruh?" and similar constructions rather than make them think he has risen above his station.

    I really doubt that any one with parents who can afford Eton's fees would speak like that. For a few decades, though, some people even have tuition to stop speaking 'posh.' Some even go to the hassle of trying to sound Cockney, because it's 'cool.' apparently.

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11408842/How-to-de-posh-your-accent.html

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    A technique I have used to make a character sound as though he may be new to English: I use no contractions.
  • marquesamarquesa Creator
    Agreed, contractions look and sound awkward in literature. I have known people whose accents have changed in a matter of weeks upon moving elsewhere only within the UK, and others who have retained their's for years after coming here from all over the world. I suppose I've answered my own original question then. Maybe she would and maybe she wouldn't.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    I guess the answer is to listen to many many people. You will find them on YouTube. Here's samples.

    https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=english+with+a+foreign+accent&&view=detail&mid=42F408409AA263AEE8B942F408409AA263AEE8B9&&FORM=VRDGAR


    The problem then is working out how to spell the accents.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    A technique I have used to make a character sound as though he may be new to English: I use no contractions.

    Excellent point. Foreign speakers of English, when they do use contractions, tend to order them differently. I'm having trouble thinking of a really good example, but "He's not there" versus "He isn't there" shows the idea. In this case, a native speaker might use either, but a foreign speaker will almost never say "He isn't."
  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    edited March 26
    Skoob_ym said:
    A technique I have used to make a character sound as though he may be new to English: I use no contractions.

    Excellent point. Foreign speakers of English, when they do use contractions, tend to order them differently. I'm having trouble thinking of a really good example, but "He's not there" versus "He isn't there" shows the idea. In this case, a native speaker might use either, but a foreign speaker will almost never say "He isn't."
    Good points! And that sort of manipulation can add a nice "foreign" touch to speech without resorting to vaudeville accents. And, as you suggest, word order gives a good touch, too. What I was thinking of was no contractions at all. It adds a kind of formality to the speech that sounds as though the speaker might be trying hard to speak proper English. Examples would be---
    "He is not there."
    "I do not know what you mean."
    "I can not do that."

    Changing the word order bumps up the effect a notch, such as---
    "I know not what you mean."
    "Know what you mean I do not."
    "What you mean I know not."
  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor

    I guess the answer is to listen to many many people. You will find them on YouTube. Here's samples.

    https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=english+with+a+foreign+accent&&view=detail&mid=42F408409AA263AEE8B942F408409AA263AEE8B9&&FORM=VRDGAR


    The problem then is working out how to spell the accents.

    I think that's the sort of thing I would avoid. It can all too easily slip into caricature...or, even worse, unreadability. Take, for example, this speech from H.P. Lovecraft, who had an addiction for doing this sort of thing:

    “I dun’t keer what folks think—ef Lavinny’s boy looked like his pa, he wouldn’t look like nothin’ ye expeck. Ye needn’t think the only folks is the folks hereabaouts. Lavinny’s read some, an’ has seed some things the most o’ ye only tell abaout. I calc’late her man is as good a husban’ as ye kin find this side of Aylesbury; an’ ef ye knowed as much abaout the hills as I dew, ye wouldn’t ast no better church weddin’ nor her’n. Let me tell ye suthin’—some day yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!”

    A little of that sort of thing goes an awful long way!

    I think it's much better to suggest that someone is speaking with an accent or is not a native English speaker than to try to phonetically duplicate the sound of every word.
  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    I suppose that the most extreme cases in word order could also go awry. For example, the pidgin phrases "man you box him teeth he yell" for Piano, or the description of a helicopter as a big box "him belong God" would be as confusing as trying to transliterate the actual sounds.

    Balance, as always, is the key.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    Good points! And that sort of manipulation can add a nice "foreign" touch to speech without resorting to vaudeville accents. And, as you suggest, word order gives a good touch, too. What I was thinking of was no contractions at all. It adds a kind of formality to the speech that sounds as though the speaker might be trying hard to speak proper English. Examples would be---
    "He is not there."
    "I do not know what you mean."
    "I can not do that."

    Changing the word order bumps up the effect a notch, such as---
    "I know not what you mean."
    "Know what you mean I do not."
    "What you mean I know not."

    There's often a large difference between those who learn English as a second language via classes, and those who pick it up by learning from English people they associate with in general. 'Perfect' English is often taught in classes, but then again, once they start to mix with English people in general they pick up the contractions and slang.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    I think that's the sort of thing I would avoid.

    Such examples are of real  people, so it's difficult to avoid it.

     It can all too easily slip into caricature...

    Unfortunately such characters in fiction often are. If you listen to the many accents non-native English speakers have, it's not easy to break down just what exactly the differences are. It is often just a very slight way they pronounce the syllables, and that's also hard to express in writing.
     
    or, even worse, unreadability. Take, for example, this speech from H.P. Lovecraft, who had an addiction for doing this sort of thing:

    “I dun’t keer what folks think—ef Lavinny’s boy looked like his pa, he wouldn’t look like nothin’ ye expeck. Ye needn’t think the only folks is the folks hereabaouts. Lavinny’s read some, an’ has seed some things the most o’ ye only tell abaout. I calc’late her man is as good a husban’ as ye kin find this side of Aylesbury; an’ ef ye knowed as much abaout the hills as I dew, ye wouldn’t ast no better church weddin’ nor her’n. Let me tell ye suthin’—some day yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!”

    I understand that perfectly, and there are people who speak like that!

    A little of that sort of thing goes an awful long way!

    It is not easy to write that way, though.

    I think it's much better to suggest that someone is speaking with an accent or is not a native English speaker than to try to phonetically duplicate the sound of every word.

    Indeed. More often than not a writer will just say someone is not speaking 'good' English. "Please be seated," he invited in a strong accent.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    This is supposed to be a British spy in France in WW2. (He's supposed to be trying to speak French, and so are all the others.) It's possible such a series would not be made nowadays ...


    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Joe_Bondi_BeachJoe_Bondi_Beach San Francisco Bay Area Creator
    edited April 3
    Skoob_ym said:

    [...]

    As regards the hysteresis effect, consider a lad from the East End of London who goes off to Eton, through some twist of fate. Among his classmates and his teachers, he will quickly learn to to speak in the dialect Kevin calls "Posh" (Received Text), but among his friends back home during holiday, he is more likely to say "Innit, Bruh?" and similar constructions rather than make them think he has risen above his station.

    So the short answer is, "Perhaps."
    When we lived in Sydney years ago my daughters quickly began speaking Australian English at school and American English at home. Never did they mistake who spoke what.

    Earlier, in Belgrade, our three-year-old daughter spoke Serbian with her nanny and neighbors and English with us. (It was a three-year-old's version of both languages.)

    ETA: Class was not an issue in either case; they were good at recognizing which language matched which group of people.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    It depends on if people are willing to integrate or not. There are still a few areas in the UK where old people live who came to the UK decades ago, where still cannot speak English, whereas usually their offspring can. Then there's Wales, part of the UK. many decades ago a small group of people managed to get a law passed there to force schools to teach Welsh. Even to children who are not actually Welsh! But I have to add that whenever I have been there, no one spoke Welsh!

    Ni allaf siarad gair Cymraeg.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    You know, honestly, when I first saw the subject of this thread I thought it was about things like umlauts and suchlike.
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius
    Is it not still?

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    Skoob_ym said:

    [...]

    As regards the hysteresis effect, consider a lad from the East End of London who goes off to Eton, through some twist of fate. Among his classmates and his teachers, he will quickly learn to to speak in the dialect Kevin calls "Posh" (Received Text), but among his friends back home during holiday, he is more likely to say "Innit, Bruh?" and similar constructions rather than make them think he has risen above his station.

    So the short answer is, "Perhaps."
    When we lived in Sydney years ago my daughters quickly began speaking Australian English at school and American English at home. Never did they mistake who spoke what.

    Earlier, in Belgrade, our three-year-old daughter spoke Serbian with her nanny and neighbors and English with us. (It was a three-year-old's version of both languages.)

    ETA: Class was not an issue in either case; they were good at recognizing which language matched which group of people.

    If I may, I would argue that (imho) class (as Classification) was the issue; They would have felt that they were misrepresenting themselves to you. It would be rather blatant to use Sydneyisms in front of you, since you would see it, remark on it, and possibly made assumptions about how they saw their relationship to you.

    At the same time, their friends would have felt that they were outsiders, or that they saw themselves as outsiders, were they to use Americanisms instead of trying to assimilate.

    (on a side note: I have observed online that Australians sometimes seem to have a chip on their shoulders wrt America. It is as if they feel that America holds a position in the world which Australia rightly deserves. This is, of course, a generalization, and the Aussies I've met have been friendly, but there does seem to be a certain competitive nature when America is mentioned.)
  • Just KevinJust Kevin Lulu Genius

    (on a side note: I have observed online that Australians sometimes seem to have a chip on their shoulders wrt America. It is as if they feel that America holds a position in the world which Australia rightly deserves. This is, of course, a generalization, and the Aussies I've met have been friendly, but there does seem to be a certain competitive nature when America is mentioned.)

    Competitive is not the same as having a chip on one's shoulder. Next time you get that impression from anyone, ask them why.

    Myself and my friend combined know everything there is to know, but he's not here.

  • Joe_Bondi_BeachJoe_Bondi_Beach San Francisco Bay Area Creator
    Skoob_ym said:
    Skoob_ym said:

    [...]

    As regards the hysteresis effect, consider a lad from the East End of London who goes off to Eton, through some twist of fate. Among his classmates and his teachers, he will quickly learn to to speak in the dialect Kevin calls "Posh" (Received Text), but among his friends back home during holiday, he is more likely to say "Innit, Bruh?" and similar constructions rather than make them think he has risen above his station.

    So the short answer is, "Perhaps."
    When we lived in Sydney years ago my daughters quickly began speaking Australian English at school and American English at home. Never did they mistake who spoke what.

    Earlier, in Belgrade, our three-year-old daughter spoke Serbian with her nanny and neighbors and English with us. (It was a three-year-old's version of both languages.)

    ETA: Class was not an issue in either case; they were good at recognizing which language matched which group of people.

    If I may, I would argue that (imho) class (as Classification) was the issue; They would have felt that they were misrepresenting themselves to you. It would be rather blatant to use Sydneyisms in front of you, since you would see it, remark on it, and possibly made assumptions about how they saw their relationship to you.

    At the same time, their friends would have felt that they were outsiders, or that they saw themselves as outsiders, were they to use Americanisms instead of trying to assimilate.

    (on a side note: I have observed online that Australians sometimes seem to have a chip on their shoulders wrt America. It is as if they feel that America holds a position in the world which Australia rightly deserves. This is, of course, a generalization, and the Aussies I've met have been friendly, but there does seem to be a certain competitive nature when America is mentioned.)
    That "classification" is pretty much what I think their experience illustrates. Kids know how to classify and they want to fit in and they act accordingly.

    Our girls fit right in. Pre-teens in Australia didn't give a rodent's rear end about foreign policy, and as far the U.S. went it was a question of who'd been to Disneyland or skiing at Aspen over the summer vacation.

    OTOH, as the First Gulf War began, the adults were showing "On the Beach" at a makeshift outdoor theater near the Opera House, but that was a minority view, albeit a vigorous one. It was no shame and not anti-American per se to consider Australia's interests were not identical to ours.


  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym Teacher
    Some children have the magic talent of fitting exactly into the world where they are placed. I'd be curious to know if the one who was three in Belgrade remembers any of the Serbian/Serbo-Croat. Often children will forget a language if they haven't spoken it for a long time.
  • Ron MillerRon Miller Professor
    All four of my wife's grandparents were Hungarian immigrants. And the community she grew up in had a very large Hungarian population. So she grew up in an essentially bilingual environment. Even though she hasn't had any need to speak the language for more than fifty years, she can still understand it and even use it, if haltingly.
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