Representation of people that know multiple languages is important to see. There are many people that know more than one language, and it’s incredibly heartwarming to see that represented in fiction. As a bilingual person myself, it’s crucial to represent bilingual and multilingual characters accurately. Unfortunately, I have seen nightmares on print where supposedly bilingual characters act the opposite of how a bilingual person would be. I don’t even need to know the other language to understand that it’s not being portrayed well, simply because it’s obvious when the author doesn’t know the language.
So how can you represent bilingual, or even multilingual characters, accurately and with respect? There are a few steps to take in order to write a nice representation. Before you get into that, you need to be open to the fact that most of what you may know of that language, and even culture, may not be right. Going in with the mentality to learn will help you find the nuances you will want to include in your prose.
Reach out to people that speak that language.
The best way to learn more about how people speak a specific language is to ask people who speak that language. They could give you insights on how people switch between languages, how they may mix the languages, and even what common words they may forget from having both languages in their heads. You could even incorporate how the language may differ from English, and depending on how they were brought up, how hard or easy it was to learn their second language.
Not only could they give you information on what it is to be bilingual or multilingual, but they can verify if your portrayal on paper is accurate. They can point out if something isn’t right with your character or the language you used, so you can fix and learn accordingly.
You can find people online that will be more than happy to help you in this area, wherever they may reside in the world. Going on online threads or even hiring bilingual sensitivity readers could make a huge difference in your writing.
Get rid of internet translators.
Internet translators will only get you so far. They can be useful if you forget a specific word. However, if you want to translate full sentences or passages, then things may be a little tricky. Any person that knows more than one language will tell you that they are not accurate. If you find that you rely on internet translators to portray other languages, you might want to go through with the previous tip and find people who speak the language you’re writing about instead.
Don’t tackle a random word at the end of every sentence.
I can only speak from my own experience here, but I always wonder why most Hispanic characters have to end practically every line of dialogue with “hermano”? Sometimes writers will switch it up for an “amigo.” As a native Spanish speaker, I can safely say that we Hispanics don’t add such words to every sentence. I’m going to assume that other languages don’t add similar words to every sentence as well. Plus, it can also look tacky to add words like that to most lines of dialogue. It’s as if it’s a hard effort to show that the character knows more than one language. However, it also screams that the writer doesn’t know the language nor how bilingual or multilingual people switch from language to language.
Don’t write random words in between sentences in front of people who don’t speak the language.
I can assure you that no bilingual person will randomly say words in their native tongue when they are speaking to someone that doesn’t speak that language. They will speak to them in the language they both know, and that is it. There’s almost never a moment like: “Hi! Do you want to go to the tienda?” On that same token, there is also never a scene like: “Hello! ¿Cómo te llamas? Oops, I’m sorry! What’s your name?”
Not to sound bratty or difficult, but I will close your book and never look at it again.
This would never happen in real life. Bilingual people do not speak like that to others. Why portray it like that in writing?
Observe how bilingual people speak to others. They don’t drop random words from their other languages like that. When they do drop a random word, it’s for an entirely different reason: they forgot a specific term. Once I forgot how to say kidneys and stared blankly into nothingness trying to remember the word. I kept repeating the word “riñones” as if that was going to help magically remind me that its translation was kidneys. In a similar way, many bilingual people have those moments where they simply forget how to say a word, and so they grow frustrated. They solve this problem by making up a new translation that has too many words, or they just say the term in their native language.
The reverse of this can also happen. I have a long list of words I forget in Spanish, and it’s my mother tongue. This could also happen to your bilingual characters. It’s not an uncommon occurrence.
The same way a person may forget what word they are looking for to write or say is the same as what happens to bilingual people in those situations. The only difference is that sometimes bilingual people know the term in their other language.
Don’t be afraid to use such examples in your writing. It will flesh out your character even more, and you’ll have a more accurate portrayal of a bilingual character.
Decide on what type of bilingual your character is going to be.
Yes, there are different kinds.
There are bilingual people that know both of their languages from top to bottom with almost to no problems. However, there are also people that have one language that is stronger than the other. These can read and write in both languages, but there’s always that one language that will always be easier. Another type of bilingual is when a person can understand the language but will probably not know how to speak it.
Knowing which type of bilingual you want to incorporate for your character is important, as that decision will determine the kind of research you will do for that character. Referring back to the first point, once you know which type of bilingual, you can find people that are that specific type as well to help you flesh out your character even more.
This may be difficult if your character can only understand the language. If you want personal accounts of this type of bilingual, I suggest reaching out to people that either were like this or have close contact with bilingual people like that.
Know when to incorporate the character’s native language.
One of the biggest things in writing a bilingual character is to want the reader to know they’re bilingual. This is probably why the previous point comes into existence. However, you must know how to incorporate a character’s native language without sounding amateurish.
A great way to incorporate their bilingual-ness is to toss in those words or phrases at a moment of intensity. If your character is frustrated, about to cry, angry, or even in pain, they might string out a few sentences in their native language. It’s also not going to be towards other people either, it’s more like: “oh my gosh,” “I can’t believe this,” “this is stupid,” etc. Words and phrases like these can show that your character is bilingual effortlessly.
Here’s an example: He rubbed at his arm. “Ay Dios mío, why does this happen now?”
By the ay Dios mío, the reader already knows that the character speaks both English and Spanish. It’s not in your face nor does it look amateurish. It looks natural.
Another way to incorporate a second language is to have two or more characters that know the same languages have a conversation. When bilingual people speak in their native language in front of native English speakers, they probably don’t want you to understand what they’re saying. Use that with your imagination. If you want a secret to stay between a few people to further your story, this can be a perfect way to do so. Just remember to stay respectful, and to use accurate language when you do so. Refer back to the first tip.
This may come to fruition depending on the type of bilingual you are writing. First and foremost, don’t transcribe accents. It’s not going to go well. If your character has an accent, you can let your reader know by having others around them notice it. Tell the reader about the accent rather than putting it in with the dialogue. There’s usually no need to do this.
An example of how to incorporate accents would be: “Yes, that sounds nice,” she said. Her Italian accent was prominent.
It can be easy to tell readers that a character has an accent, so there’s no need to try to transcribe the accent to make it more “realistic.” Just say it how it is.
Writing bilingual characters can be quite the journey when you don’t know the language or common customs. It requires great research and an openness to learn. The most important thing is to want to portray bilingual characters respectfully. Try not to fall into common stereotypes and do the work to make a great character.
As always, when in doubt, reach out to actual bilingual people.
Photo by Charlotte May from Pexels