Although this is an article about classic ways to use other languages in fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about my own (fairly limited) linguistic skills for a while first. Trust me, there’s a good reason for this and I’m not just waffling about myself for the sake of it.
For a long time, I thought that I only knew about three languages. It goes without saying, but English is my first language. As such, it’s probably not that surprising that I’m absolutely awful when it comes to learning other languages.
Thanks to five years of French lessons at school and several trips to France, I can sort of at least partially understand written French and possibly even have a very basic conversation in French. So, French is probably my second language. But my French is probably fairly rusty by now. C’est une catastrophe!
And, thanks to listening to various songs by Nena, Rammstein, Eisbrecher and Equilibrium, as well as visiting Berlin when I was sixteen and having various history lessons at school, I understand (a relatively small amount of) German. So, German is probably the closest thing I have to a third language. Mein Deutsche ist nur rostig.
But, after a random conversation a few weeks ago, I suddenly realised that Spanish was the closest thing I had to a fourth language. Although I’ve never taken any Spanish lessons and couldn’t hold even the most basic conversation in Spanish, I know at least a few Spanish words and can understand a few basic phrases in Spanish.
So, how did I learn this? Well, I mostly just kind of picked it up from American movies, songs and TV shows. Since Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the US, Spanish words are going to turn up in a lot of things that are made over there.
Still, this raises a lot of interesting questions about how to use other languages in fiction. Most of the advice I’m going to give about this is fairly classic and/or obvious advice, which you’ve probably heard before or have seen examples of before. So, none of this is particularly groundbreaking.
The general rule when using words from another language in fiction is to only use a few of them and to use them in a way that makes their meaning immediately obvious. This is because you can’t assume that all of your readers will speak more than one language. Plus, having to look up the meaning of words from another language on a regular basis can seriously ruin the flow of your story.
So, if one of your characters speaks another language, then most of their dialogue should be in English – with a few carefully-chosen words or phrases in their language, in order to show that they aren’t actually speaking English.
For example, you could write something like: “Walking out of the cinema, Franz shook his head muttered ‘Dass film war scheiße‘. As films go, it wasn’t the best one that I’d seen either.”
Because Franz shakes his head and because the narrator says that they both didn’t like the film, you don’t have to speak German to guess that Franz’s dialogue wasn’t exactly complimentary towards the film.
As long as the meaning of this scene can also easily be understood if the German words were removed (or replaced with blank spaces), then you can add them.
What this means is that you don’t have to be a fluent speaker of another language in order to use other languages in your fiction. As long as you know a few basic words, then you can give the impression that one of your characters speaks another language fluently. In fact, you could even use an online translation program or a phrasebook if you absolutely have to.
Plus, if you use other languages in a way that makes their meaning immediately obvious, then your readers might even end up learning a few new words too. After all, this was how Spanish ended up becoming my fourth language, without me even realising it.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂