Should characters use their native language in fiction?
Before you start jumping on my case about this question, please read first. I don’t mean this question in the sense that we should reject a character’s heritage or culture or anything that makes them who they are. Rather, it’s a question regarding how their native language is portrayed in a piece of fiction.
Naturally, writers come from every background. Therefore, characters come from every background and like many people in the world, many stories do not take place in English-speaking countries. The characters are not native English speakers. And yet the stories are still told in English, but the writer does not want to lose the authenticity of the character or their background because that has a direct impact on who they are as a person.
But how do you implement a foreign language into a piece of fiction for English speakers?
Some of the ways I’ve seen this done is by simply throwing in words from the character’s native language. This is the easiest method. You just replace certain words – generally pretty simple words that still have a direct connection to the character’s heritage. Sometimes the writer will go as far as to also offer up the English word for people who are not familiar with the character’s native language. However, I find this to be… redundant.
I completely support using foreign words. I think it’s important to do so, but I really do not understand why writers would use the character’s native language and then IMMEDIATELY follow that with the English word. You know what that does? It makes it a foreign language class. By adding both languages, you are actually taking away the impact of the word in the native language. At least, that’s what I believe. And I have to say that, when you actually know the foreign language being utilized in the story, it feels like the writer is just repeating the same thing twice. That does absolutely nothing good for the story.
Another method is to simply state in the narrative that the character speaks another language. You put some dialogue and then add ‘they said in X language.’ I mean, this is a bit cheap. The writer therefore doesn’t have to know the language they are making the character speak, but they don’t confuse readers either. Of course, they may very well run into grammatical, speech, and linguistic differences between languages. These could inevitably make the story seem fake to anyone who understands both English and the native language of the character.
Is there a right way to do this? Not really. At least, I don’t think so, because too many people in English-speaking countries (where these books are published as far as I have seen), do not speak a second language. As such, they will never understand the words if they are just offered up in the character’s native tongue. But they can try. I think this comes down to whether you’re a good writer or not because a good writer should be able to find ways to use the native language of the character while also making it interesting to the reader – not repetitive or explanatory.
But what do you think?
How should foreign languages be utilized?
Leave your thoughts below!
And check out my discussion from last week:
“Publication = Real Writer”