literature

Knowing Numerous Languages

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In this segment, I'll be discussing characters who know multiple languages along with how to write stories that uses foreign languages.

For some, learning language is very difficult, while for others, the pieces just snap into place.  It ultimately depends on your character.  If they're outgoing and plan to travel, they'll probably be more inclined to learn more than one language than for those who plan to stay in the country.  In order to give advice, the only real tool I have is to make a scale.  You can use the number system, but I prefer grades: "A" means extremely fluent, practically natural; "B" being rusty, but understands a great deal; "C" being half and half; "D," only knowing how to ask where places are or for directions, extremely basic; and "F" being very poor, and doesn't understand a word.  Based on this scale, you can describe how many languages a character "knows," but, when listed as a talent or hobby, basically only mention the languages that the character has a scale of "C" or better.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if a character doesn't use a certain language often, it could become rusty, and they would most likely forget a few things like vocabulary or grammar rules, hence why "B" for being rusty is listed.  The pronunciation could be skewed too.

Other than that, it really depends on the character.  At a young age, babies, toddlers, and children in general pick up the languages fast, so being trilingual or a child knowing four languages wouldn't be unheard of.  It's rare, but it's not impossible.  Plus, things that children learn at a young age, whether it is table manners or something more complex, it tends to stick with them.  (For the 1990's baby boomers, you still know how to tie your shoes or write cursive, right?  I'm honestly saddened that schools aren't teaching cursive anymore.)

After that, it depends on how the character learns the language in schools.  Most middle schools and high schools aren't on an ideal learning schedule, which would be one subject per day to focus on.  Most schools that I know of only have a language course for one hour per day, five days a week, which doesn't give much time for it to be ingrained, so is it any wonder that not a lot of high school students want to take a language course, if it feels like they aren't learning anything?  

However there are places, for example a military base that I live near, where they have a six month long focused course to learn Arabic to the point where the students would be at an "A".  I am sure that there are other non-military language classes just like this.  Then there are people who learn at home: they buy language books and CDs and learn it all by themselves, in which the time it takes to learn it would vary depending on the character.  Then there are those that travel to a completely different country without taking a single class beforehand and learn as they go, which would also vary depending on the character.

In summary, it heavily depends on your character, whether they needed or wanted to learn the language.

So how do you go about writing these numerous languages when they actually play a part in fiction, instead of just another talent the character has, whether a character meets a new friend who is bilingual, to a witch who's casting a spell?

Firstly, if there's a scene in your story where there are hieroglyphics, pictograms, kanji, kanfu, or anything that doesn't use English (or whatever language you plan to predominantly write your story in) lettering, and none of the characters know what it is or means, you can leave it as it is for the time being, as long as everything get's translated by the end.  If it's part of the plot to leave it as it is, go ahead, otherwise, if it's not going to be a mystery, there are plenty of other ways to write in fiction.

If, for example, your setting is in any other country, but you're writing it in English, there might be instances where you want to use phrases.  This is acceptable, and can be written in many ways.  The first thing you need to know though, before any step, is that, unless it's similar to the plot exemplified in the paragraph above, you can't use symbols.  Readers like to read, even if they don't know what language or even how to properly pronounce it, but if you use hieroglyphics, kanji, kanfu, etc, they don't have any hints on how to say the word, period.  It's frustrating.  To get over this wall, you need to know the English version of the language, like how there's romanji for Japanese.   It's basically a gate between English and the language.  

One method of writing in a foreign language for an English story is to write the phrase and offer an immediate direct translation.  Excuse me for not providing proper examples, as the only spoken and written language I know is English.

"[A foreign phrase]!"  Georgio exclaimed.  I found it!

This is a very useful method, but it might turn off some readers if there is a long passage of the foreign language.  You could, it's your story, and this is a very acceptable method, it's just a second opinion though.

If the phrase is a simple hello, good-bye, I love you, or other common phrases, you could simply not translate it, and let the narration explain it indirectly.

"[A foreign phrase]," Juno greeted with a wave of her hand.

It's easy to tell that Juno said an equivalent to hello especially when waving a hand is a common gesture.

Another method, for something that will be said throughout the story, like a phrase, or a nickname, you could explain it earlier in the story so you could write a direct translation in complete English.

My mother kissed my forehead with her cool lips and whispered endearingly, "Sleep well, my sweet pea."

Considering that sweet pea is a poisonous plant, this kind of writing could be confusing, or could accidentally be humorous when it shouldn't be.  That's why you would weave the explanation of the phrases earlier in the story so the reader knows that the mother doesn't think her child is awful, or that the mother was being sarcastic (think Mother Gothel in Tangled).

To create a vibe that the person is foreign, or the setting is foreign, you could write the dialogue using the foreign cadence and syntax.  English is one of a few that has contractions (when you shorten do not with don't).  For example, "What's your name?"  Would be translated to "Name you?" in American Sign Language.  Or you could write for a foreign person, "Why him do you not go after?  I did nothing!"  It's obvious this person is not from around here even though I didn't specify where he originally came from.

To help further along the usage of foreign language, you could use physical body, hand, and facial gestures.  American Sign Language, and a lot of other spoken languages, uses body language to further along the meaning.  When Italians bring their fingertips to their lips and blow a kiss into the air, it's their sign of appreciation, usually of food, beauty or love.  You probably notice that you use your hands when saying a speech, and actors or stand-up comedians use it a lot when telling a story—they stand facing one direction for one person, and then face another direction for another person.  Do you purse your lips when you get mad?  That's part of what you grew up with.

The last method I know when writing foreign in an English fiction book, is to write out the foreign passage, and translate nothing, but I hate books like this.  Montague Summers and Umberto Eco do this a lot, and it gets frustrating.  Yes, I have the internet, but it can only translate so much, and not to mention that if I don't know the culture well enough, it could still be confusing.  In addition, there are some words with no English equivalent, so there wouldn't be a translation for it.  It's your story, write it the way you know best, but just know that I wouldn't write using this method nor suggest it.

Another tip to keep in mind when writing in another culture or setting is to figure out what's formal or polite verses casual, rude or insulting.  In Japan, it's considered extremely rude and insulting if a person they hardly knew called them by their first names, or even their family names without the suffixes (-san, -chan, etc.).  It's not slandering their language—I think I would consider it more slanderous if a writer wrote the story without the suffixes or the use of last names because it shows the person hadn't done their research on the culture, even if they didn't use a single romanji Japanese word.  
If you haven't, please read my Mary-Sue: Who is She? Series first.

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Could you give some advice of my OC Hana then?

She knows multiple languages, only because she's an android and multiple languages could be programmed onto her memory. She only uses them when translating what another person is saying, and when she speaks in that language, she won't pronounce the words 100% correct, and can't respond to those languages very quickly since she never actually learned it.