How to Write Foreigners in Dialogues


by Joanna Maciejewska

Last month I was writing about how to insert foreign phrases in your novel, but what if your character doesn’t speak perfect English? How do you write foreigners to reflect their struggle with English?

There are many ways you can convey foreigners through dialogues, and since I’m a second language speaker myself, I tend to notice my fellow non-native speakers’ struggles (not to mention my own experiences in the matter!), so I’d like to share some of them with you.

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For a native English speaker, there’s a clear difference between “I saw a cat outside” and “I saw the cat outside”, but it’s not necessarily the same for the non-native speakers. Many languages don’t have articles or use them in a different way and for different purposes, so beyond knowing the school-taught rule that “a/an is for singular, and the is for plural”, your foreign character is ready to mess it up. This might lead to some confusion and make mundane exchanges between your characters more interesting.

“I saw a cat outside.”
“So what?”
“It was the same cat we saw at the murder scene.”
“What?! You saw THE cat?!”
“That’s what I said.”

Some characters, if their command of English is rather simple, might even skip the articles altogether, making an opening for some unintended humor.

“Can you give me address?”
“Why do you need a dress?”

Prepositions

Another great way to show your character making mistakes in English are prepositions as often they don’t translate directly. I’ll give you some examples from my native language. In Polish you don’t say that you see something “in the picture”. You see it “on the picture”. You also wouldn’t say “welcome to New York”, but… “welcome in New York”.

Of course, research will be necessary to make sure your “messed up” articles match your character’s native language.

“There’s coffee on the picture.”
“What?! I told Matt to be careful and not spill any!”
“No. I mean, the girl on the picture is drinking coffee.”

Phrasal verbs

If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve likely never heard about them, but phrasal verbs can be a real struggle for second language speakers. If you look it up online, you’ll learn that “phrasal verb” is an “idiomatic phrase consisting of a verb and another element” (often a preposition). They come to you naturally, because you’ve been surrounded by them all your life, but the second language learners have to actually memorize them. To them, “knock down”, “knock out”, and “knock up” can be very confusing. Moreover, if they hadn’t come across a particular phrasal verb, they might not be able to figure it out without context.

Foreigners are also less likely to use them when they speak if they struggle with English. They won’t ask you to “put out” the fire: they might say “extinquish” instead. This is something that doesn’t require foreign languages study or research. You just need to find a replacement for a phrasal verb.

“We will have to hit him unconscious.”
“He’s too big. There’s no way we’re going to knock him out!”

 How to Write Foreigners in Dialogues

Idioms

Since I mentioned phrasal verbs, I should cover idioms in general. They are always a great way to show the character’s struggle with the language. If you watched NCIS and got to know Ziva, you’ve probably witnessed her language slips more than enough. Sadly, throughout the seasons, it was very inconsistent from perfectly done to artificially made up, so if you want your character sound real, there are few things to remember.

Even though some second language speakers might use a similar sounding word, it’s not that common. It’s more common to use a word with a similar meaning. Second language speakers are more likely to say “don’t beat around the thicket” than they are “don’t beat around the plush”. To give you another example (it’s one of my own slips), once I said “the coast is free” instead of “the coast is clear”. I remembered the idiom had something to do with the lack of obstacles, but I couldn’t nail the right word.

Literal translations

If you’re willing to do a bit of research, using idioms can be a lot of fun. Did you know that in Polish, when someone is going to try something out on you, you won’t become their “guinea pig” but an “experimental rabbit”?

Also, people in Poland and Scandinavia don’t cross their fingers for luck, but instead they wrap other fingers around their thumbs. It’s literally “holding my thumbs”. Of course, experienced second language speakers will know idioms don’t translate directly, but if your character struggles with English, it’s a perfect opportunity to add a bit of flavor to their speech.

“I’m going in. Wish me luck.”
“You can do it!” Bartek raised his clenched fists, almost like in a boxing stance. “I’m holding my thumbs for you!”

Not all of the expressions will be good to use, as they might not be obvious, even in the context. I mentioned “don’t beat around the bush” above, and using Polish equivalent, “don’t wrap it in cotton”, would be confusing for a reader. But it’s definitely worth exploring.

False friends

Did you know that some languages have words that sound the same or similar, but mean something else? In second language learning, these are called “false friends” as they seem familiar to a learner. In English, “transparent” is adjective meaning something is see-through or clear, but in Polish this is the word for a… banner. Similar goes for “sympathy” which in English is most commonly used to describe the feeling toward someone based on relating to their misery. While in Polish, “sympathy” would be a noun and an old-fashioned word used for a person who’s an object of one’s crush.

This is a relatively easy way to mess up your character’s English as the Internet is full of “false friends” lists for various languages. There are also some available on Wiktionary (like those for Polish and Spanish), so all you have to do is get creative with it.

Lost words

It probably happened to you more than once to have a word on the tip of your tongue, but you couldn’t remember it? The same happens to the second language speakers. It’s no surprise, since they had to memorize all the words in English and their meaning in the first place. What’s interesting, it happens to even more advanced speakers. But while the basic learners will just get stuck, the advanced speaker will try to ask for the right word.

“Is everything ok?”
“I ate too much for lunch and now I have… What’s the word for when your food is in your stomach and falls apart?”
“Digestion?”
“Yes, this one! I have digestion problems.”

As a downside, this will only work with characters that are supposed to be smart and knowledgeable, because they need to be able to describe the words they’re looking for. On the other hand, you don’t need to know any second language to make it work.

Foreigners in dialogues

The speaker’s origin influences the mistakes they make, so depending on their first language, the way they speak English might differ. It’s not only about the accent and pronunciation of the words, but also about mistakes they make. If you’re lucky to have second language speakers around, you might take this opportunity to listen to how they speak and what are the mistakes they most commonly make.

But what if you don’t have any foreigners to listen to? You can always go online and read through posts on forums or social media. You can also make friends with someone who speaks English as a second language and ask them what they found different about English language or what were they struggling with the most when they were learning it. They’ll likely provide you with a plethora of examples.


Joanna MaciejewskaJoanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science-fiction writer who was born in Poland, spent a little under a decade in Ireland, and now resides in Arizona. She had stories published in Polish magazines (“Nowa Fantastyka”, “Science-Fiction Fantasy i Horror”) and anthologies (Fabryka Słów, Replika, Solaris), and she also writes in English (“Fiction Vortex”, “Phantaxis”). You can find out more about her and her stories at melfka.com or follow her on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.

4 thoughts on “How to Write Foreigners in Dialogues

  1. This was a fascinating read, Joanna. Some of the examples you gave actually reminded me of two close friends who aren’t native English speakers (Vietnamese and Haitian) and moments when I’ve noticed their distinct dialects. With my Haitian friend in particular, I remember a few times when she struggled with English-language idioms and “lost words,” and she’d ask for help or an explanation of what something meant. So those two sections stood out to me.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sara. I was thinking that many writers already notice things regarding to language, but they might not necessarily be able to understand mechanics behind them. I’m sure you spotted (or you will spot at some point) my problems with articles: I’m much better than I used to be, but I still slip here and there.

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