As a bilingual person, it is really funny to read books in which a bilingual character is written by an author who only speaks his mother tongue.
One of the most common mistakes you see is this kind of conversation:
“Hi! How are you?”
“Tutto bene, thank you”
“OH sorry. I get confused sometimes”
Sorry to break the myth but that’s not really how a bilingual’s brain works. Both I and many of my friends speak both English and Italian (our native language) so I know very well how to write a realistic bilingual character.
In this article, I will explain how to include the various language barriers that arise between two different languages in your book.
We will talk about the stereotypes that exist on the subject and also about the cultural importance of a character.
Don’t be scared, it is all immensely easy to understand once someone explains it to you.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a bilingual character?
A bilingual character is someone who can speak two languages, one being his or her mother tongue and the other being an additional one.
A bilingual can only speak two languages.
If someone speaks three he is called trilingual. If he speaks four or more he is called a polyglot.
Not all bilinguals are the same.
Different types of bilinguals
- The genius: this category speaks, writes and reads perfectly in both languages.
- The blabbermouth: this category knows his mother tongue perfectly but less of the added language. He can neither read nor write the second language well but can speak it.
- The writer: This category can read and write the second language well. He knows the grammatical structure but has difficulty speaking the language, often due to accents or lack of training.
- The listener: This category understands both languages but has difficulty responding and does not know the grammatical rules.
Choosing which group your bilingual character belongs to will allow you to understand him/her better and be able to create realistic interactions with the other characters in the book.
Where was he born?
A bilingual character can be bilingual for various reasons:
- born in the same country as the other characters but is the child of immigrants
- learnt a second language because he liked it
- lived in two different countries
If your character belongs to the third category, you have to take into account that not only does he speak another language, but he grew up with another culture.
To highlight this fact you do not need to devote whole pages of the book to him, a few details are enough.
For example, if he comes from another country and comes to Italy, he may be surprised to see the moka (the coffee machine).
Also if he comes from a different culture, study that culture a little.
In the character’s native culture, the adults he has to deal with are very elegant and rigid, they smile little and are detached from everything and everyone.
If this character sees an adult jumping in the mud to play with his son, he will naturally be shocked.
Remember, in writing it is the details that count.
A few expressions and two lines can add a lot to the characterisation of the character. They can make him real (which is then our purpose).
Now let us finally talk about the real funny scenes that happen between bilingual people. I assure you that these are much funnier than a simple dialogue in which the language is changed.
Common places for a bilingual character
- Bilingual people forget words. And you may think, “well that’s normal, it’s difficult to speak a new language”. Well, no. Bilingual people do not only forget the words of their second language, but also of their mother tongue, the one they grew up with. And I assure you that it is always very embarrassing and funny. For a while, I used to forget how to say deer in Italian (don’t ask me why I said it all the time).
- A cliché that is indeed true. When a bilingual gets angry, he constantly changes language while swearing. Often the swear words of the mother tongue come out.
- If two bilingual people (same family or very close friends) suddenly change language they are probably talking about something embarrassing and don’t want others to understand. Or well, they speak badly of others.
- Not every word has a translation into the other language, and if there is one, it is not always known. The mother of an Albanian friend of mine tried for two hours to explain to me how a vegetable was made, whose name she only knows in Albanian. To this day I have no idea what she was talking about.
- Counting is always easier in the language you grew up with. If you ask me to count backwards in English it takes me three times as long as in Italian.
- If two bilinguals with the same mother tongue speak, they often switch from one language to the other without a second thought.
- Some English words resemble other foreign words, but have a completely different meaning. ‘Library’ resembles ‘Libreria’ in Italian but ‘Libreria’ means ‘bookcase’ or ‘bookshop’. “Terrific” resembles “terrificante” in Italian. But terrific means ‘awesome’ and “terrificante” refers to something scary.
It’s tricky to explain, but I hope you got something out of it.
Remember that if your character is trilingual or polyglot, everything I have described is amplified. They might even forget a word in all three languages and that would be completely normal.
If you have doubts about your bilingual character
The best thing to do if you don’t know whether your bilingual character is written realistically is to ask a bilingual for help. Preferably a bilingual reader.
This way he/she will be able to tell you what is okay and what you need to revise the stereotypes.
Of course you will ask yourself, where do I find a bilingual?
Will it fall into my lap when I need it? Like the Room of Requirement?
Well shocking, but no.
Although it won’t fall from the sky, there are many places where you can look for a bilingual willing to help you.
- Make a video on tiktok in which you show your character’s dialogue, rely on the countless bilinguals on tiktok.
- Make a pin on pinterest in which you show all the dialogues about which you have doubts and ask for help via the comments. The answer may come to you in months if you don’t already have a pinterest profile up and running and receiving views.
- Very quick response if you find a very active group. Look for a group on facebook full of bilinguals (there are a lot of them) and ask your question there. If you are lucky, you will get a lot of answers in a day.
The free options are these, relying on strangers on social media.
If instead you want a more professional approach, I recommend relying on bilinguals writers on fiverr and upwork.
I recommend finding someone who speaks the same languages as the character you have invented.
If you have any questions about an Italian-speaking character I would be happy to help you, if you need help you can write to this email: email@example.com.
The article on bilingual, trilingual and polyglot characters ends here.
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