Using Languages Other Than English: Writing Tips

by | February 21, 2020 |

This week The Creative Penn published my blog on Using Authentic Dialogue From Languages Other Than English. The site, created by Joanna Penn, is a wonderful resource for writers. And I’m delighted for my work to appear there.

As a linguist and a novelist I have always loved creating characters whose first language might not be English. I have also always loved bringing foreign settings alive with just the right, culturally spot-on foreign word.

The trick: you have to know the language well enough to choose the culturally spot-on words well. Or you need really good linguistic informants.

Keep in mind that you want only a sprinkling of such words in your story. I offer examples of my use of three different foreign languages.

Languages Other Than English: Romanian

In The Crimson Hour I created a couple of characters who speak Romanian, a language I know well. My main character, Eloise Popescu, is Romanian-American.  Her mother, Ruxandra Popescu, is a secondary character. The surname Popescu is as Romanian as Jones is English. Coming up with an appropriate name for a foreign-born character is easy enough. Less obvious is knowing something like the quintessentially Romanian word pile ‘ins, connections.’

Languages Other Than English


When Eloise and her friend, Leah, need to the leave the U.S. as quickly as possible, Ruxandra says she obtained false passports for them through pile. Eloise then turns to Leah and wryly explains the shady connotations of the word.

Bad guys are chasing them. They are currently in San Francisco. Where to go for safety? Ruxandra has chosen the heaven/haven of Bucharest, Romania. Whereupon she mentions that first they have to go through hell, aka Dulles Airport.

Languages Other Than English

Dulles International Airport, Washington DC

The reader then learns that iad is the Romanian word ‘hell.’

The joke isn’t hilarious. However, the times I have had a connection through Dulles and encountered a huge sign WELCOME TO IAD, I have to smile.

My point: have fun with the foreign words you introduce.

Languages Other Than English: Vietnamese

For the title image for this blog I chose the covers from my forthcoming Forest Breeze trilogy. (Available February 26.) The three stories take place in Vietnam. And to write them I drew on my experience of living in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. There I attended Vietnamese Language School, five days a week, four hours a day for six months.

Some of the words I introduced are fairly straightforward.

Of course, the well-known soup phỏ comes up. It would be nearly impossible to avoid it, since everyone eats it for breakfast.

The first story, Tied Up, takes place during Tết, the Lunar New Year. So this festival and some of its customs are relevant.

The second story, Captured, involves a Motorcycle Club headquartered in the Mekong Delta. I naturally introduced the term xe máy ‘motorcycle.’ If you know nothing else about Vietnam, you’re likely to know that everyone there has a motorcycle, and families of four can be seen tooling around town on one. The xe máy is an integral part of Vietnamese life. And because the Motorcycle Club is Australian, I also incorporated Aussie vocabulary and expressions where appropriate.

Other words aren’t as straightforward. However, they are plot relevant.

Tied Up has a plot line concerning an orphanage. So I introduced mồ coi ‘orphan’ and mái ấm ‘roof warm,’ that is, ‘warm roof,’ which is one term for orphanage.

The words Mái Ấm Thiện Duyên (the name of the orphanage) appear on an archway at its entrance.  The heroine, Sarah, an international specialist in orphans and a non-speaker of Vietnamese, is able to recognize the name when she goes to visit.

The third story, Knocked Out, is based on Mixed Martial Arts. Although it is still set in Vietnam, the exotic vocabulary comes from Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I loved having my Mexican-Brazilian heroine, Brisa, put her nemesis in a gogoplata, a serious chokehold.

Languages Other Than English: French

Needless to say, French is more familiar to many, if not most, English speakers than Romanian or Vietnamese. This familiarity is both an asset and a liability.

Let’s say you put into the mouth of your French-speaking character “Oui, oui, monsieur” in the midst of an English sentence. You can be sure your readers are likely to understand. However, at the same time, you risk signaling to your reader that this easy shot is the extent of French you know. And, thus, your character will be less convincing as a French speaker.

You’re also not giving French lessons, so you have to choose carefully. The better you know French, the better your choices will be.

In The Blue Hour I created a number of French-speaking characters.

Languages Other Than English

I have years of experience with French. Given that experience, I restrained myself and chose to introduce only words that, for authenticity, would be beyond high-school French.

For instance, toward the end of the story, the hero, French speaker Val, is on the hunt for an important document that will secure for him a vitally important patent. At the end of a search through what seems to be his last hope of a place to look, he comes up bredouille ’empty-handed.’ I figured this would be the moment he would imagine the dire situation in terms of his native language.

Final Note: Other Englishes

The varieties of English around the globe also offer opportunities and pitfalls for writers. You don’t want your British characters to sound like Americans and vice versa. Be attentive to the differences in the Englishes that exist across the globe.

My advice: become a professional eavesdropper and have fun with introducing linguistic diversity into your stories!

See also: Britishisms: What Are They? How to Use Them

For more writing tips, visit my page to learn how to write a book.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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