Getting Across a Lack of Fluency: The Basics

Just about everyone has at some point met or read someone who is not a native speaker of the surrounding language. They can be hard to characterize properly, particularly in a face to face game where you can’t think through the dialogue first, and it’s easy to slip and not sound quite right. So how do you go about it?  (Writer’s note:  for this post, I’m focusing mostly on English.  The complicated stuff is later.)

The easiest thing to start with is keeping words short and basic. Depending on how long the character has been speaking the language, the vocabulary might be anywhere from minimal (possibly down to the Big Four, or “Please”, “Thank you”, “How do you say…” and “Where’s the bathroom-equivalent?”) to advanced (can read the classics, but will have a harder time functioning on the streets) while still not being quite fluent. Heck, there are some words that even native speakers have trouble with. Short words—or more importantly, an absence of long words—will help the image of the non-native speaker.

One can also try dealing with unknown words by trying to string known words together or substituting in less specific terms. Have you ever played Password, and had to get a concept across without saying the word or any portion of it? For a non-native speaker, just holding a conversation may feel like that kind of game. And it isn’t always long words that might be a problem; sometimes it’s just ones that seemed unimportant, or didn’t fit with the established word pattern. One of my favorite examples of this was in a game of Aberrant I was in a while back; the group went to a country outside their usual stomping grounds, and the group’s face, who didn’t quite speak the language, introduced them not as being from Team Tomorrow, but from Team “Today plus one”. Of course, there’s always just sticking in the word in the speaker’s native language, but that only really works if you-as-creator know what the language sounds like, and it really doesn’t help when trying to get the point across most of the time.

One sign often used to show that the more advanced speaker still doesn’t have the tongue down is a lack of contractions. It’s perfectly possible to understand “do not”, but not quite have figured out that it condenses to don’t. There are plenty of reasons for a non-native speaker to avoid linguistic evolutions like this, either due to confusion/unfamiliarity, because their native language doesn’t work that way, or because the way they learned the language just doesn’t cover them. (A note for people whose characters don’t understand how to construct English possessive nouns: I find that the two most acceptable ways of doing this would be “the X of Y” or “X his/her Y”, e.g. ‘the blog of Ravyn’ or ‘TheZomb his insightful comment’. The latter sounds a little awkward, but it’s valid; I once read an entire translation of Don Quixote in which “X his Y” was the only way to handle it.)

Avoiding idioms, or using them incorrectly, can also get across a feel of unease with the language. Whether we know what idioms are or not, we all use them—talk about people winning by hairs, media jumping the shark, and don’t get me started on euphemisms for taboo subjects. Many people trying to get into a language avoid them, but some just try to extrapolate what they mean and don’t quite succeed: for instance, someone listening to an argument might interpret “Up yours” as a concession of defeat—but then be ever so surprised when he uses it elsewhere and gets a negative reception. Some people even give non-native speakers these sorts of impressions on purpose.

And of course, there’s fun with alternate connotations. Just because two words technically mean the same thing doesn’t mean they mean it the same way; haven’t you ever gotten into an argument with someone over whether terms like “chick” were offensive? The worst part is that connotation is easier to slip up in than idiom, because it isn’t talking about something that just doesn’t make sense if taken literally. Imagine someone who knows perfectly well that girl, lady, woman, chick, broad and gal can all be applied to individuals of the female persuasion, and has gotten as far as girl implying youth—but hasn’t quite figured out the other differences in how people interpret the words, or worse, has figured out that there are differences but has come up with the wrong ones (like assuming that calling a grown woman a “girl” is a compliment to her youthful appearance).

I’ll try to continue this on Sunday with a linguist’s-eye look at some more advanced techniques for getting across lack of fluency in a variety of languages.


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