Getting Across a Lack of Fluency: Advanced Technique

Here I am, back to getting across fluency issues. I consider these tricks to be a more advanced set than Friday’s assortment; some of them require linguistic elements that don’t show up in English, some work better with an understanding of grammar and word order, some work a lot better if you’ve taken the time to actually create the speaker’s native language, and all of them can go from clever to annoying if not used carefully.

A popular choice is alternate sentence structure. This technique takes advantage of the fact that very few languages have the same rules for stringing sentences together, and that sentence patterns can be a lot harder to master than vocabulary. I’m sure anyone who’s been in a foreign language class has run afoul of these sorts of mistakes at some point, whether it’s someone who insists on putting the modifier before the noun in Spanish (there’s a street name with that problem near where I live) or putting the primary verb in a sentence in Japanese anywhere but at the end. The key here is to know how the character’s native language would do it so you can keep the misphrasings consistent; there’s nothing to break the image quite like not being able to make up your mind where the adjectives go.

Some people display more glaring grammatical difficulties than just a couple words in the wrong place. They might not differentiate tenses (or overgeneralize the rules of a certain tense—continuous appears to be popular), not quite get the hang of pluralization, have pronoun issues (just plain not using them is often used for this sort of characterization, as is using only object pronouns—me instead of I, him instead of he, you get the idea), or create some rather odd verb structures in lieu of standard conjugation procedure. These work to a point, but keeping them up can be tricky, and consistency is near-vital.

Misuse of formality can be fun. In a language system where there are different words or conjugations for different levels of formality, using the wrong phrase can be anywhere from embarrassing for the speaker to an insult for the listener. You’d think that would cause more people to learn them more carefully, but it doesn’t guarantee it, and the situation gets even worse for the self-taught. So people might mess up—or they might know which word to use where, but just be extremely hesitant because of that one time—or they might just plain avoid it at all costs. Languages with honorifics will give the same sorts of problems.

And then there are concepts. No language can describe everything, but a lot of them have areas in which their depth far exceeds that of many of the others. Some favor elements common to the area—haven’t you ever heard a riff about languages with “sixteen words for snow”? Others might focus on different kinds of senses—or even different ways of seeing and grouping colors. Another language might differentiate further between types of rocks, another between messy family relationships, yet another between emotions…. The object of the game here is to distinguish differences that don’t show up in the language the speaker is trying to speak, and to not-note differences that are second nature to speakers of the language. Again, though, keep it consistent. It’s no good suddenly developing a keen sense of the difference between blue and green when it might be plot-relevant if “it’s all the same color anyway” the rest of the time.

The most important thing, of course, is not to overdo these things. A character whose language patterns are different from those around her is going to notice, one way or another. If she doesn’t like how people respond to her patterns, or just doesn’t want to stand out, she’ll probably attempt to change her habits. This can lead to patterns only showing up under certain conditions, like stress, inebriation or utter relaxation.

So there you have it—more signs of non-fluency. Helpful?

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