In my current WIP my English speaking characters journey to another world. One that, of course, has it's own culture and therefore language. Meaning I couldn't exactly have the inhabitants of this new world just know English.
I had to come up with a logical reason for this development. The lead to the realization that all of my off world characters would need to be bilingual. Which then lead to the question of "How exactly would they sound?".
That's when I realized just how much depth this one question could add to my story.
I'd have a whole world of bilingual characters. And each one could sound unique if I did it right.
It is important to keep in mind that a lot of what we know about the english language is learned through years of repetition, failure and correction. English is not an easy language to master because quite often it doesn't even follow it's own rules.
Have you ever heard about I before E? Now think about the words feisty, beige, and neighbor. See what I mean?
While that particular example mainly focuses on writing, speech is often the same.
I think as readers, we have all learned one or two big words from books. Then after years of thinking it is pronounced one way, because the rules of english say it must be so, we learn that we have been saying it wrong all along.
English is a language that is built out of several other languages and it is constantly evolving. As such new words are always being added or altered making learning the language fully virtually impossible.
So, what does this mean for bilingual characters?
1.) The expertise they show over the language will depend highly on how long they have been studying it.
In other words how much time they have devoted to it.
This will depend on the character.
A character that feels he shouldn't have to learn a new language for the sake of foreigners likely won't know even the basics of it.
However, a character that has grown up in a school that teaches the new language as a must pass class, will know it fairly well, and possibly be truly proficient at it.
2.) Bilingual characters who are taught in schools will likely speak the language in a much more uniform way than those who grow up learning it.
What I mean is, they will use all of the "proper" English phrases, as opposed to conjunctions, sentence fragments and other cheats we all employ based on the knowledge that the other English speaker will understand what we are saying regardless.
3.) Most bilingual characters won't know the idioms and other expressions common to us.
This is actually probably one of the better known tropes. It is the character that responds "I didn't know we needed to bring shovels." when asked if they are digging the party. (Yes, that was a Teen Titans reference.)
The reason it is used so often is because it is so believable. Even people who speak English as a first language aren't going to understand certain phrases, thoughts and expressions of other English speakers, because those expressions were created on the other side of the country from where they learned English.
4.) Bilingual characters may switch back and forth between languages but it's not because they have trouble "turning it off",
I actually stumbled on this specific tip through Pinterest. It was written by bilingual readers who were tired of seeing this fallacy.
The trope is that a bilingual character will start speaking in his native tongue randomly, not realizing he is doing it.
In actuality, if a character does have trouble staying in English, it is because they have forgotten the translation one of the words they are trying to say.
Or they will switch freely between the two languages if they are speaking to someone who speaks both as well.
As you can see, the idea of a bilingual character may be challenging, but it can also add depth and character to your story world.
Have you ever run into any trouble writing a bilingual character? Do you have any tips that could help? I'd love to hear your thoughts.