I have to write an assignment in which there's an English character talking with a English as a Second Language (ESL) character. It is turning out really, really badly. I have a general idea of what the characters need to say to each other to advance the plot, but I can't get the characters to sound realistic. Well... the English one does, but the ESL character doesn't. He just sounds like an English speaker who doesn't really speak English well. He's supposed to be good enough to get by, but not fluent in English. I'm interested in psychology, and I thought I would be able to use that to help me better create this character, but that hasn't seemed to work either.

The ESL character is of Asian descent (but I haven't picked from where the character originates, so I'm not really able to ask for specifics or anything) and in order to gain an understanding of what people from Asian countries who learn English are like, I talked to a friend who is Japanese (and a psychology minor, she's the one who gave me some psychology paperwork to look into on the subject of language affecting thoughts and speech).

She pointed me to some studies (they're books and I can't find great references on Google but basically things like this) where language is brought up as something that influences thought. The example I gave talks about time, but there are other papers that could probably be more sufficient. The idea was that if I could find studies on how language affected thought in whatever language I chose for this guy's native language, I could use the studies to make general changes to his dialogue to make him seem more realistic (instead of my character saying "X broke the vase", he would say "The vase broke" since English speakers tend to assign blame more than Asian speakers do, for example).

I also talked to my friend to learn about her experience in learning English, but she's fluent in English now (so I can't pick up on how she speaks for my character) and says it's hard to remember the kinds of mistakes she made-- she said she remembers just being wrong all the time and now looking back it's hard to pinpoint any one time that taught her anything important. Other people I've talked to have less problems remembering mistakes, but I just can't get my character to sound right even with their help. He sounds too fluent.

Thus far, this is what I've gleaned from research:

  • Few contractions, if any.
  • Little slang. Difficulty using slang words that are often used like "gonna" or "dunno" if particularly weak at English
  • Tag questions. Most of them are affirmation types, asking for corrections and so forth.
  • Incorrect tenses, but it depends on how far along in English the character is. Irregular verbs are more difficult, but also past progressive tenses and things like that aren't bound to be completely understood.
  • If puns/idioms are used, often they should be directly translated from the native language.
  • Simple, short sentences
  • Professional sounding English, since they aren't taught colloquial English

I don't know what else to do. If anyone has advice on how to make an ESL character sound realistic, I would appreciate it.

  • 4
    I'm German. I'm on the internet a lot, so I pick up lots of colloquial English and slang from the majority of native speakers (like adolescents) who don't write literary language. My English sentences are usually long and complicated, because I'm an academic and German academic language tends towards long and convoluted sentences. Using contractions and words like "gonna" is easy, because I learn them in school, from songs, from movies and from wherever I go. English speakers use them so commonly that it is difficult not to know them. – user5645 Mar 11 '14 at 7:56
  • I must say, your assignment is about two people talking, but all the answers have little to do with pronunciation. To me, pronunciation would be the most prominent difference between a native English speaker and a foreigner. – Mr Lister Mar 11 '14 at 9:30
  • @Ice-9 - try omniglot.com/links/english.htm and dialectsarchive.com – Leon Conrad Mar 11 '14 at 9:32
  • @MrLister: You have a good point. However, writing out a person's accent phonetically has fallen into disfavor. The main problem is, it's hard to read, unless the reader is already familiar with the accent. Another consideration is that some readers are offended. A third consideration is that it's hard to do well, and your foreign (or Southern, or Yankee, or Texan) character turns into a caricature. – dmm Mar 11 '14 at 14:51
  • @MrLister Initially I had been concerned about pronunciation, but I decided against using it right off the bat. Some of the pronunciation help I'd gotten was just sterotypical and I figured since I couldn't make the language sound authentic to start out with, adding in pronunciation issues would become more offending than I would like. I thought if I could get the language to be more natural sounding, pronunciation might then become easier to do. – Ice-9 Mar 11 '14 at 15:25

Not all ESL speakers will sound the same, for the simple reason that they all had a first language.

If you want to add realism, you need to determine what language they natively speak. Your native language shapes your ideas of tense, sentence structure, and what phonemes you're used to considering as actual word-sounds and not mere noise.

  • Some oriental languages have a sentence order distinct from English's subject-verb-object, and translate word-for-word without changing the order when they are just learning or stressed.
  • Some oriental languages do not have verb tenses. If so, they may not use tenses at all at first.
  • Many languages have built-in cultural hierarchies, such as the rendering of nouns in some romance language or the myriad social-order suffixes in Japanese. These may be strangely translated or even used directly.
  • Given the preponderance of English, it's likely that even a far-flung language has some loan-words taken from our tongue. There will be some words that the ESL student speaks and uses perfectly, because they don't have to be translated at all.
  • Finally, remember that the ESL speaker already has a wide vocabulary already at their disposal, and will almost certainly insert a term or phrase from their native tongue into their speech. Especially for under-their-breath utterances or exclamations.

While I agree with @Lauren-Ipsum's suggestion that you may want to audit a class, you may get as much or more traction out of taking a class in your character's first language than listening to a collection of ESL speakers who will all have their own native tongues.

  • 3
    Thank you! This is helpful! In the (rather short) period between asking this question and coming back to see if I'd gotten answers, I finally heard back from some of the language teachers at my school about auditing some language and culture courses. I had planned on picking one depending on how the courses fit into my schedule so I wasn't running myself ragged... I probably should've mentioned in the question itself. But, I've managed to pick the language and this advice has already helped me structure some of the too fluent dialogue into something more appropriate. – Ice-9 Mar 10 '14 at 20:41
  • Yes, this! If you want authentic broken English, you need to pick a first language. I speak German and Chinese as well as English, and I can identify German-English and Chinese-English by their grammatical mistakes (even without accents). – MissMonicaE Jul 28 '15 at 20:54
  • I would also add that people learn English in different ways. Some read textbooks, other watch tv with lots of slang. others at their works job as a construction worker where every other word is a profanity, It produces very different results – Andrey May 15 at 14:39

Typically, Chinese ESL speakers routinely make mistakes with definite and indefinite articles. They leave them out, use them when not needed, or mix the two. They also mess up indefinite plurals and pronouns, and verb tenses. All of this is due to structural differences between Mandarin and English. So, this answer might sound like:

The Chinese ESL speaker routinely make a mistake with the definite and the indefinite article. They leave article out, use article when it not need, or mix two. Also, they are messing up many indefinite plural and the pronoun, also messing up verb tense. All this due to many difference in structure between the Mandarin and the English.

My advice, then, is to study the basic grammar differences between English and your ESL speaker's language. This will be more effective than trying to imitate things like mistakes in consonant or vowel sounds. (e.g., "Herro! So solly!") Doing that just makes you sound bigoted, as if you're trying to make fun of someone's accent, plus it makes your text hard to read. Even doing what I recommend should be used carefully. A little goes a long way.

p.s. Sorry, I can't give advice specific to Japanese. Maybe read some badly-translated manga?

  • 1
    Thanks! Your example is much better than what I've been writing and seeing the example and the correct English was really helpful. – Ice-9 Mar 10 '14 at 20:43

One thing typical for all languages would be the speaker using the wrong word when they translate to the same word in their native language. For example, my native language has the same word for both 'roof' and 'ceiling' and I used to have trouble picking the correct one in English.

Another one would be having slightly awkward phrasing: not the perfect choice of words all the time. Maybe a word or two missing. (I make that sort of mistakes all the time. See my edits for a minor example.) Try not to refine the lines, but leave them at 'draft quality'.

They might also have a couple of uncommon words in their vocabulary that they looked up from the dictionary to express some word often used in their language. ('We don't usually say something like that' is a fairly common response in the language SEs.)

For Japanese, I'll refer you to this series of articles (by Melanie Barr) that points out typical mistakes the Japanese (supposedly) make when speaking English. Updates are posted weekly. The articles are in Japanese but you should have no trouble gleaning the English sentences from them.

They also make the mistakes the Chinese do as described in @dmm's answer. (Although I don't think the Japanese have trouble with plurals.) In addition, some people overuse the passive voice since it lets them speak/write in a more natural word order. (Japanese puts the verb last. Example: The problem that encoding of 5.1 channel source didn't work was revised.)

Another peculiarity of theirs would be the use of certain English compounds that might sound nonsensical; this is known as 'wasei-eigo' ('English made in Japan') and an example of it -- quite ironically -- has found its way into the logo of the site in the first link: 'One point English'. Better phrased, it would be 'A quick lesson in English'.

  • Thank you! The One Point English website is especially helpful. – Ice-9 Mar 10 '14 at 20:49

There's a book called "Learner English" that discusses common issues of transference between various languages and English. It's an excellent read in addition to possibly being useful for your assignment. You might also consider taking a linguistics class, because it's difficult to manipulate the mistakes that an ELL might make if you don't actually understand the structure of English grammar, syntax, and vocabulary first.

By the way, Asia is a huge continent. India alone has around 400 languages… languages, not dialects. Asia is incredibly diverse linguistically.


There are two things that advanced non-native speakers do: they have to paraphrase vocabulary that they lack (e.g. "electrical bus" for trolley bus), and they make typical grammar errors, which will depend on their native language (e.g. a lack of articles if the native language does not have them).

The internet is full of non-natives (like myself) writing English. What I would do is read around on Stack Exchange or another forum with a high percentage of non-English users until I found one person whose "foreign English" I liked and then look at all this person's posts and emulate his usage.

The best places would be sites where people have to express complicated thoughts, like https://cogsci.stackexchange.com/. Look at the edit history of the questions, because often other users with a better grasp of English edit the questions. Here's an example: https://cogsci.stackexchange.com/posts/5934/revisions

I would not attempt to construct ESL through the "grammar rules" of that "dialect", as has been suggested by some other answers, because the result will be faux ESL, similar to the embarassing German and French you can hear in Hollywood movies. Just like you learn a foreign language best from its native speakers, you learn ESL best from its native speakers.

  • 2
    Regarding "not attempting to construct ESL through grammar rules": I think both are helpful. My Chinese example above came from many years of interacting with Chinese colleagues. My "grammar rules" are derived from that, not from formal study of Mandarin. Having conceded that, however, I did use the "grammar rules" on my first pass at "translating" my English into ESL-speak. Then I adjusted it to make it sound "right", based on experience. – dmm Mar 11 '14 at 14:43

The best advice I can give you is to find actual ESL speakers and listen to them. If you can find an ESL class in your area, talk to the teacher. Ask permission from teacher and students to audit and/or record the class, so you can hear what word choices are being made.


Interesting problem you've got there. I'm a "native English" speaker - Californian - living in Thailand for quite a few years now, with frequent trips into Laos and Cambodia and Yunnan. There are only a handful of native English speakers in my little town, all British, plus the occasional American tourist.

For years now I've talked almost exclusively to local people who have taken a few years of English instruction in the public schools, generally from teachers whose English is quite weak (or utterly lacking). You made the following guesses "gleaned from research" --

  1. "Few contractions." In my experience, NO contractions. Even as simple a contraction as "won't" would seldom be used by the SE Asians I know. The reason probably is that Asians generally perceive English as a string of words, the order of which is often a puzzle to be worked out. When they speak English they often get word-order wrong. Putting in a complex double-word into the mix, like "won't," just soars past them. (And being gentle Buddhists, they will never humiliate you by suggesting that you're failing to communicate, so they're likely to just smile and nod.)

  2. "Little slang." Younger Asians love to use English slang, even if they don't speak the language at all, but they always seem to get it wrong -- wrong context, wrong word order, missing words, wildly mispronounced words. If you try to put that in your characters' mouths it will sound like you're making fun of them, which probably isn't your intent. If I were you I'd stay clear of slang.

  3. "Tag questions" -- sorry, don't understand this.

  4. "Incorrect tenses, irregular verbs." Simple past is as far as Asians I talk with can get, and they use it as seldom as possible. On the other hand, if I use any kind of a past tense -- or god help us, progressive tenses and so on -- it's hardly ever understood.

  5. "Puns/idioms." Absolutely not understood. The best speaker that I know owns a restaurant here, and she has a Masters in English from Chulalongkorn University. Puns and most any idioms either puzzle or annoy her, and being educated, she's quite willing to show her annoyance.

  6. "Simple short sentences." Better still, think in terms of simple phrases, not tied together with connecting words. Keep your vocabulary down to a hundred very basic words -- the fewer the better -- all spoken very clearly.

  7. "Professional sounding English" rather than colloquial. No, please don't make it professional sounding, just simple! And always be on the outlook for something not having been understood. Repeat it as many times as it takes, changing word order and simplifying, until it seems to be comprehended.

Of course you can build on all this, but (IMHO) it should be your baseline. If your ESL character is somewhat better educated, then let her not misunderstand so much, and perhaps she can even speak in connected phrases.



I don't know what else to do. If anyone has advice on how to make an ESL character sound realistic, I would appreciate it.

All answers so far, as promoted by the question, aims for advancing understanding of the foreign language and culture. For an assignment, that seems to be quite ambitious. Without knowing the assignment boundaries I would like to add some ideas of "what else". These ideas could help even if the assignment was specifically "make believable dialogue" or "write varied characters".

He just sounds like an English speaker who doesn't really speak English well.

Similar to translation you could choose to write the dialogue in perfect English instead. IMHO that would be a highly realistic way to tell the story. Use other signals to frame the setting and introduce characters.

Can they meet in a scenario (airport, university, abroad) where the language difference can be briefly mentioned and build character rather than dialogue? Would they have a relationship opening for language discussion (friends, teacher, tourist)? How long has it been?

Could it be the culture, food and area knowledge that tells the reader which character is less familiar with London/Boston? Are they necessarily in England or can the ESL be the one most comfortable, using his knowledge to help the other person (even without using any of the other language)? Even the way they dress or appear is a possible key to the introduction.

He's supposed to be good enough to get by, but not fluent in English.

Depending on setting "almost fluent" would then be as realistic as anything less. "Getting by" is however a fairly low criteria. He pointed at the map and said 'Hotel'.

Standing by the suggestion to use perfect English there could still be some additional signals in the dialogue to hint that it's "translated".

  • Slight pauses to find the next word or longer pause to think through what to say. Possibly with written out thoughts of grammar rules or whatever.
  • Asking for confirmation, even though it was perfect: Do you understand what I mean? Was that the right word to use?
  • Repeating and rephrasing some key messages, as if being afraid of misunderstandings. Either the character does it herself, or they do it in dialogue. -I feel misunderstood most of the time. -Like, you're doubting your language abilities?

Things like this could be a normal part of any real verbal dialogue, but to make it less tedious reading, it's usually stripped out. Adding some of it back in could be a useful effect.

PS. I know this is a very old question, but it was recently active and I felt it needed another answer for the sake of balance.

  • Hi JAG, and welcome to the site. There is no reason why you can't answer old questions if you want to, and you don't need to apologize for it; as long as you (1) actually answer the question, and (2) add something that hasn't previously been said. In other words, the same requirements as on a brand new question. – a CVn May 27 at 20:50
  • Thanks for your support @aCVn. It wasn't really meant as an apology, but still a short explanation of why I reinterpreted the question and not asking OP for clarifications. – JAG May 27 at 21:10

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