My story is a little bit weird because it starts in a Spanish speaking country and then moves to Japan where everybody speaks japanese and I don't know how to introduce this new language that will be spoken for almost the rest of the book.

Extra notes:

My Main Character speaks fluent Spanish, English and Japanese.

My MC is a 15 y.o. mixed girl.

Some other speaking language Characters will appear in the future.

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4 Answers 4


Does it actually matter to the story that the language they are speaking changes? Most of the time in international stories, the difference is language is not germane to the plot in any way and is simply ignored.

A well-told story focuses the reader's attention on the elements that matter to the story. It does this first and foremost simply by leaving out any mention of environmental factors that don't impact the story directly. Thus they don't talk about the weather unless it affects the story. They don't talk about food unless it affects the story. They don't talk about clothing unless it affects the story. And they don't talk about language unless is affects the story.

So unless it affects the story, simply don't mention it at all.

If it does affect the story, though, then how you handle it depends on how it affects the story and you will have to tell us that before we can suggest anything meaningful.

  • Well, I don't really know if the language change really affects the story. The reason my main character moved to Japan was for a school scholarship to go to a high quality high school in Japan, and sheting has other plans than just graduating and go to university. Thanks for the advices. Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 19:18
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    If you don't know if the language issue affects the story, don't mention it. If it becomes clear that the story does not work without mentioning it, they you will know how and why to mention it.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 19:25

Do you know any Japanese? Peppering your work with local language, when done well, can add character, authenticity and ambiance to a novel and you don't have to tell the reader outright that the characters are speaking Japanese.

For example, Troppo by Madelaine Dickie won the T.A.G Hungerford award. It's set in Indonesia but written in English. Madelaine uses the local language beautifully and even though you don't always know what the words mean, the scene isn't lost. It's a gritty book with lots of swearing, so I've starred it out, but you get the idea.

On the bus to Sukadana I vomit for eight hours straight into sandwich-sized plastic bags.

Halfway into the trip, I s*** myself.

“Oh f***. Tell the driver to stop,” I ask the conductor up the back.

“Sebentar, sebentar,” he waves his hand, palm-down, and lights another kretek cigarette.

He obviously hasn’t smelt it yet, but by the time we get to the rumah makan (the roadside food house), his head is out the window and the seats around me are empty.

We stop for half an hour. I spend the whole time in the toilets, sobbing and sucking in the furry smell of old c***. I consider leaving the bus but there are no rooms at the rumah makan and no village nearby, only the hazy midday stretch of rice fields and pandanas palms.

This scene is at the start of the novel and from that point forward, she doesn't need to tell you that a kretek is a cigarette or that a rumah makan is a roadside foodhouse. You might not know that sebentar means 'in a minute' but you get the gist.

Reading the book, you feel like you're in Indo. Language can be a really effective tool for adding authenticity.

  • Good answer. However, I have a funny feeling that you may have inadvertently censored a word and made it look like an even worse word.
    – Smeato
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 9:43
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    @Smeato Thanks! Er, the word is the even worse word you're thinking of. I said the book was gritty!!! :)
    – GGx
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 9:46
  • Very well then, ha! It's my opinion that censoring a quote is counterproductive as it can disrupt meaning in a text, like my confusion there. Just something to think about in general. :)
    – Smeato
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 9:49
  • @Smeato I agree! I ummed and ahhed over whether to censor. But posting the word c*** on a public forum like this, one that young writers frequent, made me feel very uncomfortable. So, I took the decision to censor. I didn't think the swear words added or detracted from the point I was making.
    – GGx
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 9:55
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    @Marian-Danny There's no reason why you can't use it with all the characters. Madelaine does. The secret is balance. It isn't something you want to over-use. If you decided to do it (and plenty of writers on here say you don't need to) it should just be a peppering of the language, not a splattering.
    – GGx
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 7:14

I would write something like, "After Marian got off the plane from Mexico City at Tokyo's Narita Airport, she stopped speaking Spanish. Instead, she introduced herself to everyone in Japanese as 'I am Marian Gonzalez,' and thereafter spoke Japanese with everyone that she met in Japan."

In this way, you make it clear that dialog rendered in English in the text was actually spoken in Japanese, and prior to landing in Tokyo, in Spanish.


Show don't tell...

Since your character is familiar with Japanese, have one of the Japanese comment on the MC's mastery of the language, or correct their grammar. Unless there is a reason to specify they speak Japanese over Spanish or [language], mention it once and move on.

If the MC interacts with someone in another language, the MC may stumble on their words a little.

Happened to me: I spent a year in France and when I called my parents, I thought my mother had a very thick Montrealer accent and I searched for a few words.

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