I want to create a believable conversation between a character who speaks Mandarin and English and a character who speaks English but does not speak Mandarin. Basically, the Mandarin speaker is supposed to code-switch, but (s)he forgets and instantly says, "好", which means "OK" or "good".

I'm guessing that the non-speaker will interpret it as "how" or maybe "ha", but it is possible that the non-speaker will not interpret it as anything meaningful.

As a first-language Mandarin speaker, the language just enters my brain automatically. I don't think about grammar or tones. Grammar is something that sounds good to the ear. Tones are an intrinsic part of the word. Every bilingual code-switches, so that the bilingual uses the language that the other person understands. However, the bilingual can slip unconsciously and leak out a foreign word. I would like to know how this will be perceived by the non-speaker.

3 Answers 3


The meaning of words can be inferred from context. For example, in his book Elantris, Brandon Sanderson has a character insert words from his (fictional) mother-tongue into conversation.

Raoden breathed a sigh of relief. "Whoever you are, I'm glad to see you. I was beginning to think everyone in here was either dying or insane."
"We can't be dying," the man responded with a snort. "We're already dead. Kolo?"
(Brandon Sanderson, Elantris, chapter 1)

We can infer that 'kolo?' means something along the lines of 'understand?'

Most commonly, I have seen such inserts used for curses, exclamations of extreme surprise, or alternatively - endearments. (For examples of the last, you might be familiar with 'imzadi' ('bloved') from Star Trek, or you might remember how Gomez Addams calls Morticia "Cara mia"). What all those usages have in common is that the tone implied from the conversation (or sounded, in the case of film) is sufficient to convey meaning, and is more important than the exact meaning. However, I have deliberately brought above an example that is a bit more complex, and yet easily understood, to show how you don't need to limit yourself to exclamations and endearments.

Inserts of particular foreign words into a character's conversation can be, and often are used as, a recognisable "verbal tic".

One important note: you can't use a Chinese character to represent a word - if you're writing in English, you've got to use transliteration. The Chinese squiggly makes no sound in my mind, it's a blank. I can't tell one character from another. In another similar discussion on this site, someone compared Chinese characters to squished spiders; the fact that I couldn't tell a squashed spider from an actual Chinese character says something about me, and nothing about Chinese characters, but it is true. And, more importantly, it will be true of your readers, unless you're writing for a bilingual public only.

  • 2
    You make an excellent point about using transliteration. Most English-speaking readers will not be able to read non-Western characters. Although I suppose using the non-Western alphabet could be for effect (the protagonist really has NO idea what the other person is saying) and then could gradually switch to transliteration, and then broken English, as the protagonist learns more of the other language. Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 12:31

A good approach is how you would perceive this in a language that you don't know. Maybe watch some foreign language tv and see how much of the conversation you can guess from context, intonation, and gestures. Quite a bit, I have found, but only very basic things.

So when you write your story, think of how the non-Mandarin speaker will perceive the situation and the other person, and what he might read into was was being said. He might be able to guess the meaning, if the situation is straightforward and the Mandarin speaker is open and without guile, but if the conversation is difficult, the situation is unclear, or the intent of either of the two speakers is problematic, then misunderstandings are likely even among two native speakers, and it will become rather impossible to guess what a person says in a foreign language.

In short:

  1. Understand the situation and the motivation of the two characters.
  2. Look at the situation and the other person from inside the listener.

I think you have a good idea in your second paragraph - look for words and spellings that sound similar to the word or phrase used. This gives potential for comedy or misunderstanding - for example the French puns in Oh! Calcutta! and just about anything Antoine de Caunes ever said on Eurotrash - which could be used to further the plot or develop characters.

If there's no similarity to a word in the non-speaker's language, you could try a description of the sound. In the [English translation] of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Adso tells of William saying a word in his own language (English) which he (Adso) didn't understand, but which he didn't like as it had "an obscene hissing sound". English readers (and those of the original Italian audience who spoke English) would have been able to guess the word based on the circumstances in which it was used.

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