I am seriously wondering how to go about writing dialogues for characters whose native language isn't English and who aren't very fluent in English. It's very hard, because people have different levels of fluency, and it may also be kind of offensive to write dialogues with several grammatical mistakes.

  • 5
    Are your characters well educated or ignorant? There is a charming scene in Casablanca where two characters are practicing their English and talking about time. They misunderstand the term o’clock and construe it more literally as it was originally. They refer to hours as five watch. Such errors are logical though incorrect interpretations of idiom.
    – Rasdashan
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 18:06
  • 4
    Here's the scene @Rasdashan talks about: youtube.com/watch?v=Th0G8rkhBqg Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 18:26
  • 1
    Ordinary people covers quite a gamut. Are they illiterate peasants, well educated middle class or something else? Who are they?
    – Rasdashan
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 20:08
  • 5
    but "fresh off the boat" is not the same as "whose first language is not English".
    – Sayaman
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 21:42
  • 2
    @repomonster - If you disagree with the edit, fix it
    – Rasdashan
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 22:00

7 Answers 7


Similar questions have been asked in the past, for example How do I make an ESL character sound realistic? and How to write dialogue for someone who is intelligent but barely speaks the language? You might take a look at those.

Let me give you a different approach, however.

Unless the way the characters speak is an actual plot point, it is not unreasonable for people who know they are going to immigrate to a country to put some effort into learning the language in advance. If your characters have done so, their grammar might not in fact be broken. (Realistically, some particular mistakes would still be made, particularly where the language has some exception to the rules. But as a writer, you are free to ignore those.) Realistic language for such a scenario would include short simple sentences, simple words, no colloquialisms. They would have an accent, but this is one element that's better told than shown - it is rather tiresome, and sometimes hard, to read phonetically written accent for more than a line or two.

If your characters have taken language lessons in advance, their real struggle would be with understanding what is being said to them: their teacher would have been talking slowly, and would have either had a local accent, or spoken something close to R.P., whereas upon arrival, they'd be hearing people talking fast, enunciating poorly, and having all kinds of weird accents (Newcastle comes to mind). But that too is something you can gloss over in your writing, if you wish. It might be that because they have an accent and look like foreigners, people make an effort to talk slowly to them. (In fact, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, there's a scene with a character talking to the MC slowly, using very simple phrases, when the MC in fact is a professor of Spanish Language. It's just his appearance that marks him as a stranger.)

Dialogue with severe grammatical mistakes is not offensive (usually), but it gets tiresome very quickly. It doesn't flow, the reader has to struggle through it. If there is any way for you to avoid using more than a few lines of it, try to do so.


If they are fairly well educated people of the middle class, they will probably have a good grasp of the basics of English.

Idioms are always an issue - as with the Casablanca scene. Idioms have an internal logic that is difficult to explain and often puzzling to those who are learning English.

I went to school with an Italian exchange student whose written English was much better than ours. He had learned Standard Written English and had been strongly encouraged to use that as his norm.

Idioms gave him some trouble and his spoken English was formal.

I have also known various refugees from different nations and they often did not know where they were going to end up so had better Spanish, French or German than English.

Your treatment of their dialogue will depend in part on the reason they came to the new country.

Scenario one Immigrants coming to a new land, probably to join other members of their extended family who already made the move. Such characters might not be too quick to learn English as they plan on living among people of their own nationality. They will eventually learn it, but mixing it with their native tongue when the foreign word escapes them.

Scenario two Foreign Student/Work permit These people will have studied English and will have a good grasp of the formal, but can struggle with the colloquial. Conversely, some might have learned English from movies and have an odd vocabulary based on Elvis movies or such.

Scenario three Refugees - the most varied of the lot as they can be of any socioeconomic group and might be highly educated - doctor or engineer back home but can’t get work as anything but a janitor or cabbie. They might not have known that they were going to an English speaking country - just where the ticket they could afford or were given took them. Their learning of the language will be more incremental and they will be frustrated when their level of English comes nowhere near the level of their thoughts and they must either use their native tongue or be silent on what matters most.


Study a bit that other language (Langfocus is your friend), and use the differences between that and English.

E.g. a Spanish character can refer to a mixed-gender crowd as 'he'. A Hungarian can screw up he/she a lot of time (I do :-/ ), a German might mix up word order. Maybe you can add some local idioms that doesn't make sense in English.


I am seriously wondering how to go about writing dialogues for characters whose native language isn't English and who aren't very fluent in English. It's very hard, because people have different levels of fluency, and it may also be kind of offensive to write dialogues with several grammatical mistakes.

Personally, I think this is one of those things where you have to go out literally and gain some personal experience. You have to meet people. At my own workplace, I meet a ton of people who don't speak English as a native language. I can hear the accents in the voices, but if the grammar is perfectly legit, then I become blind to the accent. But when I start to misinterpret things, the other person will notice immediately and repeat the original sentence.

If I were writing down the experience in a story, then I would write everything from my POV. The narrator in the story is me; the character who speaks English poorly is based on a real person.

See what I have done here? Instead of using my own imagination of a non-native English speaker, I just use my own interactions with a true non-native English speaker and turn those interactions into a story. Ta-da! Problem solved.

However, I would only do that, if I were actually writing a story in English.

If I were writing the story in Chinese to a Chinese-speaking audience, then this is a really good question. In the story, I may use all foreign/non-Chinese names, like 马克,大卫,玛丽亚,丽莎,安娜, to show that these people are non-Chinese. These people will do distinctly American/Western things, like dipping biscotti in Starbucks coffee. Sure, you can find Starbucks in China, but natives will still associate the food and drink to Western cuisine. For the dialogue, I am just going to pretend that they are speaking naturally in Chinese. The main purpose is to use dialogue to move the story along. However, if a character intentionally wants to learn Chinese Mandarin, and the author wants to show the cultural and linguistic conflict between the learner and Chinese buddy, then grammatical errors and pronunciation errors may be included.


Is there any chance you can work/volunteer at an ESL tutoring center or writing center, especially at a community college? That's a great way to see which errors people of different languages make.

I had a lot of Korean students, and their language lacks articles ("the" "a/an"), so they wouldn't see that they skipped them in English.

Also English has a lot of redundancies, and they hated including them as much as I hate using a double-negative as an intensifier (which Russian does, as well as many dialects of English).


If the character only has a very small amount of dialogue in you story, the easiest option is to just describe how he speaks, instead of trying to write out his errors:

The shopkeeper visibly struggled with the language, but he managed to describe the robber's outfit to the police.

If the character has a significant amount of dialogue, it's a bit trickier. The first thing you could to is to limit the character's vocabulary. Find a book that has a list of basic English vocabulary, add some terms related to things the character is familiar with (whether that's nuclear physics or nail salon utensils), and mostly stick to that when he speaks.

Portraying grammatical errors and strong accents is more difficult. The first thing to keep in mind is that for most characters, you won't transcribe every mistake or every "uhh..." in their speech. In books, characters generally speak in coherent, correct sentences unless you're trying to make a specific point. So, consider just writing the character's dialogue as normal, and mentioning their heavy accent or questionable writing skills in places where it makes sense.

If you need to display the character's language mistakes, for example because his struggle to communicate is important to the story, there are two things to keep in mind:

1) His errors should be realistic for a person from his language background.
2) His speech should be comprehensible to the reader.

For the first point, you may need to be familiar with the character's native language and the differences between its grammar and that of English. For example, a German character might not use the future tense, a Russian character may leave out the articles "a" and "the", and a Chinese character may leave out the end-"s" in plurals and verb forms.

At the same time, the errors should make some sense to your readers. It might not be obvious to a reader that the character's language does not have grammatical gender, and that's why he calls Bob "she".

I would avoid trying to transcribe an accent, unless you deliberately want to portray an ethnic stereotype. Things like switching l and r, or writing v in place of w, have too much baggage at this point.


This problem may be circumvented by instead writing the character's dialogue in English, but changing the tone to reflect the tone of his first language. To make my point clearer, you should note the difference between traditional English novels (whether American or British, for that matter) and Russian novels (translated by a good translator and providing appropriate English equivalents for Russian phrasing). Take Erast Fandorin, for example.

Most of the time, dialogue from such characters is avoided and instead conveyed in the third person. When two characters speaking the same foreign language converse, English may be used to write dialogue, albeit with a different tone, idioms, and style. Interactions between an English-speaker and a foreigner will have to be biased. In other words, one must choose a viewpoint to address the conversation. If not, the writer must possess at least basic knowledge of the foreign language (whether fictional or real!).

The same concept applies when we are writing within a fictional universe, where no English is spoken. You can write from one viewpoint; assign English to be used to convey dialogue in one particular language and treat other languages as one would foreign languages in the real world. Recall Star Wars?!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.