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I’m wanting to write a protagonist that is from a fictional land with fictional languages and isn’t incredibly fluid in English. I’m thinking that when she narrates in her own head, she sounds pretty coherent but when she actually speaks to other characters out loud, her dialogue will have much poorer grammatical structure and be, y’know, broken. I still want her to be understandable to the readers but for other characters to notice she is definitely some kind of foreigner.

Do you think I could actually pull this off or would it make her character voice too inconsistent (or at worst annoying to the reader)? I’m curious what your thoughts are.

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    Does this answer your question? How to write a character speaking in broken english?
    – Laurel
    Jun 1 at 16:04
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    Try reading The Red Badge of Courage. Everyone has really thick southern accents. It's a bit slower to read while you try to figure out what everyone is saying, but its still good. Jun 1 at 16:29
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    Harry Potter uses this from time to time, most notably with Hagrid. If you can get your hands on the U.S. version of Audio books, the reader has an impressive array of unique voices for every character, even ones with only one line of dialog. He even makes a very subtle distinction between Harry's dialog voice and his narrative voice (which is a Third person Limited Omniscent with Harry as viewpoint character).
    – hszmv
    Jun 3 at 12:19
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    Heaven forbid, if one does not speak in the Queen's English! :) Jul 5 at 23:50
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It's definitely doable, and could result in a very interesting, unusual story! As someone who loves seeing linguistics in fiction I would eat this up. It actually has a significant advantage over having a nonfluent non-POV character, which is that you can immediately escape all implications of that character being unintelligent just by showing how their thoughts and internal narrative don't match what they're saying, and in fact show how they get frustrated by the language barrier.

But yeah, this can be tricky. Doing it the way you describe can work really well but does have a chance of annoying your readers. Basically, you definitely don't want your readers regularly struggling to understand what your character is saying, because that's a frustrating experience and will probably lead them to drop the story.

As such, I'd definitely stay away from anything phonological/involving depicting an accent and focus on grammatical mistakes that won't impede understanding too badly or be too obtrusive. One of my stories has some scenes where the POV character is speaking a language she's not fluent in, and I usually end up using a mix of:

  • having her confuse prepositions/which verbs need them and which ones don't ("we will meet at the morning", "I understand of this thing")
  • verb tense/mood/aspect confusion especially involving when to use progressive vs simple forms ("I go home now", "I am knowing this")
  • incorrect use of definite vs indefinite vs no articles ("have you seen cat?", "she thinks that the justice is very important")
  • and other mistakes like wrong use of conditionals that are common for intermediate, not just beginner, speakers of English

I think it's fairly readable and still gets across the lack of fluency, but some readers will probably still bounce from this.

The alternative is going the route Chris Sunami suggested and just writing her dialogue as fluent and showcasing in other character's reactions that people aren't understanding her. This could also work, but would take some work to make sure it's clear what's happening and why the other characters are having trouble. I also think it works less well if the language in question is actually English than if it's a fictional one being rendered to English by convention (I couldn't quite work out which one it was from your post) since readers will most likely be expecting English dialogue to be rendered as-is.

One final thing which is less an answer to your question and more a heads-up about things you'll also have to consider - if your character doesn't speak the language very well, can she understand it well? Does she fully understand native speakers talking at native speeds using colloquial language and vocabulary (probably one of the hardest parts of learning any foreign language)? If not - which is fairly likely if she's not at an advanced level - you're going to have to figure out how to depict that in her POV as well. (I actually posted a question about this a while ago where the question and answers have some techniques for handling this.)

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  • This is a very insightful answer! Thanks so much. The question that you linked at the end of your answer was very helpful as well. I'll have to practice writing it out to see what works out for me in the end, but the examples you gave are things I'll definitely keep in mind. I also had not considered whether or not she could fluently understand other characters' English, so I will have to play around with that too. Over all, I found this to be among the best answers so far. Thank you! :-) Aug 4 at 16:23
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The best thing you could do is have it be told from another person's perspective. I also came up with a character who speaks in broken or choppy sentences, so I created a brother for him and it is told from the brother's point of view.

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Writers have responded to this challenge in many different ways over the years. The current common practice is to provide enough of the language pattern for flavor, and then render largely in standard English, trusting the reader to infer the distinct language pattern themselves.

However, this doesn't work as well if the language is a barrier to the other characters. Again, common practice has some hints --the general standard is to render from the POV of your POV character. Therefore, if your POV character experiences herself as fluent, that's how she will be rendered in your book --the reader will have to infer her broken English from other people's reactions ("Huh? What's that again? Don't you speak English?"). Conversely, if the interaction is from the viewpoint of one of the other characters, render the speech the way they would hear it. "Ooh-air batty roo?" If the other character learns to understand her, start rendering her language in a more standard fashion.

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Having a main character dialogue shown in a patois, dialect, or pidgin is a challenge to write because it distances the reader from one of the main mechanisms in a writer's toolbox.

This is because readers will remember the tonality and word choice, and if it's not consistent, then they'll be aware that the author is kind of jerking them around, making them puzzle out some ridiculous pronunciation or strange sounding sentence structure. And, if the character doesn't understand the language well, that means the characters they are speaking with will also need to speak in a compatible fashion for there to be a believable conversation. Too often, one character speaks in a pidgin while the others speak normally, and this serves to advance to story without the language skills getting in the way.

There are examples were this is been handled well. My Fair Lady takes a cockney guttersnipe "Ere Iam Gov'ner' to elegance and grace with rain failing in Spain mainly on the plain. Characters can evolve and learn, and that is one way around the problem you are considering.

And, another is demonstrated in Anthony Burgess's 'A Clockwork Orange.' The main character speaks in a argot of Russian and English when is he on the streets, leading a band of drug-fuelled hyper-violent malchicks against other gangs and citizenry, but he speaks very eloquently when talking with authorities and people whom he can't intimidate or beat up. I think much of his inner dialog is also presented in this street language.

So, it's been done. Doing it well is a challenge.

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