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Creating a Realistic ESL Character:

So one of the characters in my work immigrated to the setting when he was 18 and didn't learn 'English' (this doesn't take place on earth) until then. He happened to be pretty well educated before then, which is kind of a big deal because most people in this setting have only basic literacy or less. He learned the new language with difficulty (no mass education, remember) and still has a very noticeable accent because of it. (I'm avoiding writing out his dialogue in a Funetik Accent, don't worry) I'm just trying to make sure I don't unintentionally over exaggerate it to the point that it gets offensive.
  • He will occasionally ask others if he has used the correct word or phrasing in a particular context
  • He'll sometimes make misusage mistakes, such as saying things like using 'well' where 'good' should be used. (ex: "This soup tastes quite well.")
  • Making it clear through characterization and such that he is more Eloquent In His Native Tongue
Does anyone have any tips for writing this or specific pitfalls I should avoid?

How long has he been there, and is there a large insulated community of his people there?

If he's only been there for, say, two years, then what you are describing is fine. If he's been living there for ten years, I would expect him not to make those kinds of basic mistakes, though he would still have a recognisable accent (unless he went to great effort to ditch the accent, of course).

Unless, of course, there is an insulating community around him. That may well slow down his learning of the language. For example, there are some first-generation immigrant women here (UK) who don't speak a word of English. There are wider cultural reasons for that which might not apply to your character, but if he isn't able to fall back on his native language then necessity would dictate that he pick things up faster.

edited 24th Mar '13 11:58:38 AM by imadinosaur

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.
Well he's been there for a while (a little over 10 years) but he's nearly always had contact with people who understand/speak his native language. (although those people aren't a majority) When he needed to flee his country, he had to learn 'English' quickly to find work, but it was mostly limited to writing and reading the language, due to the fact he had previously worked as a scribe.
  • I know that being able to read/write a foreign language much more easily than being able to speak/understand someone speaking isn't uncommon. (It happens to me, actually) But in that case it would probably lead to minor issues with pronunciation and stuff like that, correct?

edited 24th Mar '13 1:58:32 PM by TheMuse

 4 Tiamatty, Mon, 25th Mar '13 11:51:53 AM Relationship Status: Brony
Bieber My Balls
He may not understand some words or phrases. My girlfriend is from Quebec, so speaks English as her second language. And she's very good at it, but there are still plenty of words she doesn't know. "Jaywalking" comes to mind, as something I used last night that she didn't understand. I had to explain it. She occasionally has trouble remembering the English word, or just doesn't know how to translate what she's trying to say.

Like I said, she's a very good English speaker. Probably more fluent than some native English speakers I've talked to. But she still occasionally isn't sure of a word.

And actually, another thing I want to mention: My ex grew up in French immersion. So she basically grew up learning English and French together. She's lived in Ontario her whole life, so she's more comfortable with English, but she's still fluent in French. And she always makes the mistake of saying "on accident" or "by purpose." Because that's what it is in French. And I know other people have made the same mistake. So that's another thing to keep in mind. The fact that certain minor rules vary can make things mildly awkward. Those little things are what'll probably come up most often.

One problem you'll run into, using fictional languages, is that when someone has trouble remembering the proper pronunciation in their second language, they'll say it in their native language, figuring it'll be close enough that the other person will catch it. (At least, they will if the languages are related, like English and French. I imagine it doesn't work for English and Chinese, or something.) If they're not actually speaking real languages, that might not be something you can get across.
 5 Gaon, Mon, 25th Mar '13 5:13:00 PM from Grim Up North Relationship Status: Above such petty unnecessities
I suppose those things vary from person to person, as english is my second language; it took me five years only to become fluent [through the Internet, no less]. That and my accent is a bizarre mesh of accents instead of the accent I should have.

Some take longer, some take shorter, some retain the accent, some don't. So I guess it's up to you what you want to do.

edited 25th Mar '13 5:13:54 PM by Gaon

[up] This.

English as Second Language covers a broad group of people. The only thing it means is that the person in question is more fluent/comfortable speaking (and thinking) a different language. Indeed, it's quite possible - in fact, probably very common - for some ESL speakers to speak English more fluently than some native speakers. The latter group can be just as bad or worse at speaking English; often using local slang and other informal speech.
 
So basically try to avoid something like Asian Speekee Engrish (alough the language itself is not inspired by an Asian languages) and I should be good?

 8 Madrugada, Mon, 25th Mar '13 7:20:29 PM Relationship Status: In season
Zzzzzzzzzz
Anecdata, for what it's worth, but on another forum I regularly participated in, that got lots of traffic from ESL folks, one way that the Native English-speakers could often pick out a new poster as ESL was that their English was more precisely correct, in terms of grammar rules, but skewed in vocabulary and syntax. They'd learned the grammar from a book, while we'd learned it primarily by hearing it; we'd learned all the exceptions and oddities in dribbles while we were learning the language; they were having to learn them all in big clumps.
...if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you for it.
 9 Gaon, Mon, 25th Mar '13 7:32:43 PM from Grim Up North Relationship Status: Above such petty unnecessities
[up] Funny, I learned by hearing as well.

 10 Wolf 1066, Mon, 25th Mar '13 11:07:55 PM from New Zealand Relationship Status: In my bunk
Wolf1066
I had one Chinese friend whose English was extremely good, slangy, idiomatic and smooth-flowing - but would invariably say "it cost a hundred over dollars" instead of "over a hundred dollars".

Another Chinese friend had persistent problem with third person pronouns and I'd be told things like "I'm visiting a friend he's loaning me her computer".

A German friend of mine - who's been exposed to English from an extremely early age (to the point that, unlike a number of German ESL people I know, he can pronounce "th") - still says "let's get together with some beers and tell us gossip."

In all those cases, they could speak English very well, but there were certain aspects that they carried over from their own languages.

If doing a fantasy/SF version of this, consider what would be core differences between the two languages and what the "ESL" speaker would find difficult with the "English" and what they might find habitual/ingrained from their own language - it might be something akin to "let's tell us gossip" or "by purpose" or it might be a problem with pronouns or anything.

I know I struggle like mad when speaking languages where nouns have gender (especially when learning German after having learnt French).
Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
 11 montmorencey, Mon, 25th Mar '13 11:21:03 PM from the quaint town of Grimm, Bismarck and Gauss
So...yeah.
Germans have trouble with German. Though French is even more impossible.

When I speak English, I have no more problems with vocabulary than I have in German, usually just resorting to Buffy Speak. However, sometimes my syntax goes odd ways when I'm talking about something I heard/read of first in German, because my brain's translator can't keep up with my mouth.

Curse those faulty products.

Anyway, regarding pronunciation, most people will be perfectly fine with regular words (safe for underlying accent). On the other hand, when it's a word you have only ever seen in print, you might make a couple of mistakes there.

For example, hilarity ensued when I was talking about 'sewing' and kept pronouncing it wrong. Same for 'misogynistic'. When the pronunciation is not intuitive (read: doesn't comply with the usual non-intuitive rules) and it's not a word that comes up in conversation a lot, chances are good an ESL speaker will get it wrong.
Complicated - because simple is simply too simple.
 12 Wolf 1066, Tue, 26th Mar '13 1:00:48 AM from New Zealand Relationship Status: In my bunk
Wolf1066
When the pronunciation is not intuitive (read: doesn't comply with the usual non-intuitive rules)

You've just been "spoiled" growing up with a phonetically-spelled language. tongue

But, seriously, even native English-speakers will mispronounce non-intuitive words of the types you describe if they're not common conversational terms.

I've been called on mispronouncing English words I've only ever read in books (and never bothered to check the pronunciation with a dictionary - why would I look up the dictionary if the meaning of the word was clear or defined in the text?)

I've always figured that speakers of languages that have gender might find other languages that have gender fairly confusing - I only have to learn what the gender of the word is while you'd have to fight your own idea of what gender it "should have" if the gender is different in their language. I got that to a lesser extent, having been taught, for example, that "table" was feminine in my French classes and having to remember it's masculine in German - but since it's neither in English, I don't have an ingrained idea of its gender that has to be counteracted.

What I like about German, French, Maori, Welsh and Cornish (and other phonetically-spelled languages, but I'm citing ones I've actually learned or tried to learn) is that once you know the rules, you know how to pronounce it and if you hear it clearly, you can spell it. Far less confusing than my own language - like sighting an unfamiliar ~ough word and wondering which of the various pronunciations of that group of letters applies in that case (that one I would look up in a dictionary as "ough" is a known wild-card).

edited 26th Mar '13 1:02:26 AM by Wolf1066

Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
@Muse: There is truth and accuracy to that trope as well. There are ESL speakers who speak like that. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that ANY level of competency would be realistic.

That said, avoiding Asian Speekee Engrish would be something you would want to do in order to not be insulting.

If you're really stumped and looking for inspiration, one thing you could do is watch NCIS - especially Seasons 3 and 4. There's a character on the show named Ziva who is supposed to be Israeli. Hence, English isn't her first language. For the most part, she gets things right but would occasionally mess up idioms and figures of speech. Another trait (not seen on her but common enough with ESL speakers) is to sometimes mess up the grammar (using that of their native language).

edited 26th Mar '13 5:52:35 AM by peasant

 
But would certain small details I've noted with ESL speakers (stuff like a character slipping up and saying "knifes" instead of "knives") get a little too close to Funetik Accent and Reality Is Unrealistic?

 15 Tiamatty, Wed, 12th Jun '13 6:28:26 PM Relationship Status: Brony
Bieber My Balls
[up] I'd say minor things like that would probably be accepted by most readers. Unless they think it's a typo, of course. But yeah, in that situation, it's not so much a phonetic accent, it's just the actual word used by the character.
Yeah, I don't want readers to start pulling a Stop Being So Sterotypical, when I've actually encountered intelligent ESL people who speak like that.
  • Would having the minor errors get to the point of a Verbal Tic get easily problematic, or should I be fine?

Adjectives are also a big problem for ESL speakers, since many struggle with lack of vocabulary, usage will be more basic.For instance, you likely won't be hearing him use words like "extraordinary", "majestic" , "marvellous", instead you'll get alot of "pretty" "nice" etc.

 18 Tiamatty, Thu, 13th Jun '13 3:46:59 PM Relationship Status: Brony
Bieber My Balls
Having a lot of little mistakes might get annoying for readers. I'd say just figure out a few errors the character makes consistently, maybe toss in other things here and there, but keep it relatively light, to keep it from getting tiring.
This story also takes place over the course of a couple years, so would it not be improbable for his English to improve somewhat over time? He also ends up living with a couple educated English speakers during this time.

Following up on my previous piece of advice, I would caution about taking over-generalised statements such as those made Erufu (i.e. that ESL speakers have a "big problem" with adjectives). Remember: All professional translators are by definition either translating to or from a second language. Meaning that if ALL second language users have trouble using their second language, then ALL translations in the world are therefore terrible and/or limited; which is plainly untrue.

As such, my advice is not to feel compelled to add more errors and mistakes than you would have otherwise felt comfortable with, purely for the sake of "accuracy" and "realism". The level of mastery of English by ESL users can range from barely functional to highly fluent.

For example: Myself. I am an ESL user. Based on my writing alone, would you have picked up on this?

edited 13th Jun '13 11:25:00 PM by peasant

 
Peasent, you're the one who's generalizing.I haven't written ALL ESL speaks struggle, where did you pick up on that? Have you read the original question?The character started learning english at 18 and he still hasn't mastered it.There is a huge difference between someone who started learning from childhood, ofcourse he's going to be struggling. Look, I know what you're getting at, not every ESL speaks like stereotype and allot of them achieve amazing fluency, I know all that, I'm the same as you, noone believes me I'm not a native x) But let's be honest, people who haven't achieved that level of fluency exist, and there is no shame in that, and noone is trying to undervalue their intelligence and abilities, people learn at different pace but everyone can improve given time. And again, since it doesn't seem you actually read the OP's question and unique circumstances surrounding his ESL character, I have to repeat it, the character in question started learning english quite late and he's still learning. You jumped in with your own example that has nothing to do with the question for sole purpose of "educating" the OP of existence exceptional ESL speakers that defy the "dreaded stereotype" and assuming OP doesn't know that and that he's about to write his character like a cartoon stereotype.

Not to start an argument but the part I was referring to was when you said "Adjectives are also a big problem for ESL speakers", which is a very sweeping statement. As such, I was simply offering advice to the OP not to feel the need to add more errors than he originally intended since - as I pointed out in my original advice - that ANY level of competency he decides to go with can be accepted as an accurate portrayal of the standards of an ESL user. The only caution is to avoid overdoing Asian Speekee Engrish so as not to be insulting.

edited 14th Jun '13 8:24:37 AM by peasant

 
 23 Oh So Into Cats, Fri, 14th Jun '13 8:39:13 AM from The Sand Wastes Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
If someone learns English through reading they'll often put the accent on the wrong syllable for uncommon words. Accented syllables in English are really needlessly complicated and don't make sense. I'm not sure how you would portray that in writing, though.
"Beware of the wolves. They were raised by wolves."

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