View Full Version : Bad English Speakers

11-07-2009, 08:33 AM
How do I approach someone who speaks bad English (transplanted peoples of course)? I don't want to come off as racist or ignorant (though as a writer I will do what's necessary). Any tips (or good books with bad English speakers you could recommend) on doing this well?

Juliette Wade
11-07-2009, 08:55 AM
Well, I'd suggest you not think of it as "bad English speakers" so much as "English learners." If you're looking for someone to help you with a character for a book, say so - but make sure you tell them that you have a character who is learning English, and you want to make sure you have a good model so that you can make the character realistic. That might be a nice way to turn it around so it doesn't sound insulting...

11-07-2009, 10:25 AM
A passage from my most recently-completed unpublishable novel where I needed to deal with this exact problem (Minor context, it's set in 1969, with a draftee named Chris St. John being confronted his first day of Army basic training with a drill sergeant):

“You pissants are here for one purpose,” the Drill Sergeant roared in some East European accent as he paced among of them, his W’s turning to V’s, his V’s to F’s, his TH’s to D’s and T’s, all his R’s viciously rolled, his exaggerated smile designed to display in its most favorable light the missing tooth. “You are here to learn how to kill communists. Not all of you will be so lucky as to go to Vietnam. Not all of you will carry a weapon, but you will kill communists, all the same, because you will support those who do carry weapons. Maybe some of you will become clerks and you will kill them with paperwork. Maybe some of you will become cooks and you will kill them with your food. If us you don’t kill first. But most of you will kill them with rifles and machine guns and grenade launchers and maybe bayonets. Everything you do in my army, you help to kill communists. Me, I kill them by teaching you how to kill them. When I am through with you pissants I am go to the Special Forces School, then I kill them even better. Next year, I go back to Vietnam, maybe I get to kill them with my bare hands. I think to kill them with the bare hands is best. I like to feel their scrawny little necks squishing between my fingers and the way they make these little whimpers when their bones go snap.”

He folded his hands together and squeezed, his knuckles popping like firecrackers.

“Now, I am Sergeant First Class JŠnos HrŠkosy. Always you will address me as ‘Drill Sergeant’. You may think I talk funny. It is because I am Magyar. How many of you pissants know what is a Magyar?”

He paused. Silence abounded.

“Nobody? Is there nobody who knows what is a Magyar? Anyone who knows what is a Magyar, step one pace forward.”

He paused again. Evidently some of the pissants did know what a Magyar was, and stepped forward. St. John knew, but didn’t move a muscle.

“Outstanding,” Sergeant HrŠkosy said. “Now, everyone who has stepped forward, drop and give me fifty pooshops! Count them, and let me hear you!”

St. John heard the dropping of several bodies, and voices from around him begin to call “ONE DRILL SERGEANT, TWO DRILL SERGEANT . . . “

“Now, I will tell you what is a Magyar. A Magyar is someone from Hungary. Hungary is a very unhappy country. When I am thirteen, in 1956, I throw rocks at communist tanks in Budapest. I hit them. They shoot bullets at me. They miss me. My brother Imre, he is not so lucky. I get to Austria, for freedom. I hate communists. I want them all to be dead. I come to America where I become citizen. I join the Army to fight communists, to make them all be dead. Now I am here to help you to make them all be dead. Do you understand?”

Whether or not I did it well, you can decide. But it's an attempt at it.


11-07-2009, 10:36 AM
Like Juliette said, it's not so much "bad" English as it is "different." Anyone who is fluent enough to hold a conversation but doesn't speak in a "standard" way isn't really doing it incorrectly - they've basically formed their own grammar. Most people tend to fall into using the grammar of their native language and the vocabulary of the target language. Blacbird's excerpt is a great example, particularly with the inverted question:

How many of you pissants know what is a Magyar?

As you can see, it's not random. He's not searching for words or confused about how to put them together. He uses this structure repeatedly and regularly. For him, it's a grammatical "rule." It may not be the same rule that we use, but it's systematic.

The trick is to figure out what the "rules" are for any particular group of language learners... that is, the patterns that they tend to fall into. Just hanging around them for a while should give you a lot to work with. :)

Clair Dickson
11-07-2009, 06:31 PM
Volunteer to tutor ESL(English as a Second Language) students in your area. They always need the help and you could give back at the same time. The, like Jo said, you will learn their patterns. Like the wonderful lady from Germany that I worked with for two years would often say, "We'll see us tomorrow!" Instead of the more common, "I'll see you tomorrow."

The best thing is that most ESL speakers, in my experience, really do want to learn to speak well, and correct those niggly little speech problems that they have. The aforementioned German student was SO relieved when I started quietly correcting some of her mistakes. She says no one would say anything to her, but she really wanted to get it right.

Also, if you learn a bit about the language the ESL speaker is coming from, you can learn why they make those mistakes, which would make your own writing more consistent.

But overall, I really think that spending a good deal of time with a person would be the best way to learn about their speech patterns. And maybe help them out. (They'd probably want to buy your book too.)

11-07-2009, 07:37 PM
How do I approach someone who speaks bad English (transplanted peoples of course)? I don't want to come off as racist or ignorant (though as a writer I will do what's necessary). Any tips (or good books with bad English speakers you could recommend) on doing this well?Simple. Without overwhelming superiority. You must remind yourself, not English is the only language on the planet and even you can speak in English, that not really counts anything at all as you can't speak on other languages. At other places you're in the same disadvantage. And vica versa for those people whose can't speak in other languages, i.e. in English. Don't try to feel with the reader that English is the only language, because they'll drop your novel immediately. English is just one language out of the hundreds and thousands of dialects. But not the only one and there are much more beautiful languages and also harder languages throughout the globe. Try to handle them as equal person, as a human being.

blacbird. As a Hungarian, I need to tell you, HrŠkosyis not a Hungarian surname. JŠnos is good (It's John in English), but HrŠkosy is not existing here in Hungary at all, at least not that I know about (You may use RŠkosi with an I at the end. That's a standard family name. If it's a noble surname, it's RŠkosy, with a Y at the end.). I hope it will help you. Anyway, I like your little snippet. :)

11-08-2009, 04:57 AM
One thing I know I do in other languages is choose a simpler way to phrase something than the native speakers might. I may not know the idioms. I'll use the schoolbook yet simple phrasing at times where it sounds odd to real speakers of the language.

And yes, folks understand it so they don't often correct it. They understood me so well in Paris that I'd almost think I spoke great French... but I definitely don't anymore ;)

Getting idioms wrong is something I hear a lot of, too. I'm usually too meek to attempt an idiom I know I might not remember. So I sound a bit like "See Dick run."

Oh, and tenses. I've noticed that folks use the present tense too much, no doubt because it's so familiar. But often people will understand what is meant, so it becomes a habit.

Hope that helps a little. I'd definitely run my dialogue past folks familiar with the situation to be sure.

PS - I have a cute example that is also like what I do. Veronique, in her black leather pants straight from Paris (both her and the pants):

"Where is the fly-killing thing?" along with a fly-swatting motion. Fly swatter, of course. But it's perfectly understood, no?

11-08-2009, 01:41 PM
You also do some reading on English variations: Creole and Pidgins.

Lady Ice
11-08-2009, 04:25 PM
Bad English speakers is not a good way of saying it. If you're acting, you don't play a man being drunk; you play a man trying to be sober. You're thinking of the result, not the process.

So, English learners...it depends on what their own language is like. They would probably use the grammar of their own language.
They either have a very idiomatic/slang way of speaking, when they learn English from imported programmes and films, or an overly formal way of speaking. They probably would always say 'would not' instead of 'wouldn't'.

Again, it depends on their own language.

11-08-2009, 06:35 PM
As I am not native speaker myself, I'd like to know what "How many of you pissants know what is a Magyar?" would be in proper English. I have to admit I would use the same grammar.
(except I'd say "what a Magyar is")

I suggest you write down the funny pronounciation of your character, at least some of it. The Pictsies' Scottish? accent in "Wee Free Men" is a nice example on how to write down a different pronounciation in a way that doesn't drive the reader crazy.

Bad English...just watch the way I write. That's bad English. Or, at least, not native-speaker English. ;)

Look for English words that are written nearly the same way as a word in the person's native language but mean something completely different.

For example:

If your bad-English-speaking person is German, you could let him say "I want to become a hamster for Christmas". The German word "Bekommen" sounds a bit like "become", but it means "to get", which is what the pupil who made this mistake wanted to say.

@Lady Ice: I learned at school to use "wouldn't". We only were teached ;)/taught not to use that in writing at the school for translators.

Lady Ice
11-08-2009, 07:16 PM
I would say 'what a Magyar is' too.

Stijn Hommes
11-09-2009, 03:24 PM
If the character doesn't have English as their first language, would they even be speaking it instead of their own language?

11-09-2009, 06:37 PM
And keep in mind that "English-speaker" encompasses a broad spectrum of people who view their grasp of English as perfectly acceptable. My MC is an Okie. He's a native English speaker who on every page manages to brutalize the language in ways that makes people laugh, cringe, and marvel. While writing the book, I went back to my hometown a few times to refresh my memory of the particular Okie dialect I grew up with, and that's always the key thing. If you don't want to come off as offensive to people with the same accent/dialect/skillset, make sure you're working from a realistic template and not what you imagine that dialect/accent is.

11-09-2009, 09:37 PM
Focus on grammar, idiosyncrasies and how things translate (or not). Foreign people tend to "translate" in their mind from their native language to English, so while they may speak perfect English, their usage may seem strange, or stiff, or too formal. New immigrants also mess up grammar or leave out words. For example, Chinese don't have prepositions or tenses, so they may not use the right tense and leave out prepositions or articles ("Yesterday I look out window and see a black bird.")

The best way to do it is to listen to real people speak. Do you have any friends whose native language isn't English? The ESL suggestion is also good. Please note that there are just as many different ways of speaking "broken English" as there are countries and cultures, so do take note of the differences. A Chinese, for example, is going to say things differently than a German. Then you add the individual differences from one person to another -- there's no one size fits all (or else you'd be doing stereotypes).

(by the way, foreign speakers learn to use contractions. Personally I don't know anyone who says "I cannot" or "I will not" instead of "can't" or "won't")

And try not to do it phonetically -- it's too distracting.

Here's a snippet of dialogue between a native speaker and non-native in my WIP:

"I'm hungry," she said.
"We have fish cake noodles, chive dumplings or scrambled eggs," Grace said.
"I love scramble, but they all sound so good. Maybe a little everything?"
Grace nodded and fired up the stove.
"Master Chef," Lily said. "Did Victoria return?"
"Not that I know of."
"Not like her, I mean, away two days."
"It must be something important."
"You don't think something happens to her?"
"You have to know, it's very bad outside. People die."
"Victoria's a very smart woman, and she knows people. Officers. She speaks fluent English. She is fine."
"What if she isn't?"
"Stop worrying," Grace said. She handed Lily a bowl of noodles and a plate of fluffy eggs. "Eat your lunch."
"But, you didn't hear what the British say."
"What did they say?"
"They moving."

11-10-2009, 07:19 AM
If the character doesn't have English as their first language, would they even be speaking it instead of their own language?

In circumstances where the intended listeners are native English-speakers, of course they would. English isn't your first language, but you communicate here in English.

By the way, everyone I've ever met from the Netherlands (or Denmark or Norway, for that matter) speaks English better than 80% of the American public.


The Lonely One
11-10-2009, 08:35 AM
Well, I'd suggest you not think of it as "bad English speakers" so much as "English learners." If you're looking for someone to help you with a character for a book, say so - but make sure you tell them that you have a character who is learning English, and you want to make sure you have a good model so that you can make the character realistic. That might be a nice way to turn it around so it doesn't sound insulting...

But how do you know a person continues to learn English? I have family members on my wife's side who speak poor English, and I love them, but they're older and they're not planning to appease the country's ambitions to have English the primary language. They live in a part of Miami that hardly speaks English, and they get along just fine with Spanish only (and very little English in other parts of Florida, such as when they come to visit). And even if they're done learning English, there are differences in dialect that are never going to go away.

I'm just saying political correctness can go too far, and can be untruthful. If you're bad at English it isn't an insult it's just the truth. Perhaps a real person will continue to learn English but a character doesn't have to and there are plenty of real people who don't. I'm bad at Spanish. Good Christ am I, and it's my fault because I don't try hard enough to learn it. But I have other things going on in my life to prevent me from learning it at a faster pace--I'm degree seeking, job seeking, writing, trying to care for my family--there are other things that take priority. Sort of like my mother in law and abuela, who came here to work for their family; they work and work and work and don't have as much time to take classes. They started out learning English but of course other things begin to take priority and if they can skirt by in the language, well, they will.

I would say if you're writing 1st person it will be hard if you aren't familiar with a dialect, so get as familiar as you can. You don't have to tell people you're doing this. Just talk with them. Pay attention. Be honest when you write. The more honest you are the less likely that elephant in the room called stereotyping is able to cause a ruckus. Focus on them as characters when you write the story. Make them human.

I wrote a story about an Iranian man modeled after the way a professor of mine spoke, and I found it especially useful to find one or two unusual quirks in language and use them consistently when they would pop up. You can't overdo it or it will distract from the narrative and will probably be wrong aka stereotyping/caricature. It's a tough gig doing a voice like that, I won't lie. But it is possible. Like anything else you just gotta do your research and keep in mind the things that make fiction work; don't get snared up in voice.

Juliette Wade
11-10-2009, 09:45 PM
That's interesting, Lonely One. I wasn't actually trying to speak from a position of political correctness, but as someone who has studied language acquisition. From this experience I can say that conscious dedication to learning is helpful - but not necessary to - the learning process. To my mind, if the person is entering an English-speaking environment, and attempting to make meaning in English even though it isn't their first language, then they are engaged in learning it. Some learners have more difficulty than others and their language system fossilizes earlier, while others have more unconscious openness to the new language system and are able to continue to acquire the language until it is nativelike.

I thought Maestrowork gave a great example, and I appreciate Redzilla's observation that not all native speakers are the same. The structure of the speaker's native language will typically show in the way he or she speaks English, but this can happen to various degrees.

I have a French character whose lines I write in French before I convert them to English - but once I get them there, I have to make sure I reflect the fact that he is an eloquent person and has no difficulty getting his meaning across. So he might say something like, "You have power, but you will need more. I would do of my best to aid you with that."

Mike Flynn does some great work with accents in his writing (The January Dancer) and he chooses to write the unusual pronunciations in spelling form, while my own bias is to use meter and other high-level language patterns, plus vocabulary choice, to indicate dialectal sounds (rather than spelling). It's up to you how you want to approach it, but if you're imitating a particular world accent, I'd definitely recommend finding a real speaker to work with.

11-10-2009, 09:58 PM
Anyone who has learned a foreign language has "learned and improved," even if their progress is not something you expect from an active student. There's no need to belittle or say they're "bad" x, y and z. I mean, try to learn a new language and see how difficult it is. I think we need to acknowledge and understand that every person (or character, in this context) has done something to at least learn the language -- so keep that in mind when you write such characters.

p.s. my dad is in his 70s and didn't speak a word of English when he came to the US. Now he could drive around, order food from restaurants, and do simple things such as pumping gas at the stations, etc. He may speak English at kindergarten level, but that's still a huge difference than how much he knew 10 years ago. Does he want to appease anyone by trying to master the language? No, he just wants to get by. But he has made an effort.

Wayne R.
11-11-2009, 03:41 AM
Just a small contribution:
We often speak to Indian callers at work, and the nation definitely has foibles unheard in any other tongue. A conversation will be peppered with the word 'actually'. They have a very definite way of saying 'right?' at the end of a question, and they often say 'What is it' instead of 'What it is'.
If a character in a book spoke that way, I'd know instantly where he was from. Their English isn't always bad, as such, it just has some quirks unique to that corner of the globe.

11-11-2009, 03:56 AM
Yes, I think you mean "English as a Second or Other Language speakers" and perhaps particularly those who don't have strong fluency.

As a former ESOL teacher myself, I encountered people whose English was totally fluent except for a few minor language-to-language differences (for example, the Venezuelan student who wrote a wonderful essay about "Ideas of the Truth and the Beauty in Moby Dick") and people who were just plugging English vocabulary words into the grammar of their first language ("He come in school yesterday" is one brainbuster I remember).