Thoughts on Foreign Languages

How many of us here know how to speak a foreign language?  I know, we all took that obligatory Spanish/French class in grade school and most of us have probably forgotten it by now.  I know we Americans have the stereotype of being willfully ignorant about the rest of the world and I sadly agree it’s true.

I actually heard someone say:  “Why can’t the world just learn American?”  With his voice filled with indignation.

Sadly, I’m not making this up.  Don’t worry, we heckled him about it for days haha.

Moving on though, considering that I was born and raised in the U.S. of A., it would make sense that I would be equally as ignorant to the languages of the rest of the world.

Before I continue, I want to make sure everyone can get a good look at the featured image to this post so I’m going to put it here as well:


These are all the languages that I could think of how to say, “Hello!” in off the top of my head as I wrote this post.  I’m not bringing this up to brag by any means and I’ll be honest, I had to look up the Hangul and Chinese characters for each language respectfully to make sure I wrote them properly.

Now, I’ve heard this ridiculous stereotype that writers of any kind, whether they be fiction/poetry/whatever writers shouldn’t learn a foreign language.  That the act of learning those foreign languages removes some piece of understanding and nuance from their mastery of their native language (usually the language they’re writing in)

Well I’m here to tell you, that’s complete and utter B.S.

My writing has only gotten better with the more languages, and cultures, I learn about.  Now, personally I speak English (obviously), pretty decent Spanish, meager Italian due to my heritage (but I understand more than I speak) and Japanese on about the same level as my Spanish skills.

The Spanish I haven’t studied since high school, but I just retained very well.  Italian I heard from just being around as a kid and the Japanese I studied in college.  Now I may be an outlier in this case, because not only do I enjoy learning other languages and cultures, but I also seem to have a flair for it.

I don’t know why, but languages just seem to come naturally to me.

Now, I’m not writing this post just to gloat, I’m writing it because I want to explain to you how it has effected my writing in the best way possible.

For example, in a screenplay I wrote, titled Transparency, I told the story of a Japanese trophy wife who conspires to murder her husband with the help of her step-son.

Now I know what you’re thinking, you’re filling plot points in with your head right now.  I know, it’s human nature, it’s what we do.

But, the one thing you wouldn’t guess is that I used my knowledge of Japanese language and culture to craft the trophy wife Sayuri into the most realistic Japanese woman I could.  I made sure I factored in the uchi-soto family dynamics and wabi-sabi aesthetic and philosophical components of Japanese culture as much as I felt feasible.

I made sure that Sayuri and her Japanese friend used English words that Japanese people would use, and avoided the ones they wouldn’t.  Why?  Because I spent three years of my life surrounded by the Japanese people from all parts of the country who taught me about the language and the culture.

And now that I think about it, it was a small tribute for all the time they took to teach me that beautiful and exotic language.

Why did I do this?  Because it helped me make my character stand apart, it helped me show that no, this is not an American woman, and because of her Japanese upbringing she’s going to have different thoughts and feelings on knocking over her dead beat husband than your average American woman would.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Multiculturalism in your story helps your characters stand apart but only if you understand the culture they grew up in and the languages they speak!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to make your entire cast a salad bowl of different ethnicities.  But I do encourage you to consider it.  You never know how a Japanese/Danish/Pakistani/African/whatever character might lend more to your story than the person who’s a native to the setting of your novel.

It might make it worse, but at the same time it might make it better.  If it does make it better use it, if not scrap the idea.

Another reason I make sure to do this in my stories is for another concrete reason:

We live in a multicultural society people!  We have people from all corners of the world walking our streets, shopping in our stores (book stores too!) and enjoying our entertainment.

If you do a good job with a character from someone’s ethnic group, you never know how many new readers you may attract.

I won’t lie to you, I’m not against doing something that will help me possibly boost sales as long as it doesn’t hurt the writing.

And I’m telling you, multiculturalism will never hurt your writing.  Unless it’s done badly of course, but in that case you’ve got bigger problems to worry about.

On a final note, if anyone out there is interested/fascinated with Japanese culture and want to know more here are two excellent books I’ve read: (Thank you Sakamoto-sensei for the assigned reading!)




So what do you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Think I’m nuts?  Whatever you do think leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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2 responses to “Thoughts on Foreign Languages

  1. Pingback: Things to Avoid in your Writing #6: White Washing | Vincent Alcaras -- Author·

  2. Pingback: 4 Keys to Crafting an Excellent Setting pt. 2 | Vincent Alcaras -- Author·

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