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Characters overcoming language barriers/learning via immersion?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ireth, Nov 20, 2018.

  1. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Two of my WIPs at the moment deal heavily with language barriers between characters, in the form of a main character being unexpectedly thrust into another world/culture which uses a language the other character either does not know at all, or only knows a handful of words and phrases. Example A is the former, with a human among merfolk; example B is the latter, with a human among elves. Both characters at first have no means of translating to or from their native tongue, magical or otherwise, and are forced to learn via immersion.

    My question is, especially in the latter case here the MC starts out with a handful of words at her disposal, how do I show their progression from that to conversational to reasonably fluent over the course of the story?

    I've elected to avoid use of <these> to denote the language the POV character does not know (both stories go back and forth between the immersed character and their other-culture peers), and in the case of the human among elves (a LOTR fanfic) I had thought to just put the Elvish the MC knows/learns in English rather than write out all the elvish every time one of them speaks to the MC in scenes from her POV. Trouble is I can see it looking really choppy and hard to read early on, especially if I use ellipses to denote stuff that's not understood ("I don't know ... ... her name." "... her yours, and see if she ... ?"*). And I'm not sure I want to just narrate all the time ("they talked for a while and I picked out X, Y or Z word every so often"), as that wouldn't easily show the progression I'm after.

    *"I don't know [how to ask] her name." "[Tell] her yours, and see if she [answers]?"**

    **Maybe footnotes at the end of each chapter are the answer here? Thoughts?
     
  2. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Auror

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    Footnotes may work, but they may quickly become kind of annoying. Either that or you can have at least one interpreter along to help at least a little. About the closest thing I can recall to this was from a Simpson's episode where Bart learned French while stuck with the exchange family. Not sure how else to get it to go even slightly more organically other then the slow and painful process that it's going to be for the MC to learn.
     
  3. Evaine

    Evaine New Member

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    I thought this was done well in the film Thirteenth Warrior, where Antonia Banderas, playing an Arab reluctantly caught up with a Viking party, initially struggled with the language, gradually recognising odd words here and there until he could talk to them.
     
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  4. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    I've never tried anything like this, but off the top of my head, here's one approach I would use.

    Remember we're going to be seeing the world through your character's eyes, so at first, everything meaningful is going to come from the character's internal monologue as they interpret the actions and words of the other characters. As the character learns more of the language, the more input the reader will get from the dialogue. Hopefully it will feel as if the character moves from a kind of trapped in their own mind kind of feeling to the world opening up more and more as they learn more and more of the language.

    So a progression could start with the character saying stuff like "Bob said some words to me then pointed to the chair. When I sat down, he looked at me like I was some sort of idiot then shoved me out of the chair..."

    The next step could be "Bob pointed at the horse and then spoke. Most of the words didn't mean anything to me until I recognized the word 'ride.'"

    Then next "Bob said something about the queen, the great ball, and danger. I searched for the word and finally managed to say 'Assassin' in elvish. Bob nodded."

    I'm sure you get the rest of the progression.

    Another thing you could add is to show the actual foreign language dialogue as your POV character hears and interprets it, replacing the foreign words they understand with English. " Elvish elvish elvish ride elvish horse." At first the dialogue will be say all Elvish, and as the story progresses and they learn more elvish, the more English there will be in the dialogue. So there will be a visual cue as to how much of the language the character knows. "We are in elvish elvish trouble."
     
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  5. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    That seems like a good way to handle it. :D

    That's about what I'm doing now with the ellipses, as in my examples above. The trouble with including all the elvish untranslated at first is that, this being a LOTR fic, online elvish dictionaries can only offer so much information. Sometimes I come across a word I need for an ordinary concept (like "ask" or "question") that Tolkien never bothered to come up with an elvish word for. Or at least I haven't found it yet.
     
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    My first question: why is it important to put the reader through this process? Unless there's a story reason to experience the process, one can easily just say it took me days and weeks to learn the language. SF writers deal with this often. An example that springs to mind is Silverberg's Downard to the Earth, where understanding the alien culture is the whole point of the book, so misunderstandings play a crucial role.

    But if it isn't central, then don't make it central. To me, in such a case, it's akin to narrating the twenty day journey from A to B. Yes it really did take twenty days, but the reader doesn't need to experience those twenty days. Narrative summary works just fine.

    The guiding rule (for me) is always, what does the reader need to know, what does the reader need to experience.
     
  7. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    It is more important in the case of the human among merfolk, as a) the story there is very time-sensitive. the characters have no time to just sit and teach each other language, as they are on a journey to find a cure for a merman who is dying of poison (which is the human's fault), and they have two weeks at most to travel there and back before he dies; and b) mutual understanding and growth are a main part of the MCs' character arcs. Only a little less so in the case of the human among elves, as my intent there was more or less "every 'Earth-person-dropped-into-Arda' fic ever does the magical translation thing, what would happen if it does't apply?"
     
  8. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    I'm a linguist; I dragged out the language-learning process because it was fun to have the characters learning the language. As Skip says, above, misunderstandings are key. If you're writing a fish-out-of-water trope (or in this case, merfolk-out-of-water), then misunderstandings are critical because they illuminate the differences between both realms.

    There's a running joke in my WIP about the main character still not being able to read and write their language very well, yet.
     
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