English as a Foreign Language

by Pink Sherbet Photography

Why do some books succeed in transporting you to a different time or place? Part of the magic happens because the writer has built a sense of otherness right into the language of the book.

This is more than just dialect, though what I say here applies to writing dialect as well. I’m talking about the deep structure that underlies an entire world view.

Alexander McCall Smith is a master of this sort of thing. Most of you know you can German mimic (and like Yoda sound) by the verbs at the ends of a sentence placing. But in his Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Iglefeld stories, Smith goes much further. Consider the following passage, from Unusual Uses of Olive Oil, in which von Iglefeld meets two new students:

They introduced themselves politely: both as it happened, were called Hans, and both were students of medieval French literature, although they had not met one another before.

“I have just come to Regensburg,” said Hans. “I was in Berlin before.”

“And so now here we are: both interested in the same thing!” said the other Hans.

“That is the great delight of a reading party,” said von Iglefeld. “One finds people who share one’s interests. And then, as the week progresses, one gets to know them better. It is very satisfactory.”

How does Smith do it? There are no contractions anywhere, which alone gives any passage a slightly foreign feel. (German does use contractions, but not in the same places as in English.)

But note the underlying rigor of the language. “And so now here we are,” is more precise than, “And here we are.” Iglefeld’s use of “one” is more strictly correct than “you.” And I don’t think most people would consider “satisfactory” the sort of adjective that needs emphasis.

When he’s writing his Number One Lady’s Detective Agency novels, set in Botswana with African characters, Smith’s language has a completely different feel. Consider this, from The Tears of the Giraffe. J. L. B. Matekoni, a master mechanic, has volunteered to repair the water pump at a local orphanage, run by Mma Potokwane. “Mma” is the Setswana equivalent of “Ms.”

Old diesel engines were generally reliable, but there came a point in their existence when they simply had to be pensioned off. He had hinted at this to Mma Potokwane, but she had always come up with reasons why money should be spent on other, more pressing projects.

“But water is the most important thing of all,” said Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. “If you can’t water your vegetables, then what are the children going to eat?”

“God will provide,” said Mma Potokwane calmly. “He will send us a new engine one day.”

“Maybe,” said Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. “But then maybe not. God is sometimes not very interested in engines.”

Again, no contractions – presumably Setswana also has them in different places from English. But the way that Mr. Matekoni always uses his full name and title, even in his interior monologue, points to a culture where polite formality is the norm. The language otherwise is direct and open, compacting complex ideas into straightforward, declarative sentences. Herr Dr. von Iglefeld would be able to go on for at least two pages on the theology behind “God is sometimes not very interested in engines.”

Patrick O’Brian uses slightly different techniques to capture the language of the early nineteenth century in his Aubrey/Maturin series. Consider the following, from The Fortune of War. Jack Aubrey is a ship’s captain during the Napoleonic wars. Stephen Maturin is the ship’s doctor, Jack’s close friend, and an amateur naturalist with a habit of picking up living specimens.

Then, hearing the voice of his steward raised in blasphemous, whining fury [Jack said], “Killick, Killick there: what’s amiss?”

“Which it’s your scraper, sir, your number one scraper. The wombat’s got at it.”

“Then take it away from him, for God’s sake.”

“I duresn’t, sir,” said Killick. “For fear of tearing the lace.”

[Jack tries unsuccessfully to get the hat back, then . . .]
“Pass the word for Dr. Maturin,” said the Captain, looking angrily at the wombat. And a moment later, “Come now, Stephen, this is coming it pretty high: your brute is eating my hat.”

“So he is, too,” said Dr. Maturin. “But do not be so perturbed, Jack; it will do him no harm, at all.”

Of course, O’Brian uses period terms – it’s been a while since hats have been “scrapers” or anyone used “duresn’t” in conversation. But note the unusual use of common words, such as Killick’s starting a sentence with “which,” or Dr. Maturin ending one with “too.” And “coming it pretty high” as a period version of “over the top” is both unexpected and perfectly comprehensible.

So how do you develop this sort of ear for original use of language? If you don’t actually speak the language you’re trying to mimic, read good translations, which should still convey the unspoken priorities behind the language – matters like Smith’s Germanic precision or Botswanan directness. Good films with good subtitles are also useful.

If you’re working in a historical context, read period records that capture everyday speech. Novels are useful, but letters, journals, and court records are even better — O’Brian spent a lot of time with nineteenth-century issues of The Naval Chronicle, which were full of letters from seamen. Pay attention to the words people normally ignore – whether a character goes “to town” or “in to town” or “up to town,” for instance.

Steep yourself in the language you’re trying to mimic, and soon your characters will be speaking, as Killick once put it, “in foreign.” And that will be very satisfactory, indeed.


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


  1. says

    What a beautiful post! I have always been a little language nerd (since I was very young) and am currently fascinated by Japanese, Korean, and German. Diction and word styles for novels has always been a bit more difficult for me than creating languages for my stories. This post has been very helpful in pointing out specifics. I will continue to pay more attention to the phrases my characters use and will try to learn about the cultural implications of semantics! Thank you, Dave!

  2. Judith says

    Languages can cause an awful mix-up for some of our readers/proof readers. I did a short story on a person the age of my grandmother who was b orn at the end of the 19th century and used the vernacular of an uneducated person. It was easy for me b ut the proof-reader kept changing it as “just plain bad English!”

    My first language of course was English, then along came some Flemish and French followed by Latin and German. I did a BA in Spanish at 53 and then a smattering of Russian and Japanese with foreaing students, and after all this, I taught English in China for 12 years and learned Mandarin and Cantonese.

    It is not difficult to mix all this together and make sense of it with colleagues and freinds at the same time. Language can be a conundrum!


    • says

      Judith, this is why I’m not a very good proofreader. The innate sense of correct usage that copy editors need would screw up my ear for authentic dialogue. People don’t talk good, after all.

    • says

      Any proofreader or copy editor with a wooden ear should be fired, posthaste. Cookie-cutter conformity is one of the things that gives copy editing a bad name. Style is very different from error (assuming you, the writer, really do know the difference and aren’t just being sloppy). Don’t put up with someone who messes with your style. If you’re with a publishing house, complain vigorously to your managing editor, and “stet” away. If you’re an indie working with a freelancer, pull the project and find someone who knows what fiction can and is supposed to do.

  3. says

    I have found that traveling and living in a number of very different locations has broadened my sense of language. Living in a rural area, I have noticed a difference in speech patterns as compared to living in urban neighborhoods, or even around military bases.
    New England, East Coast, and to the Southwest have different speech patterns and slang that I will incorporate into a story, often to display a sense of travel to the reader and characters.

      • Judith says

        “Up Street” may have indicated that there was a river in the town and walking away from the river may have been designated as walking up the street!


  4. says

    It’s the ear, the rhythm, the sense of timing. You say “the magic happens because the writer has built a sense of otherness right into the language of the book…This is more than just dialect, though what I say here applies to writing dialect as well. I’m talking about the deep structure that underlies an entire world view.”

    I would add that the authenticity of the language emerges from the authenticity of the character. Even within the ‘world view’ characters differ. They share the same ‘deep structure,’ but as that swims to the surface, it finds different channels – different personalities and relationships. If the language speaks the character, the structure seems artificial; but if the character speaks the language, the structure is artful.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  5. says

    Let’s face it English is the language of the British Empire.

    That everyone still uses this language should tell you something about who’s really in charge today.

  6. says

    Love this post. I’ve read many pieces of late that are set in a different century and found it difficult to immerse myself in the story. Not that the story wasn’t worth telling, simply that the language was off. The language in any story is a part of the setting. Each word can serve to immerse the reader or it can shatter the most robust of crafted worlds. It’s hard though: one wants the flavor of the setting to reflect in the characters, but if one makes the setting too archaic for modern sensibilities, the reader can be turned off and move on to an easier read.

    Thank you for a fascinating discussion!

  7. says

    Thanks for a great post. Nice examples. I’ve struggled to get into structure, idioms, peculiar local nouns and syntax to avoid phonetic mimicry when dealing with English dialects. It’s tricky to say the least. In one book, the POV character is the foreigner (Canadian) in Yorkshire of all places, so everyone sounds odd to her. In another book, I also worked hard to write a strong Polish accent for one character including missing pronouns. A contest judge assumed my manuscript was sloppily edited and penalized me accordingly!

  8. says

    Simply fascinating! What books do you recommend to teach one about the language of other countries? Is there a comprehensive book about the topic?

    • says

      Dear DZ,

      I don’t know of any fiction-writing books specifically on how to learn the language of other countries. The best approach I know of is to, as I say, immerse yourself in the language you’re trying to mimic paying attention to what makes it different from English as we speak it today.

      This is much easier now, thanks to the internet, where the world is literally at your fingertips — I often check the German online magazine Stern, to see what they think of events here. (It’s also fun to watch them mock the French.) If you’re working on a historical novel, wonderfully obscure historic documents that you could once only find in a university library or museum are now available for free download.

  9. Judith says

    I wrote you a nice reply…kind of academic…but lost it. Suffice to say, I have taught students and teachers from 10-12 countries and they always ask about a shortcut to learning English. Unfortunately there isn’t, unless you remove all idioms, colloquialisms, and borrowed words. Then you end up with a flavorless, dull, grammatically correct language with a much lower word count!

    There are two books that may help:
    Oxford Guide to World English, by Tom MacArthur, OUP: New York/Oxford, 2002 and How to Learn any Language, byBarry Farber, Citadel Press: New York,1991.


  10. says

    This is helpful, Dave. I write contemporary fiction, but I know the immersive technique works. When I’ve read historical writers of a certain period for pleasure, I find my voice altering without forming that intent.