Recent Posts

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Writing Dialog With a Foreign Accent

Our literature, much like our society, is becoming more and more multicultural. A story in which all characters come from the same background might not sound credible in a world where people increasingly communicate across racial and national divides: today, most neighborhoods, workplaces, and families are a kaleidoscope of diverse accents and cultures.

But portraying linguistic differences in writing can be tricky. How can you write dialog for a character with an accent with grace and respect, without coming across as offensive?


First and foremost, you must ask yourself: how does the character's accent serve your story?

Make sure you have a good answer before you proceed. Does the maid's Spanish accent underline the racial and economic divides in our society, or does it simply strengthen the stereotype that all maids are Hispanic? What can you achieve by giving a waiter - or a high-powered attorney - a Pakistani accent? Do you expect your readers to react to a Russian accent in a certain way, and what do you plan to do with that reaction?

You must always remember that an accent is a tool, not a comment on the character's personality. When you use an accent to imply intellectual abilities, or to draw humor from the imperfect English, you run the risk of offending your readers. But used carefully and with a lot of forethought, an accent can add depth and flavor to your writing.


If ever the saying "write what you know" were true, it's in the case of writing accents. Make no mistake: if you fake it, your readers will know. So before you use a specific accent in your writing, you must make sure you know what it sounds like.

American movies are not always the best source of research. If you do have to use movies for your research, check the actor bios at the Internet Movie Database: do they have a real-life connection to the accent they're portraying?

Luckily, we now have a much more accurate source: the World Wide Web. Today, the Internet connects cultures and continents in ways unimaginable a decade ago, putting resources from various countries at our fingertips. Whatever the ethnicity of your character, chances are, you will find videos by his or her compatriots on YouTube.

Your best sources, however, will come from real life. Meet people who speak with the accent you are trying to portray; talk to them - and more to the point, listen to them. However, be mindful of the way an accent might change over the years: if your character has only just arrived in the country, chances are, chatting up your university professor who has been living here since the '40s will be of little help.


The easiest - and safest - way to let the reader know that one of your characters has an accent, is to indicate this in the exposition or in the description of the character. You can simply add "he said with a heavy accent" after the line, or be a bit more creative and imply the accent, as in "he said, rolling his Rs" or "she stammered, thinking hard of the right words."

But as with all safe things, this method is low on drama. If you want your dialog to pack a punch, you might have no choice but to insert it into the actual lines.


Phonetic spelling of mispronounced words is an often misused way of writing dialog with an accent. Most of us don't think twice when we read a German character say "Ze child fell into ze vell", or when a Korean character misspeaks a greeting as "Herro" - we have been conditioned by years of reading this kind of stereotyped misspelling to recognize what the speech patterns signify.

But the common use of this method is often its undoing. More often than not, the phonetic misspellings come across as patently racist - and unless this is precisely the point you are trying to make, you might want to steer clear of them.

Another problem with phonetic misspelling is that anything more than the barest sprinkling of misspelled words can make it very difficult to read. Spelling mistakes tend to jar readers out of the story, diverting their attention. This may be your aim - but know when to let it go. Chances are, the readers will continue reading the character's lines with the accent you've assigned to him or her; and you can always remind them of it later in the dialog.

Formal Style

To use accents effectively, you must know how a person learns a new language. Most of the time, we learn the formal structure of the language first; once we are comfortable with the formal language, we can start learning the more conversational language patterns, which often break the formal rules.

For example, a person in the beginning stages of learning English is less likely to use contractions like "it's", "he's", "they're", and others. You can make great use of this: having your character say "It is raining" instead of "It's raining" can be a subtle way of showing his or her accent.

You can take this method a step further by having a character use formal language in informal settings that clearly don't warrant it: for example, having your character speak in rigid academic English during a rowdy party can be a further reminder of the character's accent.

This method can also be inverted to illustrate an opposite point: that cultural similarities can sometimes bridge language barriers. A record store owner in the British television series Life on Mars set in the '70s Manchester, for example, speaks with a thick Indian accent, but uses very conversational language peppered with youthful slang of the time, like "groovy" and "chicks": he is a typical young "dude" of his age, regardless of his accent.


Idiom misuse is another great way of implying an accent. If you can train yourself to look at the English language through the eyes of an outsider, you can use this method to add gentle, playful fun to your dialog.

A great deal of our speech consists of idioms. From the moment we "take a shower" in the morning to the moment we "fall asleep" at night, we use words to describe things they don't actually mean. We don't actually take the shower anywhere, and falling asleep will, hopefully, not involve any actual falling.

We are so used to this idiomatic nature of our language that most of the time we don't even realize we are using idioms. Most of us will recognize "off the top of your head" as an idiom - but asked to think of an idiom off the top of our head, how many of us would say "catch the bus"?

Since idioms make (let's face it) no literal sense, they often prove to be a challenge for language students. Even people with advanced knowledge of English can sometimes misuse less common idioms. The misuse can be subtle - like "let's play it by the ear", or more pronounced - like "I got goose lumps", depending on your character's mastery of English.


No matter which method you prefer, the main ingredient in the successful use of accents is a keen awareness of your own language and the way it might sound to others. What are you taking for granted? What are you not noticing?

In a way, by using an accent gracefully and with a well-defined purpose, you can do much more than add flavor to your dialog: you can uncover new dimensions of the language and of the story for yourself - and for your readers.


Post a Comment