Multicultural Writing: The Struggle of the Second Language

Around writing circles we always hear the same question about writing bilingual and multicultural characters: when and how do people slip from their mother tongue into their second language?

As someone with Spanish as their first language and who is involved in a deeply multicultural border city in Mexico, I can assure you that the answer to that question can be almost anytime. We will touch on that subject a bit later, but the real question here (and one that is not always asked) is how should writers slip from one language to another when they are telling a story? Do the stories come to them in their first language? In their second? All of them at once?

I was born and raised in Mexico, just five minutes away from the California border. Spanish is my primary language, and I’ve always lived in a household were it was the only thing we speak, read, and write. Thankfully, living in a frontier city, I had many opportunities to learn English, and since then I have been practicing it online. This part is crucial… many of us writers who have English as our secondary language have learned it through online interactions, such as television and movies, or from reading in English.

There comes a point in the life of a bilingual person where -despite what some will say- you start to think in both languages. Fragments of your thoughts come in different codes and it becomes a real struggle to decide how a feeling or image is best portrayed in words. Spanglish is a real thing, and sometimes you change languages mid-sentence sólo porque como que así suena mejor. See?

The first big issue multicultural and bilingual writers have to face is choosing which language to write their story. Many factors play into this, and the first of all is your audience.

Perhaps if your story is deeply rooted in your cultural background with characters who speak in your native tongue, you might be inclined to write in that language. Or is your story more universal? Do you plan on using slang from other parts of the world? Maybe the intention is to show your cultural background to readers from another language, and it is in that case that the author must find a way (which is completely different for every language and culture) to translate the uniqueness of their lyrical and spoken customs into a different “code.”

Even then, sometimes the story comes to you in different languages. For example, a scene can be perfectly portrayed in Spanish but not so much in English.

As writers, we need to reach a compromise and settle for the language we chose for the story. We must also be sure we fully understand the cultures that we are representing, because writing in a second language requires knowledge of the way a language moves within that nation and culture, or else its use can potentially lead to disaster, misinterpretations, mistranslations, and sometimes unintended and unwanted comedy.

Expressions, slang, different uses of the same word in different countries…they all come into play when putting a story down into paper. You cannot imagine the world of pain you’ll experience when you realize the innocent thing you tried to say is actually very dirty slang in another language. Or maybe you can imagine it because you have been there, either way it’s best avoided.

Writing is a way of living, it is a journey and an experience, and in so it is different for everyone. But as multicultural writers, we have an especially interesting battle ahead of us. A battle against untranslatable images and words, the dominion of the written practices, the continuous obstacles in cultural differences, and even of accurately representing political struggles.

Even so, there is a bright side! Who better than someone with the constant inner struggle between languages and cultures can portray complicated multicultural characters? Who better to answer the original question: WHEN should a character naturally slip into their first tongue?

With that said, let’s talk a little about multilingual dialogue.

Writing dialogue for multilingual characters is delicate work. The key piece of advice here is doing research on the character’s background and native tongue.

For example, let’s consider my own native country, Mexico. People from the northern Mexico, and specifically from the frontier states, will be more prone to dropping English words or phrases while speaking. The closer to the American border you move, the more people will use American slang in their daily lives. This regional difference from other parts of Mexico is similar to the differences in regional slang everywhere, and always should be at the forefront of the writer’s mind when writing dialogue. Know your character, and know their background.

Further, there are situations in which an individual may be more prone to struggle with “code switching” between languages, or in which they may be more likely to switch back and forth between languages freely.

Some of these examples are:

Stressful and confusing situations. The characters might trip over their words, forget phrases, and slip into their first language when trying to clarify something.

Having two conversations at the same time in two different languages. When on the phone, texting, or in person, they might accidentally switch languages when they switch from one person to the other.

Talking with someone that speaks their first language. They might feel more comfortable dropping words in their first language language, even if the conversation is occurring in their second language.

If the character swears a lot in their first language. Swearing is an interesting phenomenon and people will have different relationships with swear words when talking in their first, second, or third language. For example, someone might never use swear words in their first language, but freely use profanity in their second language. More interesting may be the reason behind this… (character prompt??)

-Privacy. When talking to someone that speaks their first language in public, an individual may choose to speak the first language for privacy purposes if others around may not be native speakers.

It bears repeating, doing research on your character is vital in understanding how they would talk.

Some questions to ask might be:

-How long have they been speaking this language?

-How fluent are they? Do they speak it on a regular basis?

-Where are they from?

-Where are they when the dialogue is being spoken?

Whether you are a multicultural writer or someone who speaks many languages and wants to write in English, there will always be a way for you to jump over the language barriers. Make the language yours, and make it work. Have fun.

About the Author: Mack Robles is a writer and visual artist from the sunny land of Tijuana, Mexico. He has published several stories in anthologies like Adynaton III, Cuaderno Amarillo, Cuaderno Azul, and Seasons. He writes in both Spanish and English, with a focus on transgressive fiction and horror.

Find more info on Mack, click here.

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