On the subject of the recently added Language Helpers section, I've been recently thinking about writing a story in which characters occasionally switch to a foreign language, but every time I go to write it, it just sounds awkward. Would you guys have any suggestions for transitioning between languages in dialogue?
If you listen to somebody who uses a different mother tongue to you, they slip back into their native tongue at certain moments. One of them is when they get angry and either run out of swear words in your language, or are so incensed that they automatically revert to it as a mode of ‘easy’ expression.
My fiancée is Polish, and she speaks excellent English, but she occasionally comes up against a wall. That wall is that there’s a word for something in Polish that there isn’t in English (for example, we would say a child without siblings is ‘an only child’, whereas in Polish, they would be ‘jedynak’). In order to get around this, she tells me what the word is in Polish, and then she tries to find an explanation of the word for me. This is a very natural way for people to communicate, so writing about a character hitting that wall of a missing word is a great way to have them slip back into their native tongue for a moment or two.
Going off the experience of having Polish in-laws, the most natural way I’ve seen people switch language is when they’re speaking to someone else they know speaks that language. There’s no awkwardness about it, they’ll quite happily turn to each other and start talking in the language that’s most comfortable for them to speak to one another in. That’s what we all do.
You’ll also notice that once you understand the meaning of a word, they might stop putting a block on it, because they know you understand it and it’s no longer important to filter it out of conversation with you.
So, in essence, there is no transition, as such. Just a direct switch. Leaking in and out is difficult and unrealistic, it’s more of a snap in and snap out.
When it comes to depicting this with writing, it can be a tricky area, because as I’ve said in another answer, if I don’t speak German, I won’t read a German book. You have to be very selective about when this other language creeps into your dialogue, because if the reader doesn’t understand, you’re cutting them out of the story you invited them into in the first place.
If you’re going to use it, you can utilise other ways of offering the reader some relief from their confusion. 7% of communication is in what we say. Describe body language and tone, focus on facial expression and your character’s POV and level of understanding. Do your research on cultural body language, because what a nod means to you might mean something else in another part of the world.
Ultimately, snap it in, but don’t alienate your audience with great big, important conversations in Swahili. Allow them access in some format and you should be okay.