Bilingual characters are, in my humble opinion, awesome. Who doesn’t love it when the romantic heroine throws around some key Italian phrases to show off how sophisticated she is? Who doesn’t get thrown for a loop when the innocuous secondary character steps in and saves the big business deal with some #flawless Chinese? Plus, using multiple languages adds richness and complexity to your worlds, and provides important character clues, and is just really cool. Language is eXCITING EVERYBODY GET E X C I T E D  W I T H  M E

(ahem)

If you want to write a bilingual character but aren’t feeling confident in your foreign-language skills, good news! Writing a bilingual character requires basically no foreign language ability. You can use it if you want, but unless you’re writing a bilingual book, there’s no real need for foreign words.

Since you can’t subtitle a book, anything that isn’t said in English is usually just written in italics to clue the reader in, like so:

“I don’t hate you,” she said impatiently. “I love you. And I’m afraid to let you see that.”
“Huh?” Her friend said. Tragically, she had studied German in school and did not understand a word of Spanish.
 

See? No Spanish necessary. The characters get to experience all of the drama and tension, and your readers get to revel in it.

If you’re feeling mean and want to shut the reader out of the conversation (or if you just want to flex your fabulous polyglot muscles), you can write key phrases in the target language, like so:

“I don’t hate you,” she said impatiently. “Te quiero. Y tengo miedo de dejarte ver eso.”
“Huh?” Her friend said. Tragically, she had studied German in school and did not understand a word of Spanish.

If someone couldn’t read Spanish, they’d have no idea what was going on. Dropping a few phrases in the target language can be a great way to keep readers in the dark.

If you aren’t bilingual, or you are but just don’t use your second language very much, here are four tips to help add a dash of realism to your bilingual characters:

  1. If two characters speak the same language, they’ll use their mutual language to talk about other people. There’s something about knowing that you can’t be understood that brings out everyone’s inner gossip.
  2. Bilingual people typically pick a language and stick with it. It’s tiring and confusing to switch back and forth between languages all the time. Unless your character is very tired, very angry, very drunk, or just very determined to be confusing, they’re not going to switch between languages mid-sentence.
  3. Idioms, proverbs, and slang words are basically bilingual Kryptonite. An otherwise fluent speaker who can talk about business, science, and culture can be rendered helpless by a simple expression. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? What eggs? What basket? I DON’T HAVE A BASKET. WE WERE TALKING ABOUT COLLEGE APPLICATIONS, BRENDA.
  4. You aren’t the same level of “smart” in every language. Unless they’re a native speaker both languages, there’s a strong, strong chance that your character is going to be “smarter” (i.e. have a better vocabulary and an easier time formatting complex sentences) in one language than in the other. If your character is speaking in their second or third language, keep in mind that they might be struggling to articulate just how smart and aware they really are.

Those are all my thoughts—now I want to hear yours!

Do you have any bilingual characters? How many languages do they speak? Are any of the languages fictional?