Monday, June 25, 2012

Why I'm Learning Russian and Why You Should Learn Urdu or Maybe Tagalog

I’ll be one of the first to admit that I can go overboard when it comes to research. I like to follow trails wherever they lead and can spend months just reading when I should probably be writing the story.

One thing I’ve done under the umbrella of book research is learn languages. Languages have always fascinated me. When I was a kid, I remember spending hours poring over my mom’s college Spanish texts and even dipping into her text of Beowulf in the original old English (I guess it runs in the family). So when I decided to write about a Russian spy, it seemed natural to come home with a stack of Russian language books from the library, including the entire CD set of Pimsleur’s Russian courses, one of the best ways to get pronunciation and syntax drilled into your brain.

So why would I need to learn a whole new language just because my hero is from another country? I gave this a lot of thought because, let’s face it, learning a language is time-consuming, and there are all kinds of ways to handwave that kind of thing in fiction.

But I decided to pursue the venture, as much as it seemed like overkill. And I discovered that, yes, learning the language made me feel more comfortable with the characters.

My heroine is American but knows Russian, so knowing how the language feels in the mouth helps me add verisimilitude when she exercises her bilingual skills. That might sound weird but give it a try. My college Spanish teachers said to smile when you speak Spanish—it helps keep the words at the front of the mouth. Irish Gaelic seems to depend a lot more on the tongue. And Russian seems to be either way in the back of the throat or about to fall right out on your chin, depending on the word.

Another issue is syntax and word choice. Without knowing something about the language, I wouldn’t have known why Russians tend to drop articles (there are no articles in Russian). I also wouldn’t know what English words are difficult for Russians to pronounce. (As far as what Russian words are difficult for English speakers to pronounce, the answer is all of them.)

Of course I could figure out a lot of this listening to Russians speaking English on YouTube. (Which, by the way, is a great reason to watch hours and hours of Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin interviews and call it work.) But knowing the reasons why they speak like they do makes it easier to remember what my personal Evgeni will sound like when he speaks English.

There are also scenes when both characters are speaking Russian. In these cases, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where they talk as if they were both speaking English, idioms and all. But it’s more realistic to reflect some of the natural syntax and idiomatic usages of Russian. I want there to be a distinct “feel” to the dialogue based on what language is being spoken and who’s speaking it. I think it’ll add something to the story.

So I’ll keep plugging away with my Russian lessons. Maybe down the road I’ll know it well enough to follow the KHL. In the meantime, here’s a challenge—if one or more of your characters speak something other than English, see if a bit of study of their native language gives you different insights into how you write them.