If you’re writing a book set outside of your native land and language, or are writing about immigrants to your country, you should know how to season the story with just the right amount of foreign words, phrases, and lines. But just like with cooking, too much seasoning can ruin it, just as too little seasoning doesn’t grant any discernable flavor.
One of the reasons I’m able to read a little French is because I’ve read so many old books that were published when many people spoke French as a second language. After awhile, I no longer needed to look each word and verb conjugation up in my dad’s old 1910 French-English dictionary. (Since the books I was reading were so old, I obviously didn’t need a modern dictionary with words like “microwave” or “computer.”) I’ve also had two non-consecutive years of formal French instruction, but in some ways, translating lines and entire dialogues in those old books was a more effective learning tool for me.
But now, in the 21st century, French is no longer most people’s assumed second language. Many Americans don’t even know any other languages. I know I’m rare for having formally studied French, Spanish, Russian, Czech, and Italian, and having taught myself some German, Dutch, Japanese, Hungarian, Estonian, and bits and pieces of other languages. So today, when you fill up a book set outside of your culture and language with foreign words and dialogues, it just seems pretentious and annoying.
During my first major writing phase of my first Russian novel, I went crazy with copying out words and phrases from the old 1948 Russian-English dictionary I had out of the library. I was seriously planning to use all of these sentences in my novel somehow, and actually did use a fair number of them in the oldest original material. But I was a really bad transliterator at 13. I truly didn’t understand that some letters were two or four letters long when transliterated, like CH, SH, TS, KH, YO, and SHCH. I was writing S and C for most of those letters, embarrassingly enough.
Guess what came out during my endless rounds of edits, rewrites, and revisions a decade after finally finishing? All those pointless Russian sentences that I really only put in there to try to show off. Even if the very next line makes clear what was just said and you don’t need a whole glossary at the back, it’s still kind of annoying if you don’t speak the language. There was a YA Russian historical fiction novel I tried to read recently but just couldn’t finish (the first-person present tense ripped me right out of the story, not to mention the FOUR narrators were too indistinct), and it was loaded with Russian words and phrases. That’s no longer a little cultural flavor, that’s just pretentiousness and showing off.
What I do now is have a stock repertoire of basic words and phrases that impart just enough Russian (or Dutch, German, Hungarian, etc.) flavor, without bogging the reader down. For example, I like to use Russian terms of endearment, such as golubka (literally means “dove” or “pigeon,” but colloquially means “sweetheart” or “darling”) or kukolka moya (my little doll). Insults and curses are also frequently in Russian, in part because I’ve always found cursing in other languages to be far more rich in variety than in English. I also tend to use Russian names for common foods and members of the family. It doesn’t seem very Russian if someone calls his or her grandparents Grandma and Grandpap instead of Babushka and Dedushka.
Sometimes I’ll use a line in another language, like “I love you” or “Go to Hell,” to make it sound more personal to the character than it might in English. But I never use entire dialogues or random sentences in a foreign language anymore, just to show off. There should always be a reason why your multi-cultural book has a word, phrase, or sentence in the characters’ native language. And it should never be to show off your research or knowledge. You never want a reader to be pulled out of a story because s/he has to flip to the glossary every 5-10 minutes.