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Questions to Ask When Using Foreign Words in Writing

Updated on March 8, 2016

Many writers love using foreign words in their stories. Foreign words allow writers to explore cultures and add realism to their stories. Books from Lewis Carroll's classic novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Khaled Hosseini's modern drama The Kite Runner have used words from other languages to add interest to their stories or enhance the world in which the story takes place.

I have read many novels that use foreign words, and very few of them use the words in a way I've found logical. These words can often interfere with the rest of the story, and send a reader running for Google Translate. There are a few simple questions you can ask when using a foreign word in your story. Note that none of these questions should be applied to loanwords, as they're already part of the English language.

Question One

Is there a word that means the same thing in English?

Sometimes, words from other languages just sound nicer than their English counterparts. Compare "creme brulée" to "burned cream". However, if there is a word that has the same definition as a foreign word, the English word will be much easier for people to understand. Don't call a shovel a "pelle" just because your character is French.

This idea also applies to nicknames. What's easier to understand: "min lille blomst" or "my little flower?" If you speak Norwegian, you might say the first is easier, but everyone else would probably say the English is clearer. Readers will appreciate words they understand more, even if you think "geodaehan ag salam" is a perfect title for an evil Korean dictator. Foreign words can cause confusion that wouldn't occur if English words were used.

Question Two

Is there a similar word in English?

If you know the word doesn't have an English equivalent, you're going to have to do a lot of thinking. There still might be an English word that you can replace a foreign word with. "Sensei" and "teacher" have the same general meaning, but can be used in different ways. A character that's whiter than Wonderbread could refer to a karate teacher as "sensei" with no problem. However, if that character referred to his or her high school teacher were as "sensei" and the story did not take place in Japan, "sensei" feels odd.

Sometimes you can get away with this. For example, "Light novel" is a Japanese term for a novel with short chapters, a low reading level, and a series of images related to what's happening in the story. "Chapter book" describes the same thing. However, a light novel and a chapter book are not the same things. Chapter books are usually aimed at young children. Light novels are aimed at an older audience. One popular light novel, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, has a scene with underage drinking - not the kind of thing that 6 to 10 year olds should be reading about.

Question Three

Does my use of this term make sense to other people?

If both of the above questions can be answered with "yes", it's time to take your foreign word to the test. Show the section of story where your word appears to people who have no experience with the language. They don't need to understand the plot or the characters, just the foreign word. Do not tell them anything about the word.

They might end up confused by your word if they read it in the context it is printed in. If this is the case, you need to do one of two things. Either change the context to help explain the word or take the word out. Taking the word out may be the fastest solution, but changing the context keeps the enrichment the foreign word adds.


Why do these questions matter?

Asking these questions can help to alleviate reader confusion and make your readers' experience more enjoyable. If readers are not confused by your book, they are more likely to think favourably of it, or less likely to put the book down in confusion.

It also means they don't have to struggle with pronunciation if they reading the book out loud or are reading it in a play. Thomas Highway uses Cree and Ojibway words in much of his work. These words can be long and confusing for people who do not already speak those languages. It's a shame, then, that his plays aren't bundled with pronunciation guides.

Using these suggestions can help broaden your audience, but they aren't rules to abide by all of the time. Sometimes, you may be able to use a word that does have an English equivalent without confusing your reader if you carefully explain what it means in your story. Use your intuition when deciding how effective a word is.

How can I help readers understand my words?

There are several easy ways to help readers understand what your foreign words mean. One way is to explain the definitions of words in the text, if you can do so elegantly. Instead of saying something like, "Sarah called me 'ndege mdogo,'" try something like "Sarah called me 'ndege mdogo', little bird."

One thing that should add clarity to any story is a glossary, a list of words and their definitions. It can be rather frustrating when readers come across a word they don't know, flip to the back of the book, and find nothing there. Glossaries can help readers in several ways. They can provide definitions for all of the words, in case a reader forgets what a word means or you can't work in a definition elegantly. You can add pronunciation guides to eliminate confusion regarding how to pronounce words, helping out classrooms and book clubs across the world. Glossaries can even provide a way for students to learn new words in a language without having to read entirely in that language. If you decide to use a glossary, put every word in the glossary. Even if you explained a word in the story itself or a word is extremely basic, having it in the glossary can help readers understand. Readers that know the language can ignore the glossary.


Now you understand how to make words from other languages work in a story, you can write without worrying about alienating potential readers. They can understand the story and pass it on to others. These tips can help a story go from a niche product to something even the plainest layperson can enjoy.

Have you ever used foreign words in your stories?

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What techniques do you use with forgien words? Let me know in the comments.

© 2015 Molly Layton


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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      That makes perfect sense not to use foreign words that are not commonly understood (unless explained, as in your 'little bird' example), but it makes the story more enjoyable if not having to always stop and discover the meaning. Nicely designed hub and good article. Will share this!

    • Molly Layton profile image

      Molly Layton 3 years ago from Alberta

      Thank you, Billy!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very good suggestions and a well-written article. Nicely done!