using foreign language words in writing

Using foreign language words in writing.

Please welcome author Carmen Amato with a guest post on using foreign-language words.

“The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.” – Hippocrates

If your book is set in a non-English speaking location or your characters do not speak English, how are your readers convinced that they are striding through France or Italy? How can readers “hear” the character speak French or Italian? After all, you are writing in English, not in a foreign language.

Don’t let Hippocrates scare you away from using unfamiliar words to create an authentic tone and emphasize a culture or personality. By adding a few words or phrases in a foreign language you can transport your readers wherever you want them to go.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

The Basics

1. Use mostly foreign-language common nouns and put them in italics. For example:

“He’s a pendejo who makes me nuts,” she said.

2. Don’t italicize forms of address.

Wrong: Monsieur Bonaparte was very short.

Right: Madame Bonaparte was tall.

3. Foreign place locations are not italicized, unless you are using a foreign word as a descriptive term.

Wrong: The city of Valencia in Spain has great museums.

Right: La playa stretched out for miles of white sand.

4. Either provide the definition or add context so the reader gets a notion of the meaning. For example:

Luz worked as a muchacha planta—a live-in housemaid—in the Vega household.

As a muchacha planta, Luz worked twelve hours a day scrubbing the Vega house.

5. Make sure you know the actual foreign-language word, and don’t attempt a phonetic interpretation on your own. Take the time to research if you don’t know the language well.

Wrong: Senior Vega smoked cigars and Luz hated the smell.

Right: Señor Vega smoked cigars.

Spelling Tips

6. When you want to incorporate a language that does not use a Roman alphabet, such as Chinese, Russian, or Greek, use the established transliteration. This means someone has already mapped the sound of the original language to the alphabet of another language. Use of a transliterated word will give the reader some notion of how it sounds. The exception to this would be if you retain the original alphabet in order to give the reader a visual cue. In such a case the foreign words in their original alphabet would not be italicized. For example:

Kalimera,” the Greek man said, and Anna knew it was a greeting.

The sign read, “σας ευχαριστώ,” and Anna didn’t have a clue.

7. Don’t forget the accent marks of the original foreign-language spelling, such as ñ, é, ö, etc. Add accent marks in Microsoft Word with the Insert Symbol function. Omitting an accent can change the entire meaning of a word in that language. For example:

In Spanish, año means “year,” but ano means a certain part of your, ahem, bottom.

Bonus Points

8. Each time you insert a foreign-language word or phrase the reader’s eye hesitates. They have to spend an extra second processing the new terminology. Think of the foreign language as salt and only season lightly.

9. Know how to pronounce the words you use. You don’t want to get caught at a press event or reading and stumble over a word your audience expects you to know.

10. Add the words and their meanings to your book’s description on Amazon using Shelfari’s Book Extras feature. You don’t have to provide a dictionary description, just a simple and quick explanation for your readers. For example:

Pendejo: a jerk

With these tips you can make those unfamiliar words seem downright familiar! But if you’re still not sure how foreign-language words can spice up your writing, check out some good examples. Try Anything Considered by Peter Mayle (French) and The Hidden Light of Mexico City (aff links) by Carmen Amato (Spanish).

Do you have any tips for including foreign-language words in English-language writing? Let us know in the comments!

carmen-amatoAbout the Author: In addition to The Hidden Light of Mexico City, Carmen Amato is the author of the Emilia Cruz mystery novels set in Acapulco, including Cliff Diver, Hat Dance and the short-story collection Made in Acapulco (aff links). Her books draw on her experiences living in Mexico and Central America. A cultural observer and occasional nomad, she currently divides her time between the United States and Central America. Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter @CarmenConnects.

Pin It on Pinterest