How-to Fake Speaking a Foreign Language

As anyone who has been reading this blog, or visiting with me at events over the past several years knows, I am a huge proponent of first person interpretation. During the course of my time presenting & interacting not only with the public but with other reenactors in this manner I have run across several popular excuses that folks like to use for why they don’t join me in the fun of first person interpretation.

Today I’d like to debunk one of those excuses and hopefully offer some alternatives for those struggling with first person interpretation or who are interested in getting started.

Using Foreign Language!

First off, it’s great that I need to talk about this subject. Why? Because it means that we aren’t just portraying the average American or Englishman, but that people are interested in portraying the wide variety of nationalities that populate the historic world. This in itself is a fantastic thing! But portraying someone of a non-English speaking nationality is not without its difficulties. The biggest of these, especially for anyone doing first person, is how to deal with a foreign language.

The contrast : a French prisoner in England ; an English prisoner in France. 
1758. Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection
So what options do you have if your heart is set on portraying a non-English speaking person, but you don't speak a lick of the language? That really depends on how determined you are, both in your first person & your dedication to language learning. Are you planning on making this persona your primary focus or is it just a whim to try at the rare event? Are you obsessed like I am, or more of a first person dabbler? Either way, using foreign language properly adds to both first person portrayals & to events as a whole.

The “Sprinkle” Technique of Foreign Language First Person

How can you quickly give the impression of being a non-English speaker in first person, without spending years learning another language? Key words & phrases of course! A friend coined this the “sprinkle technique” because we are using a few key words, sprinkled in with mostly English. It's just enough of the target language to remind the public that you are portraying a foreign speaker but not so much that anyone who doesn't speak the language is confused. It's like in Star Trek shows, where we know the characters speak different languages, but we suspend our disbelief just long enough & accept everyone speaking English besides a few choice terms in their native language (Qapla anyone?).
What are key words & phrases? They are those simple words usually found at the beginning of language books & audio tapes. They are the first for a few obvious reasons; they are easy to learn & they are the words you need to know now when talking to a native speaker. They are the things you say to the lady behind the counter at the coffeehouse in Paris, to the guy getting off the train in Prague or the kids running down the hall in Munich. Those words that everyone from toddlers to seniors know & use.
Now think about how the public at a historic event will react to those same, simple, but essential words when presented in the right context. A member of the public walks into the kitchen at a 16th century event & is greeted by the woman chopping garlic with a cheerful “hola”, or overhears 2 interpreters chatting in English yet when they part one yells “bis spater” & the other “tschuss”. Does that member of the public know exactly what was said? Maybe, maybe not. What they do know is that those first person interpreters, while they might have been speaking in English for the majority of the time, are not portraying English speakers.

Key Words to Learn & When to Use Them

General greetings & goodbyes. If you are going to learn absolutely nothing else, at least learn how to say hello & good bye in your persona's native language. Obviously these words are best used when the public enters or exits a room, or when another first person interpreter joins you. Beyond having an obvious use, the fact that hello & goodbye are used at the beginning & end of interactions is also important. By starting with a single word in your persona's language, you are telling the public a vital piece of information: you are portraying a non-English speaker. Imagine that, one word & they know something about you! Doesn't matter if that is the only dang word you know in your target language & it took 6 months to learn to say it properly! The same goes for saying goodbye. By closing in your persona's language you are giving them a solid reminder of who they were interacting with, a reminder that will stick with them long after the door closes.
France Freedom Britain Slavery. James Gillray. 1789. National Portrait Gallery.

Yes, no, I don't know. In addition to greeting others in your persona's language, being able to easily answer simple questions should be high on the list of words to learn. The simplicity of “yes, no, I don't know” is two fold. First, each has it's own pantomime. No matter what language the public or interpreters speak, everyone understands a vigorous head shake, a big smile & a nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Add in the rudimentary “ya” and you've conveyed not only that you are a non-English speaker, but that you agree with what has been said.

Why is “I don't know” included in this list? Because as living historians there are always going to be times when we simply don't know the answer. Saying it while maintaining the language makes it easier to stay in first person rather than slipping. Plus it's useful for those rare times you happen to run into an actual native speaker & need a quick out if they start speaking a mile a minute in a language you only know 5 words in. Believe me, it will happen & you will be thankful for that little out and a good laugh with the person who really thought you understood them.

Trade Terminology.So you've got the bare essentials down but would still like to add more to your first person foreign language vocabulary without going over board. There are a lot of words out there to choose from, where do you start? With things that your persona would actually have reason to say of course! Will a gunsmith ever need to explain turnip stew to the public, probably not, but a cook might. Knowing what that recipes would have been called in your persona's native language, using it when the public asks what is in the pot & then explaining to them (in English) that it is a turnip stew while showing them the roots demonstrates that your persona is a non-English speaker, but doesn't neglect the public's desire to learn & have their questions answered.

The inability to share information with the public while in first person, especially when that first person is a non-English speaker, is a common concern that is eliminated with the sprinkle technique. We often have to explain unfamiliar English words to the public when discussing historic objects, those terms being in a foreign language is no different. In a way the trade specific terminology itself becomes the springboard to educating the public rather than limiting their experience. Plus, given a “funny” name, even turnip stew can be entertaining.

How to Learn Key Words & Phrases (for Free!)Thanks to the internet you can learn just about every language your heart could desire, for free. All you have to do is know where to look. Since we are only interested in a very simple words & phrases, most of the learning programs that focus on reading, writing & complex grammar are useless. Instead focusing on auditory based programs can make learning the necessary pronunciation fast and easy. Following are my favorite places for learning a variety of languages. In addition, free audio CDs from your local library can be a fantastic, free way to learn a language. Plus they are especially helpful for long car rides, say to far away events where you intend to use said language.

The Contrast. Thomas Rowlandson (printer). 1792. Lewis Walpole Library Online

Omniglot.  A huge, wandering, language loving website that has a section for “Useful Foreign Phrases”. Provides plenty of auditory files in enough languages that even the most obscure reenactor can find one to suit their needs. Great for learning just a few phrases but not much help in how to combine them into a full sentence or more.
Duolingo. My personal favorite for language learning. Very game-like with speech recognition on the phone app, lots of audio, visual & builds gradually over multiple lessons. The main drawback is that you have to actually learn the entire language, not just a few key phrases, so this might not be the best choice if minimalism is your goal.

As you can see, while the idea can be frightening at first, by using the sprinkle technique it is possible to portray a non-english speaking historical persona without also sacrificing your ability to educate the public. Hopefully I will get a chance to see some of you trying out this technique at a historic event in the near future. Until then adios, auf wiedersehen, do widzenia or how ever you choose to say it!

See You in the Past!