I’m sure we’ve all encountered a protagonist who, for some reason or another, had to learn a language and learn it fast. They might have spent their time slaving over books, learning with an instructor, practicing with a native, or something else, but the result is always the same. After a few dedicated (maybe) weeks—BAM! The protagonist is completely fluent in the language and will never have any difficulty with it ever again at any point in their life. They won’t even make minor mistakes; it’s as if they’re a native speaker.

I’d just like to say that of all the absurd, undeserved powers fantasy protagonists get, this is the one I most want. I’ve been studying French for the past four and a half years and Spanish for the past two, and I am not fluent in either. My French is passable and my Spanish… Well, let’s just not talk about it.

My point is that I can assure you based on personal experience that fluency does not work that way in the real world. There are a couple reasons for this.

1. The capacity to learn language greatly decreases after childhood.

Children are essentially linguistic sponges, by which I mean they are remarkably good at learning languages. There are plenty of theories as to how exactly the process of language acquisition works, but regardless of which is true, there is hard scientific evidence that proves children under the age of ten are better at learning foreign languages than their elders. For example, a child can learn to speak a language as well as a native through prolonged exposure, whereas someone older generally needs to have someone explain how the language they’re learning works.

But even children can’t learn languages as fast fantasy protagonists, who are nearly always teenaged or older. I find this extremely annoying because it smacks of stupidity and thoughtlessness. If it were really that easy to learn languages, why the hell would there be multiple levels of language courses at high schools and universities? Wouldn’t just one course be enough? And why would governments pay translators and interpreters such large salaries? Couldn’t they just include a couple weeks of language study in their employees’ training and have everyone be fluent?

Seriously. Anyone who has tried to learn a language beyond childhood can attest to the difficulty. I’m not at all saying it’s impossible for older people to learn languages, just that it’s something that takes dedicated effort over a long period of time. Yes, there are some people who have a talent for learning languages, and yes, learning a language does become easier if you’ve already learned a different language before that one. Even then, though, it’s not an overnight process. True fluency takes years to develop, even among those who are especially linguistically receptive.

2. Memorization =/= fluency.

The general perception I get from fantasy authors is that learning a language is nothing more than memorizing a bunch of words and phrases, and that perception is sadly mistaken.

Fluency is inherently creative. If you think about the way you use English (or whatever your primary language is) on a daily basis, you’re not just repeating a stock set of phrases you learned when you were a child. You’re constantly creating new, unique sentences that you’ve never heard or said before to accurately express what you want or need to express. And to be able to creatively use language, you have to have an understanding (if only an implicit one) beyond just what a word or expression means.

Even supposing just memorizing words could make a person fluent, it would be impossible to learn enough words to become fluent in the amount of time fantasy protagonists take. The lowest estimate I’ve seen for the average amount of words a person regularly uses is 20,000 and the highest is 60,000. Assuming our protagonist has thirty days to learn the language, they would have to learn at least 667 words a day and at most 2,000, and that’s not even considering the fact that words can have multiple meanings. Unless the protagonist has some sort of magic that provides them with perfect memory, it’s impossible.

Besides, just knowing what a word or expression literally translates to doesn’t mean you understand the subtle rules that govern its usage. To use a basic and quick example, French has two subject pronouns that would translate to “you,” which are tu and vous. Both pronouns can be used to directly address a single person, but they’re not interchangeable. The difference? Formality. You would address your family and close friends as tu and strangers and superiors as vous. I’ve seen quite a few English speakers make the mistake of using vous for everything when first learning French, and while this alone doesn’t make you impossible to understand, it’s enough to mark you as a non-native speaker.

If a fantasy protagonist would make even a minor mistake like this one, I would weep with joy. It would show that the author had actually considered that not all languages are exactly the same.

3. In the real world, there are varying levels of fluency.

I mentioned earlier in this article that although I speak French, I am not fluent. I do, however, have what some people would call travel fluency. If you dropped me by air into a French speaking country, I could probably survive long enough to get a plane ticket home. I’d be in trouble if the person I shared a seat with on the train tried to start up a conversation with me, though.

Of course, fantasy characters never seem to just be travel fluent; like many things, fluency is much more black and white in fantasy than it is in real life, and like many things in fantasy, this is really unrealistic. That whole cramming to learn a language super fast thing would be slightly more believable if the characters in question merely had travel fluency or at least had a limited enough fluency in their target language to make speaking with natives somewhat difficult.

Here’s something else to consider: it is much easier to comprehend a foreign language than it is to produce it. For example, I used to know a girl whose grandparents were from Sri Lanka and they usually spoke Sinhala to her. She could understand the language reasonably well, but she spoke it poorly. Why is it that fantasy protagonists never find themselves in similar situations, where they understand what’s being said to them but aren’t quite sure how to phrase an appropriate response?

Another important thing to note about comprehension is that you don’t necessarily have to understand every single part of what someone is saying to you to understand what they mean. If you’re reasonably competent at speaking the language, you can understand the gist and get by. Just keep in mind that going by the gist can lead to errors. A guy in my French class last year heard the sentence, “Je voudrais une chambre pour une personne” (“I would like a room for one person”) and mistook it for “Je voudrais une chambre avec une personne” (“I would like a room with a person”) because he was just going by the gist of what he heard.

Personally, I think a character’s unfamiliarity with the language they’re trying to speak is a potentially interesting addition to a story. It could be a way to squeeze in a couple of jokes at the very least, but it could also be much more. An inability to effectively communicate could easily be a plot point, or a source of character development. If nothing else, varying levels of fluency can be used to add a bit of realism to the story.


Fluency is not a particularly difficult phenomenon to portray correctly, but even so, we’re still forced to swallow things like protagonists who learn the entirety of a language in a matter of weeks. I think the root of the problem is that most fantasy authors live in predominantly monolingual countries where fluency in multiple languages isn’t an everyday issue, so it doesn’t occur to them that they’re doing anything wrong. And since fantasy authors seem averse to doing research in general, they’re certainly not going to want to do research about language that would lead them to realize what they’re doing.

Not that extensive research would be required. All it takes is awareness and a little common sense, and the optimistic side of me wants to believe that those qualities aren’t beyond fantasy authors.

Tagged as: ,


  1. swenson on 7 July 2009, 10:29 said:

    I love II’s articles, they’re always good and relevant! I have to agree on the topic of fantasy characters picking up languages far too quickly, especially with complicated languages. Now, I could overlook it a bit more, perhaps, if they were in a country that only spoke the other language, so they were forced to use it all the time. That would encourage you to learn faster, because you’re completely surrounded by it! Even then, though, it should take months to get any degree of even travel fluency, even if you’re gifted.

    I sympathize with the part about studying French and still not being fluent- I’m OK in Spanish. I couldn’t stand up and give a speech or put together complex sentences or even have a real conversation with someone, but I can read street signs, get directions, shop, that sort of thing. That’s after exposure to basic Spanish since I was a kid (my aunt and uncle live in Mexico, and my mom always seems to have a Spanish learning tape running) and two years of high school Spanish! Now, I wasn’t as motivated as a book character would be, so I could understand them reaching my level of fluency much quicker. But… still! Two weeks? No. Two months? Maybe.

    Really, I don’t think it’d be that hard to fix this, anyway. Even CP didn’t completely screw this one up, what with Eragon knowing nothing more than memorized phrases in the ancient language (and the one time he tries to put together a sentence of his own, he screws it up and curses a baby by mistake) and only really learning the language after being forced to spend several months speaking almost nothing but it, surrounded by native speakers of it. See, you just have to be realistic (or, better yet, don’t make a different language) and there isn’t a problem.

  2. Proserpina FC on 7 July 2009, 12:04 said:

    As with most details in fantasy, the lack of language barriers is another aversion from authors having complications or conflicts that don’t center on swords, dragons or magical explosions.

    Most fantasy authors I know don’t even like throwing in extra complications like not knowing the local language because they don’t want to do the research, they think it doesn’t matter, or they are just so not used to the idea that it seems like overkill. And that’s what they told me, so I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration. :(

    More examples of these understated, non-explosive complications are needed in fantasy. I’m including them in my book, so can I have some examples of how to mess up a language?

    There are the comedy staples, which are just saying “I want to get in your pants.” when you meant to say “I want to buy a hot dog.” But what can really mess up a situation?

    In my story, I made the characters high-ranking enough that they are already knowledgeable of other languages, but they get into trouble because they THINK they are fluent…

  3. Nate Winchester on 7 July 2009, 12:39 said:

    Question. (didn’t see it in your article though I’m going to go over it in detail soon)

    Isn’t there some cases though, with people who have natural linguistic talents? (we might say, they never STOP being a language sponge) My uncle who works in the Foreign Service (he has to learn a new language regularly, though he admits that it’s difficult) spoke of a man he worked with that knew 15 languages and was working on learning a new one. Apparently, he just had a real talent for tongues.

    Also, isn’t there a big difference between speaking and writing? I’ve never been good at speaking Spanish but never had much trouble with reading & writing it.

    I demand an article supplement!
    (just kidding, good article)

  4. NeuroticPlatypus on 7 July 2009, 12:41 said:

    This is a really good article, and I agree that fantasy protagonists become fluent much to quickly. These people always seem to be geniuses and prodigies that never have to give too much of an effort to learn anything.

    I took two years of Spanish, and I still can’t understand hardly anything. I was good at the mechanics of it, but I could never remember what the words meant.

    Also, people who are just learning a language tend to speak it much slower than natives, which is why it’s harder to understand the natives. Like in Spanish, native speakers blend their words together, so I find it hard to even get the gist. It would take years and years of practice before I would be able to sound like them or understand them all the time.

    Overall, great article. This is really just laziness on the part of fantasy authors. It doesn’t take a genius or a lot of research to know that people don’t become fluent in mere weeks.

  5. Snow White Queen on 7 July 2009, 13:55 said:

    Great article, and really relevant. I especially agree with your point that understanding is easier than speaking, especially understanding the gist.

    I attended a sort of Indian Sunday School for about 8 years to learn Tamil. After all that I can only speak about as well as a 3 year old native speaker, although my understanding is slightly better. I’m not very good with languages other than English, but you get my point.

  6. Kevin on 7 July 2009, 14:11 said:

    I know at least a few of my writer acquaintances (online or otherwise) don’t go into it because they think it’s just an extra detail that gets in the way of the story.

    On the contrary, I find the idea of everyone being English fluent extremely distracting and never believable. It’s like fantasy continents are more globalized than the real world, absent digital communication and fast modes of transit.

  7. Jeni on 7 July 2009, 14:12 said:

    Good article, readable and interesting to follow.

    But. (There’s always a but).

    I found it slightly hypocritical that you disparaged some fantasy writers for a lack of research or realistic language learning, and yet provided no examples of writers who have done this.

    We all know CP is the prime example, but even he used supposed language fluency against Eragon. He messed up in his blessing he put on Elva, because he hadn’t grasped the grammar of the AL.

    So, yes, good article, but it would be nice to see some evidence to back up your points next time. :)

  8. lawzard on 7 July 2009, 15:54 said:

    @ swenson

    I’d be suspicious of a protagonist becoming fluent in even two month, unless they were very limited in what they could say or they spent the majority of their time working with the language.

    As for Paolini, he does handle language much better than I would expect him to, based on the way he handles other cultural phenomena. The fact Eragon had only memorized the phrases Brom taught him and didn’t know the exact meanings of said phrases was realistic. I also admittedly thought the idea of the accidental curse was pretty cool.

    Even so, there are areas where Paolini falls short. That whole “your word father came from our word farthen” thing made me facepalm. It implies that the Alagaesian human language (Is it ever actually given a name?) is English, and real world cultures generally don’t use loanwords for things as basic as words for parents and family members.

    @ Proserpina FC

    Your best bets with non-explosive examples would probably have to do with false cognates (words that look similar but don’t mean the same thing) and idiomatic expressions (phrases that you can’t translate literally). An example of the first is the Spanish word embarazada, which actually means pregnant. As for an idiomatic expression, the first thing that comes to mind is the French expression J’ai chaud. It literally translates to “I have hot” but it is used to say you’re feeling warm. If you were to literally translate “I’m hot” to French (Je suis chaud), you’d be saying something more along the lines of “I’m feeling hot and bothered.”

    You could also probably have some fun with grammatical gender. Perhaps a male character could use the feminine form of an adjective to describe himself, and his more fluent friends won’t let him hear the end of it.

    I’m sure you could get more ideas from websites such as this and this .

    @ Nate Winchester

    You’re correct; there are people who have a miraculous ability to learn languages. These sorts of people are rare, though, so they should be used sparingly in stories for realism’s sake. It’s also important to note that it becomes easier to learn a language if you’ve learned one before because you have, essentially, learned how to learn a language. It’s even easier to learn languages that are related to each other; I already knew a fair amount of French when I started learning Spanish, and that greatly simplified the process because the two languages’ grammars are so similar.

    You’re right about the difference between writing and speaking, as well. Written stuff is much easier to deal with because you can read it as slowly or as many times as you need, and you don’t have to deal with the mess of accents, dialects, or people speaking too quickly for you to understand.

    @ Jeni

    Point taken. I’ll keep that in mind in the future. :) This article was meant more to inform people about how fluency realistically works rather than to criticize specific authors, but in retrospect, my lack of examples does make my argument look a bit groundless. And I admittedly do get a little pissy in places.

    One example that comes to mind, though, is the novel The Eternal Rose by Gail Dayton. The main character, Kallista, learns the language Daryathi in a couple of months while she’s traveling to the country. By the time she arrives, she knows it well enough to understand the welcome speeches given to her by Daryathi politicians (since she’s a queen). It stands to reason that the register of Daryath that she would be taught would be the decorated and highly formal sort she would use in court, but before you can learn that sort of thing you’d realistically have to learn the basics. It also happens that every Daryath Kallista needs to speak with is conveniently completely fluent in her native tongue, even random servants who would have no reason to be.

    As for Paolini, he doesn’t handle fluency that badly, as I mentioned in my comment to swenson. There are still areas where his lack of knowledge about language shows, though, like the loanword example I used above and how quickly Eragon learns to read.

  9. Asahel on 7 July 2009, 16:23 said:


    There are definitely examples of people who never stop being “language sponges.” William Tyndale comes to mind, for example. I recall that one of his contemporaries wrote that Tyndale spoke 8 languages fluently. The interesting thing? Tyndale spoke 9. The writer was German and forgot to count that Tyndale spoke German because he spoke it so fluently, he thought it was Tyndale’s native tongue.

    Of course, this sort of thing shouldn’t be relied upon too heavily. If you have a character that’s very good at languages, it’s a good idea to have a handful of characters that recognize it as the amazing trait that it is. And I’d recommend against having multiple language sponges just to show how rare it is. (If there are multiple sponges, it’d probably be more interesting to have them on opposite sides of whatever conflict.)

    I haven’t written a story with a William Tyndale, but in my latest story, I am messing around with a bunch of languages. One of the languages is like English in the sense that it’s spoken very heavily abroad. Even then, though, foreigners that speak it often mess it up in ways in keeping with their usual grammar (for example, in one country, their language doesn’t have indefinite articles, so when they translate their thoughts, they always say “the” and never “an” or “a,” unless, of course, they’re very good at the other language.) The Mages in the story are all bilingual at minimum, speaking both their native tongue and the language of the Empire, which is used for spells.

    I’ve decided against using the main workaround: There is no spell to translate languages, so no spellcasting your lack of understanding away. And, incidentally, no one learns any language that he/she didn’t know at the start of the story. It’s quite fun when they’re in countries where not everyone in the group speaks the local language.

  10. sansafro187 on 7 July 2009, 17:33 said:

    @Kevin: I assume that in most cases the universal use of English is Translation Convention run slightly amok, but speaking for myself at least, it doesn’t bother me as long as the author doesn’t draw attention to it. Like magic and super-science, most people are probably willing to chalk it up to suspension of disbelief as long as it doesn’t interfere with the story.

    When fluency in multiple languages is introduced as a plot point, however, I agree with you. When the author directly addresses the languages used, it invites the reader to examine it critically and the verisimilitude breaks down.

    As an aside, people claim to do this in real life all the time, and it bugs the hell out of me. If I dropkicked every person who proved their ”fluency” in Japanese by saying something as improbably phrased as あなたはバカです… well, there would be lots of dropkicked people around.

  11. SMARTALIENQT on 7 July 2009, 17:42 said:

    Thanks for the article, lawzard! I speak English and German, and though I’ve taken it for about two years, I’m not even near fluent in it. I can understand, say, the German versions of Disney movies (“Frollo ist bleich und trägt Korsett!”), but I have problems speaking with my teachers in the proper form of formality. I’m building a world with multiple languages, and this definitely helps.

  12. SubStandardDeviation on 8 July 2009, 01:13 said:

    For most writers and readers, the convenience of having everyone speak English (substitute author’s native language here) usually outweighs whatever realism or plot points could be squeezed out of protagonists with language difficulties.

    Good article, by the way.

    I disagree that Eragon is exempt from this convention, or crap, or whatever you want to call it. Highlights: learns to read his native language in a week. Arya guides him to the secret hideout of the Varden by giving him thought-instructions in the AL, which he understands perfectly. After having known the AL for a year at most, he composes an original epic poem, in the AL, which is hailed as being so good (compared to Elvish poets who have spoken the language their whole, long, lives) that the Elves vote to put it in their Poetry Hall of Fame.

    @ lawzard

    br. You could also probably have some fun with grammatical gender. Perhaps a male character could use the feminine form of an adjective to describe himself, and his more fluent friends won’t let him hear the end of it.

    Americans can’t even handle the difference between ‘blond’ and ‘blonde’ half the time, and you expect them to apply this to foreign languages?

    I don’t speak any languages except American fluently, but I know a bit of Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, German, Latin… The vocabulary words are somewhere in my long-term storage, so I can understand what a word means when I hear it, but I can’t dredge it up and construct sentences at will, and don’t even get me started on grammar.

  13. sansafro187 on 8 July 2009, 01:39 said:

    I agree with SSD that Eragon really shouldn’t be exempt, because like pretty much everything else in the majority of the books, the language barrier only comes up when the plot dictates it, and every time it isn’t working against Eragon for a contrived reason, Eragon’s command of language is never an issue. If it was really that big of a problem, it was something he should have to deal with the majority of the time he uses the language.

    That’s just textbook Paolini though.

  14. Snow White Queen on 8 July 2009, 02:55 said:

    Ok, ‘blond’ is the color, ‘blonde’ is a person with blond hair, right?

    I forgot about that whole epic poem thing…I think I consciously tried to block it from my memory or something.

  15. Nate Winchester on 8 July 2009, 07:48 said:

    And I’d recommend against having multiple language sponges just to show how rare it is. (If there are multiple sponges, it’d probably be more interesting to have them on opposite sides of whatever conflict.)

    Nah, I have just one, the main character. (though some species have various skills) and there are 2 instances of language magic.

    I also try to make it clear that what the reader is reading is a translation. That the characters in question are not literally speaking English, the author is just making their speech easier to read for the audience. (well that and I have no skill at languages so I’m staying away from them)

    If it was really that big of a problem, it was something he should have to deal with the majority of the time he uses the language.

    Motto on this. Yeah, the “accidental” curse was kind of cool, except it was ‘alone.’ If it was a fairly regular event – i.e. Eragon tries to cast fireball, sets his hair on fire – then it would work much better. But the fact that this is the ONLY time we have Eragon messing up just makes the whole event seem contrived and hollow.

  16. swenson on 8 July 2009, 10:37 said:

    @ swenson

    I’d be suspicious of a protagonist becoming fluent in even two month, unless they were very limited in what they could say or they spent the majority of their time working with the language.

    I would too- I just meant that if they were good with languages and really focused on it, they could probably achieve some degree of travel fluency in a few months.

    One thing that really annoys me in books is when authors have characters (neither of whose native language is English or whatever the “common” language is) speak in English, even though they both have the same non-English native tongue. Why would I go around talking to my sister in Spanish, unless I was trying to hide my words from someone else?! It makes no sense, and yet a lot of authors seem to do that. They’re just lazy, IMO, and don’t want to come up with a language complete enough to write the characters’ dialogue in. Although they could just throw in a “‘Blah blah,’ Jane said in Elvish. ‘Blah?’ Mike replied, also in Elvish.” and I wouldn’t mind nearly so much.

  17. lawzard on 8 July 2009, 14:36 said:

    @ SubStandardDeviation, sansafro187, Nate Winchester and anyone else who mentioned Paolini that I might have missed

    Valid points all. It’s been forever since I read Eragon and Eldest, and I haven’t even dared touch Brisingr yet; I apparently don’t remember them as well as I thought. That, or I repressed the unpleasant experience of reading them from my memory. Either way, you’re all right. I shouldn’t be letting Paolini off so easily.

    @ swenson

    Oh, okay. I guess I just misunderstood you there.

  18. Anon on 8 July 2009, 20:51 said:

    The difference between “blonde” and “blond” is that the former is the female form and the latter the male. So, Marilyn Monroe is blonde but Ozymandias from WATCHMEN is blond.

  19. Loki's Scribe on 9 July 2009, 08:25 said:

    To be fair, Anon, the difference between “blonde” and “blond” have kind of eroded in the English language—- I’ve heard people argue that it’s as gendered as it was originally or an adjective/noun distinction, and for all intents and purposes, consistency is more important for most purposes of the English language than actually being right.

    @swenson: About the speaking-Elvish-when-English-would-be-fine—-that can annoy the heck out of me, too, although I have to admit there could be a justification for it. After all, if the conversation is no one else’s business, people tend to default to the language they are mutually most comfortable with. So if you’ve got a pair of elves in a human city and one of them’s struggling with the local language, they’re going to fall back into Elvish until another character tries to butt in. Of course, such language shifts are rarely used for such characterization purposes, which seems a pity.

    As for the article, it is excellent. Yeah, fluency levels can be a can of worms all on it’s own. I myself can understand the gist of simple written French if I walk it through Latin first (and only then because so many of the words invented in this century share a root across most of Western Europe), but spoken I’m lost and I certainly can’t speak it myself. Given that, I guess the relationship between languages can help a protagonist, but might also lead to some interesting wrong assumptions.

    I’ve been struggling right now with how much German a misanthropic wanderer who’s already fluent in Latin would have to pick up in the Black Plague era Rhineland (the joys of having a foreigner with an attitude wander in on an already panicked populace. . . .), so this has got me thinking again.


  20. Romantic Vampire Lover on 13 July 2009, 06:12 said:

    Very informative and insightful. I congratulate you for an excellent article. Especially loved this line:

    I’ve seen quite a few English speakers make the mistake of using vous for everything when first learning French, and while this alone doesn’t make you impossible to understand, it’s enough to mark you as a nonnative speaker.

    This is very true: I learned that the hard way. ;) All in all, amazing article; thanks!

  21. ProserpinaFC on 30 July 2009, 11:30 said:

    Thank you!
    Domo arigatou!
    Merci boucoup!
    Chitty-chitty bang-bang!

  22. Deborah on 24 April 2013, 09:33 said:

    This kind of reminds me of the bit with Pippin and Denethor in Return of the King. Technically, they speak the same language, but the way the hobbits use it has changed over time. They no longer really use the formal forms of address, only the informal ones. Therefore, Pippin addresses the Lord of the City informally—which makes everyone think he must be a prince, because only a prince would speak to the Lord of the City as an equal. A nice reminder that even if you speak the same language, there can still be difficulties based on region.

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