Probably the absolute worst decision I made for the novel?
Deciding the main POV character would come from a foreign country.
Oh, it’s worked well in a lot of ways. The character, Giva, provides the usual Fish Out of Water benefits. Everything can be explained because it’s nearly as strange to her as us. She can ask questions for the audience. She can even validate/echo probable responses like “wait, what?” and “I’m never going to remember all those names.” And her presence has drastically reduced the difficulties I’ve had with the Real Protagonist™ for years.
(♫ how do you solve a problem like Arceeeeptraaaa ♪)
In terms of world-building, I long ago decided that I didn’t want a ‘Common Tongue’ per se. The language spoken through the vast majority of the story, Elentian, is spoken widely as a lingua franca, but by no means globally, and as a native tongue is confined to countries that once comprised the Elentian empire. (There are reasons for this, but it’s a tangent.)
Originally, I’d imagined Giva as a very generic Fish type: an obscure baker’s daughter who dreamed of a wider world/adventure/etc, but never thought it would actually happen, until the day that she got caught up in the world-shaking adventures of a clairvoyant Elentian noblewoman.
Blah, blah, blah.
Beyond the tedium, it didn’t even work, because outside of Elentian countries, commoners wouldn’t speak Elentian. Arceptra made for a rough viewpoint character, but not so rough that I’d rather write a total immersion language acquisition montage.
Of course, there was an obvious solution: get rid of the humble commoner shtick and kick her up the social ladder, so she could credibly be tutored in languages. That made the entire cast aristocratic, which I hadn’t wanted, but eh, there are worse things to write. Like language acquisition montages.
I rearranged the plot, which worked much more smoothly this way, and headed straight into mutually comprehensible conversations. Giva is well-educated enough to speak Elentian fluently, problem solved—
—of course, I thought, fluent isn’t native. She would have been tutored by someone who himself is not a native speaker; she’s never even seen an Elentian before. So her fluency is a purely academic fluency. She’s never needed Elentian to actually communicate with anyone. It’s been a subject for her, like history or math.
Okay. So I decided Giva’s diction should be very formal and correct, a bit unnaturally so. (Not as much as it would “really” be, for the sake of readability, but enough to give an idea.) That was really an advantage, since Giva is a proper and painstaking person anyway, so it suited her character.
Except, as the POV character, we also hear her as narrator. Formal diction as a marker of formal language acquisition without immersion only works if it’s different from her natural diction. So there was going to need to be some kind of distinction between Giva’s voice as a narrator and Giva’s voice when she actually speaks, while retaining enough similarity to feel like the same person.
At this point, I went okay, okay. More involved than I expected, but—challenges are good for the soul. I like challenges! It’ll be an interesting sidenote, maybe make the story seem richer.
Well, it’s definitely been a challenge. But I do enjoy it. It has made the story more interesting to write. It’s even made Giva’s role as the Fish easier. It’s well established that her Elentian isn’t particularly idiomatic, so whenever I want to introduce a new concept/phrase/whatever, she can credibly be “what????” and prompt an explanation.
So what’s the problem?
That I’m me, really. That whole “idiomatic” thing—it wouldn’t just be a matter of things I need to explain to the audience, but ways of constructing sentences, best represented entirely in English. There’d be occasional issues with right semantic meaning but a confusing connotation. Sometimes there’s circumlocution. That sort of thing.
And though she is literate, thanks to a scholarly father, she comes from a culture that skews heavily to the oral. The importance of speaking Elentian is very specifically tied to speaking Elentian, far more than reading it. So she speaks it much better than she reads, and reads better than she can write.
OTOH, as her father’s protégée, she reads/writes her native language very well. Her knowledge and high degree of literacy are an enormous part of how she thinks of herself as a person. Among Elentians, though, that degree of literacy isn’t uncommon at all, and in Elentian itself she is actually much less literate. So of course she’s struggling with that: not just academically, but in terms of her sense of identity.
All of which is to say: I did everything to avoid writing a language acquisition montage, and somehow ended up writing a language acquisition novel instead. Learn from my mistakes, kids.
(Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving it. But at this point, it’s less a fantasy novel with friends! and language things!! than a novel about friendship and language that happens to take place in a fantasy world.)