Role-playing in English

Tabletop role-playing is perhaps one of the most language dependent hobbies I’ve tried. Whatever happens during play only happens in the minds of the players and the only way of communicating and sharing this experience with other people is via the use of language. That should make it obvious that role-playing in a language other than one’s mother tongue would be extremely hard. Since I moved to Gaoxiong, I’ve had the privilege to role-play almost every Friday. The language we use is of course English (my Chinese is not good enough, and I don’t think there are many Swedish role-players here). I don’t think I’ve found some revolutionary new angle on role-playing in a foreign language, but since this is the first chance I’ve had to do this, I intend to share my experiences anyway.

The essential point I’m going to make here is that communication itself is not a problem, but that I still feel a huge difference between playing in Swedish and English. With “communication”, I mean that I can always (or at least nearly as often as native speakers) express whatever idea I have, fluently and smoothly, so there is no actual change in the flow of the game because of language problems (listening comprehension is also very close to 100%). This does requires quite a high level of language ability, but it’s absolutely essential. If I felt this didn’t work, I would never try to role-play in English.

So, what’s the big difference, then? Nuances and connotations, basically. Or, in other words, the same reason I’m hesitant to write fiction in English. Even though I currently play a rather withdrawn and disciplined character, I think I should have no problem enacting more emotional or boisterous characters, but that isn’t the point. Regardless of what character I choose to play, that character will mainly be projected into the minds of the other players via the words I use. If I speak Swedish, I can instantly choose suitable words that I know will instill a certain kind of feeling in the other players. In English, I can do this, but not quickly or fluently enough. In essence, the problem boils down to not being able choose the right words based on instant and highly detailed connotations, often in spoken language. For all practical purposes, there are an infinite number of ways to formulate a specific idea (like saying “no” to somebodies request or giving your opinion on a certain topic) and I find it difficult to instantly find one that is in line with my character and enhances the way he’s perceived.

My conclusion is, not surprisingly, that there’s a big difference between fairly advanced second language learners (such as myself) and native speakers. For reading and writing, I think this gap can be overcome, but entirely bridging it for verbal communication when role-playing would require living in the country for a long time. Since I want to end this reflection on a positive note, I would like to point out two advantages: first, the problems do decrease with practice, and, second, my English is still good enough to appreciate role-playing, even if it isn’t perfect.

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