Consider Language

Lately I’ve been discussing language with some friends. Language as a tool, no less. Apart from the usual “What is language, exactly?” - which you normally have after some bottles of red - it’s been fun and entertaining. And I even had another spectacular insight into the essence which is the uniform thought which created the universe.


I wonder if it might produce better writing if you don’t write in your native language. Admitted, it probably very difficult to do so. You have to learn a lot bout this ‘foreign’ language - but that is the point: you do it consciously. So you might use this foreign language with more awareness and not just instinctively (yep, ok, exaggerating a bit). Which could produce … you get the idea.

Am I missing something here?

I once read that the Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote in non-native French because he felt that writing in a foreign language led to greater purity of style. Although he certainly wrote in French, I don’t know whether that is a fair representation of his reasons for doing so. Certainly, when I write in French, I have very bad grammar and no style at all! :slight_smile:

I`m just…good at it.
Le D :smiling_imp:

Joseph Conrad didn’t speak English fluently till his twenties.

When I worked in telly, I found that some of the most eloquent and interesting interviewees were non-native English speakers. Their English vocabulary was often chosen more carefully, their gestures and metaphors were more expressive and their tone and pitch were more varied than most native speakers’ would have been.


Vladimir Nabokov is another good example of an extremely eloquent writer in English who was not a native English speaker (though I believe he was Oxford-educated).

Aleksandar Hemon is a relatively new writer who had only learned to speak English a couple of years before he published his first book in the States.

Mr Beckett, secretary of the great Mr Joyce, could have written in any language without loss because there was not much to loose.

Nabokov was raised in a very rich Russian family—he shared teachers with the children of the tsar—and learned French and English at a very early age. He could write in English earlier than he could write in his native Russian.

And still, when he was forced to write in English—the Russian revolution not only stripped him from the family fortune but also from Russian readers; his books were forbidden in the Soviet Republic and the relatively huge and tight Russian exile community in Berlin of the 1920s and 30s was shattered all over the world after they had been forced to flee again because of you-know-what; Nabokov, his wife, and his son got onto the last ship leaving to the USA—when he chose to write in English and to become an American author, he said he felt kind of amputated. Even him, one of the greatest writers ever who’s best books are written in English!

So—“language as a tool”? What kind of tool are we talking about? A wrench? What do you want to do with it? If you want just to write some instructions, plug this into that, learn the basic grammar of any language, use a dictionary and that’s it.

That is the kind of stuff that could be done by translation programs maybe not of today but tomorrow.

Literature is something completely different. When you use the words of your native language you have intimate knowledge of it’s meanings. The words have your own private meanings, they are connected to memories, other words. At best, what makes you yourself is preserved in your texts and understood by others to a certain point.

When you switch to another language all this shrinks to a number of dictionary entries. It doesn’t mean it is impossible to create art this way but it takes geniuses like Nabokov to do so.

For most of us it would only produce dead wood. Though, it could be relatively successful, see above, Mr Beckett.

I agree that to write in another language one needs to be practically fluent or “dead wood” would be the result.

But I think the point is, perhaps, that if someone is writing in a foreign tongue, more care is likely to be placed on each word. It is far more difficult to end up with a torrent of words off the top of your head while filling time at the keyboard (I’m doing NanWriMo at the moment).

If someone is truly fluent in another tongue, I think they have the benefit of perspective on the idioms of that second language.

Perhaps something as simple as writing “well come” instead of “welcome” can go a long way towards enriching the commonplace for a native reader. They will see and appreciate things that have lost some of their - I don’t know if this is the right way of putting it - “depth” through centuries of over-use.
From my limited knowledge of Italian and French I can see that even the thought processes and the outlook on life are different, and are, I think, fundamentally shaped by the language that is spoken.

A multilingual sign I saw in a post office in France summed it up for me -

English:Please stand behind the yellow line.

French:In the interests of privacy please remain behind the line until the person before you has finished (rough translation).

Italian:Do not cross the line before your turn (another rough translation)

Perhaps this says more about philosophy than language, but regardless, I think that an outsider’s outlook on the mundane - if accomplished well - cannot help but add a little “I don’t know what”. (Unfortunately some things become more mundane in translation as well).


Language can be considered to be a tool to transfer concepts. Or so was I told. Some people use a paintbrush for that, others perhaps a piano. While I do agree that a certain intimacy is a requirement - you have to know the ropes before you can pull them - I also think that a non-native speaker does have certain detachment which might be beneficiary.

In most cases a “non-native” speaker who is taught a language (education) will speak a more “correct” form of a language or “proper” form than a person who is a native speaker or one who “picks up” a language from native speakers.

Take for example American English. A person who is educated in speaking American English tends to use more “proper” forms of expression than the actual natives.

An analogy would be “Nobel Speech” versus “Serf Speech” or a commoner’s language.

So on one hand you “speak” or “write” a more proper form of the language if it is not your native tongue BUT you also can lose many forms of native expressions and slang which would give your piece of work a more “nobel” appearance but lacking the connection to the common man/woman.

If that makes any sense?

Why do you set us up like this? why?


Well since it is a discussion of language I guess I could have chosen to end with


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te hee he he

I remember my mother’s ex-boyfriend’s daughter (yeah, I know someone who knows someone else who knew this chick, lol) went to school abroad for a year - in Australia. Now, English has been taught to us in DK since fourth grade/age 10. Which meant that by the time she got down under, she had probably been speaking the language for ten years or so. Now, upon arriving and starting class she actually soon became the top-student in the English lessons. Reason? My guess is that our English isn’t “ruined” by the slang. In fact, if you ask me, I don’t really know any English slang (which may just be the thing I hate the most, now that I wish to write in English). Our English is school-proof or whatever, so that way around I’d say it’s plausible to write something that isn’t in your own language - though I’d probably get someone experienced and more of an English-language-expert to doublecheck it for me before I ever sent it to a publishing house.

Another example of English gone wrong is one of my best friends. Her father is British and lives in England. Now, when she does English papers, she never gets good grades despite the fact that she’s spoken the language from an earlier stage than most, if not all, of her class mates. Reason? She writes it down as she speaks it with her father and it ain’t picture perfect.

Well… Don’t really know if I started rambling there, but I think I had a point somewhere along the lines… Maybe?

I think someone’s more likely to produce that type of care in a language not his native, but that it’s also more likely to happen with someone who has bothered to study a second language.

I say this because I speak some Spanish. My accent’s superb (stating that I learned to speak in school will invariably start an argument), but my comprehension of the language is somewhat lacking because my teachers were native and couldn’t answer my grammar questions (and I haven’t practiced much in the past few years).

I’ve also been told that I write in English as if my first language were German.

I don’t speak German.

So I think the connective factor here is an interest in the precision of words, regardless of whichever language is your primary one. A secondary speaker’s more likely to know the “proper” lingo from learning the language in school, yes, but a primary speaker can still produce the same careful diction if he has a care to.

My first language is Spanish, which I spoke exclusively until I was thirteen. Then I came to the United States, and learned American English by immersion in public schools. My family was poor, so no tutors or special programs. I had need, desire, and ambitions, so I worked hard and learned. I can write in both Spanish and English, but most of my professional life has been and continues to be in English.

After the publication of my first book, I was asked to translate it into my mother tongue. I found that the process was both painful and exhilarating. Painful because I realized how much of my Spanish I had lost in the years since my education back in Puerto Rico. Exhilarating because I had lost much less than I’d feared. My ‘translation’ was actually a re-write of the book, and many of my bilingual readers frequently tell me that they read both versions because they find different things in them. The book, they say, is funnier in Spanish, but this might have to do with the recognition of the cultural coding that necessarily goes when you’re writing about one culture in the language of another. I translated my second book as well, a novel. It has sold more in Spanish than in English.

I have had a translator for my subsequent books, mostly because I came late to writing and feel a need to catch up with new work rather than re-writing the same books in Spanish. But I work very closely with my translator, and we get into fascinating discussions about the minutiae of language and meaning. There are many compromises on both sides.