How learning a foreign language can make you a better author

Take a glance at some of the heavyweights of world literature and it quickly becomes clear that having an additional language or five rattling around in your head does no harm when it comes to putting pen to paper. Joseph Conrad grew up speaking Polish and Russian, wrote short plays in French as a child, studied German and Latin in school, picked up Spanish and Italian as a young adult, and wrote his novels in English. Vladimir Nabokov, who once described himself as having been “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library”, was fluent in Russian, French and English. Yoko Tawada writes separate manuscripts in Japanese and German, calling the process ‘continuous translation’. Then there’s Jorge Borges, who translated Wilde’s The Happy Prince from English into Spanish aged nine, learned German and French as a teen after his family moved to Geneva, and casually revolutionised Spanish-language literature.

I know what you’re thinking: as if it isn’t already difficult enough to find the time to sit down and write, now you want me to go out and grapple with an entirely new language, too? Hear me out, though. As citizens of the Digital Age, we have more resources than ever (many of which are free) for learning foreign languages: apps, YouTube, online tandems, meetups, entire websites tailor-made for the purpose, etc. And according to Mr David Graeber in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, many of us spend hours sitting in offices doing absolutely nothing at all, so it’s not like we couldn’t sneak in a bit of learning somewhere.

But enough of that. This isn’t a treatise on finding spiritual nourishment in the workplace or a list of the best language-learning apps. This is about the specific benefits that knowledge of a second, third and even a fourth language can bring to the writing process. It should probably be noted that this article is intended for those English speakers who claim not to have any knowledge of a second language. This amounts to 62% of citizens in the UK and 66% in Ireland (the lowest in Europe outside of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania), as well as 73% in both the USA and Australia.

A foreign language can help you appreciate the subtleties of English

It wasn’t until I became a translator that I realised my understanding of English grammar was unstable at best. I had also been using some words in completely the wrong context — without anybody correcting me either, as they were just as clueless. I remember writing things like “in regards to” and using “abounds” as though it was an adverb. Then there were the more niggling matters, like knowing whether ‘integrate’ collocates with ‘in’, ‘into’ or ‘to’, how to use semi-colons correctly, and what the difference is between ‘further’ and ‘farther’ (it’s metaphorical distance vs physical distance).

When you learn a foreign language, you’ll find yourself questioning words, phrases and grammatical constructions that you’ve been using your whole life.

You become aware of the mechanics of language in a way that you weren’t before. You want to be correct in the foreign language — whether to make a good impression, remember something more clearly or simply avoid embarrassment — and that goes double for English.

The more you explore the foreign language, the more you’ll brush up against the boundaries of your native tongue and the more confident you’ll feel about manipulating it and shaping it to your will.

It expands your active vocabulary in English

Agitprop. Caveat emptor. Leitmotif. Sotto voce. Vox populi. All words and phrases that appear in English from time to time (especially in The Guardian; they love to flex). But do you know what they mean? Do you know their etymology?

When you learn a foreign language, you gain access to an entire repertoire of useful phrases that are sometimes trotted out in English, but aren’t exactly in most peoples’ active vocabularies. Example: German is famous for its metaphysical concepts. One of these is Gestalt, which literally means ‘form’ or ‘shape’, but in psychology means perceiving the simplest essence of an object, with the whole taking precedence over the parts. So instead of saying “Everything just felt kind of sad”, you could say “the overwhelming gestalt was one of saudade” (‘saudade’ being that untranslatable Portuguese word that most closely resembles melancholy). Convenient if you’re writing a novel featuring an insufferable academic.

Now, remarking that something is “oh my God, so fait accompli” in real life may not win you any friends, but at least you’ll have a better grasp of how English has evolved over the preceding decades and centuries — and you’ll have a few exotic terms to choose from when you need them.

It forces you to be creative

I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself saying something in German or Dutch only to realise there’s a word or phrase coming up that I have no direct translation for. For a long time, I would stop dead, use a string of fillers (er….um…ah) and then say the word in English. Gradually, though, my brain improved at detecting the obstacle early on and finding a way around it. Now, I feel like I can rely on the grey matter to get me out of most conversational corners, even if it does require a bit of linguistic acrobatics.

Example: I often lean on the word ‘Bruchbude’, meaning ‘dump’ or ‘ramshackle building’, whenever I want to say something like ‘his apartment sucks’ or ‘the gym is rundown’ or ‘this place needs a coat of paint’. Another is ‘Kabuff’, meaning ‘cubby-hole’, which my brain will pluck out of nowhere if I want to say anything from ‘small but cosy’ to ‘that no man’s land under the stairs with the deflated yoga ball stuffed into it’.

This can have a knock-on effect in writing. Don’t know exactly which word you’re looking for? Never fear: your supercharged, two-language brain will find an alternative. That way, you don’t have to break your Zen-like concentration and fire up synonyms.com. The more you train your brain to jump over linguistic hurdles in any language, the easier it’ll be when the time comes to sit down and type.

Thinking in a new language can provide all-new perspectives

There is a term in linguistics called linguistic relativity (also popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), which asserts that the language you speak influences the way you perceive reality. This can affect everything from your philosophical and psychological outlook to the understanding of basic (yet essential) concepts such as colours, time and emotions. While this relativity tends to stem from your mother tongue, the addition of a second language can help you to see the world from new perspectives and guide your mind in directions that otherwise may have remained concealed.

While many of the effects of linguistic relativity are experienced unconsciously, the phenomenon can come in handy when conceiving of metaphors, similes, idiomatic phrases, allegories, etc. when writing. Instead of casting around for the same tired imagery and stock phrases, the ability to switch into a different language and view the world from its perspective can result in terminology that sounds fresh, novel, even exotic.

I have two examples to show what I mean. While both involve writers who grew up speaking two languages, they nevertheless point to the effect a second tongue can have on the way certain situations, products and concepts are described.

First up is Chinua Achebe. In Things Fall Apart, he states:

This metaphor hints at Achebe’s background as a Nigerian, and we can assume his native language of Igbo probably played a role in coming up with it (fun fact: Nigeria is the largest consumer of palm oil in Africa).

He also writes:

That’s a grand statement. And it’s one that could only be written by a person who speaks a language ascribing great importance to ancestors and harvests (whereas I would say both are more ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in the English-speaking world).

Another strong example of linguistic relativity in effect can be seen in The Sympathizer, the debut novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen. As a Vietnamese-American, Nguyen was born in Vietnam but fled to the USA with his family after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. As a result, he grew up speaking both Vietnamese and American English. In The Sympathizer, the protagonist’s reflections and descriptions of life in the USA are constantly underscored with allusions to a different existence. In a half-page ode to fish sauce, Nguyen compares it to the collapse of South Vietnam, with the protagonist saying that the Vietnamese food in the US is:

It’s a comparison a writer with an exclusively English background could never make. And, even though this is a special case that probably shouldn’t be co-opted by a Caucasian author anyway, the fact remains that a second language can unlock doors when it comes to seeing and describing situations from novel angles.

I reckon Goethe has the last word here: “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

Grant Price is the author of By the Feet of Men (Cosmic Egg, 2019) and Reality Testing (Black Rose, 2022). He lives in Berlin.

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