How do you feel when you write in English? How does writing in a foreign language change your sense of identity and perspective on the world around you? Many well-known authors have decided over the years to write in a language other than their mother tongue. One of the most recent examples is Jhumpa Lahiri (The Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake), an award-winning American author of Indian origin, who has recently published her first novel in Italian. Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian was based on personal choice and the desire for experimentation. Other authors have had numerous other reasons, often political and historical, but one thing is sure: they all created a distinctive style and found inspiration in this strange and challenging linguistic place.
Many literary masterpieces were written in the author’s second language. Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim) learnt English when he was in his twenties. Jack Kerouac (On the Road) originally grew up in Québec and spoke French as his first language. Samuel Beckett, despite being Irish wrote most of his major works initially in French, then translated them into English himself. And looking at contemporary publishers, Compagnia delle Lettere in Rome specialises in literary works of immigrant authors who choose to write in Italian. One of the authors they have published is Tahir Lamri, the Algerian-Italian cartoonist and writer. These writers lead us to thinking about authors who write in diaspora, bilingual, bicultural and migrating authors whose literature often revisits cultural and linguistic memories of their past and mingling them with their experience of the new culture. An interesting interpretative approach is introduced by Azade Seyhan in her book Writing Outside the Nation, in which she introduces ‘a critical map of a “third geography,” where a transnational, multilingual literary movement is gathering momentum’.
Helbling authors on writing in a foreign language
In the Helbling Young Readers series you can find works by two authors whose first language is not English. We have asked them to reflect on their own writing experiences and share their thoughts with us.
‘Language is a point of view on our world. This is why, when we use a language other than our mother tongue we have to learn to look at the world through that language. Making a grammar your own is a starting point rather than a journey’s end.’
‘Writing in a foreign language is great, at least for me, because you feel like a different writer/person doing it, since the other language often comes with a different culture, customs, and a different set of semiotic communicators and etymology, the voice of the narrator doesn’t translate your thoughts in your mother tongue to the foreign language, but you think directly in that language, and this is a different sensation.’
Writing in a foreign language
What happens when you think and write in a foreign language? Yes, it may be difficult, but it can also be very liberating. Just think of a painter with three tubes of primary colours (red, yellow and blue) plus black and white. S/he is free to create every hue and shade imaginable under the sun. In the same way, your vocabulary might be limited, but this limitation also gives you the ability to be more creative and invent new expressions which might not come naturally to native speakers but which express a concept or situation in a vibrant new way, offering a new way of looking at the language. Since there is a distance between us and the foreign language, we get a different perspective which, if used and understood creatively, can help us become more innovative. The foreign language lets you create your own style and depending on your choice of vocabulary, collocations, syntax and text organisation, you can be as original as you wish.
Writing in a foreign language also raises questions of language and subjectivity, and a question that has long occupied our linguists’ and philosophers’ thoughts. The question is whether we can only think what language lets us think and how we construct the world around us. It reminds me of the Humpty Dumpty problem of language.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”
(Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass)
If we take advice from authors like Adrián N. Brávi and Andrés Pi Andreu, we can approach the question of ‘mastering’ language from a playful point of view. Although languages cannot fully belong to their speakers, and we might not be fully in control of the language we are speaking or writing, we can transform this sensation into an inspirational and creative perspective.
At an early age and lower levels of language we cannot expect high cultural and language awareness, but as we grow in the language we are learning, we can develop a more sensitive understanding of cultural and linguistic references. We may even be able to write like chameleons, adopting different styles if needed. Until then we can enjoy the freedom of being ‘outsiders’ to express ourselves creatively.
When you talk to your students about writing in English, ask them why they think some people choose to write in a foreign language and ask them if they could write about their feelings in English. What differences would there be in their mother-tongue and L2 descriptions? Tell them that some authors have been published despite the fact that they did not have a perfect knowledge of the language they were writing in. It still did not stop them from writing in and exploring a new language.
In the classroom, start with a short poem (use well-designed activities from Creative Writing and Writing Stories to encourage and support thinking in English), or ask them if they can write song lyrics. What about writing a very short story? Try writing descriptions without using verbs, in order to help your students ‘loosen up’ and lose their fear of making grammar mistakes.
Your students will be proud of and satisfied with themselves for being able to create a meaningful story in English. Have you ever tried to write stories or poetry? How did you feel? Share your experiences with us.
Here you can read more about Heart of Darkness, and also read an interview with Andrés Pi Andreu: