Today’s post is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.
If you’ve read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, you’ll know—regardless of what you think of the narrator’s morals—it’s full of rich language: literary allusions, elevated diction, alliteration, detailed and unusual imagery, and wry humor.
Nabokov handles his rather sordid subject with a linguistic sophistication any writer would admire, which makes the fact that he wrote the novel in English, a non-native language for him, all the more impressive.
Originally from Russia, Nabokov emigrated first to Germany and then to the United States, where he—try to imagine this—stopped writing in his native language. He refers to Lolita as a prime example of his “love affair” with the English language, his attempt to capture and command words as he had in Russian.
“I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English,” Nabokov admitted, calling his loss of language a “personal tragedy.” Yet he persevered, writing as many novels in English (nine) as he’d penned in his native Russian prior to emigrating.
I can’t fathom Nabokov’s discipline. I speak and read German with relative ease, and wrote a few academic essays in college too—but to write any kind of literary piece? Virtually impossible for me. I remember challenging myself once to write a poem in German. It didn’t come out too well, especially when I compare it to one of Nabokov’s sentences: “Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see arabesques of lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory, appear to me now like playing cards…” Yeah, I’m still waiting to write that kind of sentence. In English!
Reading Lolita, trying to imagine a non-native English speaker writing it, I began to wonder if Nabokov’s knowledge of multiple languages freed him to write more creatively; if, in fact, my own exposure to other languages can in some way help my writing.
What Writers Can Gain from Another Language
1. A sense of music. When you first hear the sounds of another language, they don’t sound like words. They sound like instruments. When my husband and I lived in China, I was fascinated by the new sounds; unable to distinguish words, I reveled in the pure music of what I heard, eventually writing a poem trying to describe it: “Water over little stones… popcorn smacking an iron kettle…the tinkling of wind chimes on a gray afternoon promising rain.” I eventually enrolled in language classes and as I began to understand Chinese words, a sense of their musical mystery faded. Still, I sought to reproduce that music in my own writing and to hear it in my own language.
2. A grasp of grammar. We speak our native languages so instinctively, we’re not always aware of the grammatical rules that give shape and structure to any language, nor could we explain them. Yet understanding how languages work—how words and phrases build sentences—helps us use them well. According to EFL lecturer Anne Merritt, “learning a foreign language draws your focus to the mechanics of language: grammar, conjugations, and sentence structure. This makes you more aware of language, and the ways it can be structured and manipulated. These skills can make you a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer.” Reinforcing this point, a 2001 study postulated that children who learn two languages “may develop enhanced awareness and control of syntactic structure since they need an appropriate syntactic repertoire in each language.” Bottom line: understanding grammar might just help you use language more effectively.
3. Flexibility and creativity with wordplay. It’s easy to become locked into a certain way of speaking or writing; we grow accustomed to certain linguistic conventions and it’s hard to see past them to write with a fresh voice. Some of my favorite poems submitted to me in a creative writing class I taught came from students who were learning English as an additional language. They often came up with atypical, but always uniquely effective, images and descriptions.
What to Do if You Don’t Speak Another Language
1. Listen to a CD of songs sung in another language. The music will enhance the musicality of the language and give you a sense of emotion and expression, even if you don’t technically comprehend what you hear.
2. Tune in to a foreign language television station or film. The visual imagery will help make sense of the words, and facial expressions and gestures will link sounds with meaning.
3. Take a basic class. You might feel uncomfortable at first, but immersing yourself in those new words will help you see, and use, your native language in new ways.
What to Do if You Already Speak Another Language
1. Check out a novel or book of poems written in that language (a book offering side-by-side translations can be particularly helpful for analyzing language). Keep it on your writing desk or bedside table so you can keep going back to it. Read it out loud every now and then. Staying immersed in the language will help it feed your own writing.
2. Translate part of a piece you’ve already written in your native language into another language. The challenge of translation—conveying meaning while preserving literary quality and technique—is an excellent exercise for writers.
3. Try a piece of original creative writing in your non-native language. Start small. Tell yourself to write a few lines of a poem or a paragraph of a short story.
Keep at it! Before long, you might sound like Nabokov.
Do you speak, read, or write using multiple languages? How does your knowledge of different languages enhance your writing in your mother tongue?
Join the discussion
Interesting article, thank you.
I live in Israel and am fluent in Hebrew. I’m not sure whether or not that has increased my appreciation of English and aided my writing skills, although tutoring English certainly served to increase my grammar skills and my appreciation of the mechanics. Grammar is no longer a dirty word.
I have done some writing in Hebrew as well, although I remain most comfortable in English. I think that reading in other languages, however, opens you up to different ways of using language which can enhance your own expression.
Sarah Baughman says
I admire your ability to write in two languages, even if you’re more comfortable in one than in the other. And I definitely agree that reading in other languages is incredibly beneficial; you realize how many different ways there are to express an idea.
John Yeoman says
A great article! Another tip to free up your creativity is to drop your story into Google Translate and translate it into another language – Latin is fun, but any exotic language will do. Then translate that eg. Latin text back into English. Google will gloriously mangle your story but also throw in some creative new expressions that are worth considering.
Sarah Baughman says
Wow, that sounds fun! I’ve never tried it, but now I’ll have to. Sounds like a humorous as well as a creative exercise.
Man of la Book says
Reading other languages opens doors to the reader. You suddenly understand nuances you didn’t before, you see the big picture better, you appreciate more.
yehudit rachel says
I moved to Israel a year ago and completed an immersion course in Hebrew. One thing studying a different language does is teach you the absurdities of your original language that you had always accepted as a given. The first one I got caught on was when I said I wanted to take a shower. Everyone laughed because clearly I was not about to take the physical shower to any other location (I actually wanted to “make a shower”). But learning these and other idioms has changed the way I think about and use language.
And John, Google translate does come up with some howlingly funny translations, especially where names are involved. I often put a Hebrew language email that I understand into Google translate because I know I’ll get a good laugh out of it.
Sarah Baughman says
Ha– yes, recognizing the absurdities in your own native language can be quite eye-opening. I remember a German friend of mine trying to figure out our “birds and the bees” expression. “What do bees and birds have to do with one another?!” he asked. I, of course, had no logical answer. (The German expression, “Bienen und Blumen,” translates as “bees and flowers,” which of course makes more sense considering the meaning of the expression).
Great article, thank you! I wrote a poem in French after I read your article, and was surprised I could do it at all after not speaking or writing French in two decades. I constructed the poem much like the poetry I write in my native language, English, and when I could not remember a word, I used another from my memory even if it was not literally the word I first wanted. It was great fun, and has inspired me to dust off my French novels, and read poetry written in French at the earliest opportunity. I already feel my creativity as a writer expand through dipping into another language.
Sarah Baughman says
I’m so excited and inspired to hear that you wrote a poem in French after reading this article! I’m also thrilled to hear that it went so well. Structuring your poem as you would have in English might have helped the words flow naturally, too. Good luck as you continue reading and writing in French.
Sarah Maury Swan says
I love listening to and trying to learn new languages. I lived in a small Brasilian town a 7 hour bus trip from the closest city for 9 months back in the late 1960s. I was the only English speaker there, so I ended thinking in Portuguese. Learning a Romance language gave me a much better understanding of the subjunctive tense, than I’d ever had in English.I think you’re quite right that the more you understand many languages, the more your mind is opened to new sounds. I always try to read instructions in manuals first in French or Spanish or German. Much more fun.
Sarah Baughman says
I enjoy doing that with the instruction manuals too, Sarah! Those are great because the translation is right there, so it’s easy to learn from if you get lost. Isn’t it interesting how much better a grasp we find on grammatical rules once we delve into another language? I don’t think I knew much at all about the subjunctive tense prior to studying German.
The discovery of a new language inevitably leads to the discovery of a new culture as well. I find that in the stories I’m most drawn to usually have that extra element of the exotic due to the language used or the culture involved.
I would also add sign language to the list. I know it’s more difficult to just translate something on the fly but it adds so much to see deaf poetry and stories in action.
Like any visual art it adds another sense and dimension to your writing and your world view.
Sarah Baughman says
You make a great point about culture, Shelina– language inevitably invokes a different way of life. And I love the idea of sign language as a visual and written art– I have never had the chance to see deaf poetry performed, but hope I can one day. I imagine it would be very powerful.
I love writing about different ethnicities in my books. Growing up Cherokee with a mother who insisted on nothing but English, I grew accustomed to the occasional slip-up of a word or curse in Cherokee. So to me it’s perfectly natural to have a character slip up and say something in another language (of course there is always the explanation of what was said). Whole books in another language, not so sure I’d be comfortable trying it out. (Hugs)Indigo
Sarah Baughman says
It’s so interesting how even a single word here and there can impart great significance–gives a character a different dimension, somehow!
I’m fluent in both French and German and keep switching languages for writing. However, poetry is mostly in French, because of the language’s music, and I wrote much more stories in German than in French (some of them before I started learning French, though, so very young). I’ve also written some short stories and poems in English, but it’s more difficult, even though parts of my studies and professional work were in English. It’s just not the same than writing fiction.
Nick LeVar says
Good to know. I’m currently studying German, which will help me tremendously in my current WIP.
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My mother tongue is German, and I also speak English and Spanish. Foreign languages indeed enhance your feeling for dealing with words.
Translating one of my short stories from German to English was quite an experience!
Although German and English are quite closely related, there were parts in which it just wasn’t possible to translate 1:1, because the English language just didn’t feature the expression. So I had to learn to go around certain expressions, and this is like a trade-off: You might lose something, but at the same time you might also win something else. Sometimes you learn that what you thought of as necessary isn’t really necessary.
These difficulties force you to find the very core of what you want to express, the idea you are after, and to grab that idea from a different angle. And this is an excellent exercise for any writer: Get to the essence, to the meat of it all and make it readable by molding that essence into words for the world outside!