Write It Sideways

Can a Foreign Language Enhance Your Writing?

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?