Find Your Writing Voice Using Your Second Language
A year before I started to write in English, I was learning Italian. It wasn’t a mandatory language needed for work, I started it because I loved it and I just happened to have some extra mental capacity. Work was already a routine without major challenges and learning a language has always been an easy success for me.
I hired a private teacher, we had two hours per week and I loved everything about it. My teacher, Francesco (of course he had to be a Francesco, so typical) was giving me assignments, and I was writing compositions from the first day. It was on one of our early lessons, and my Italian was still extremely basic when Francesco suggested that I should be writing because I have an amazing way with words. I was both flattered and dubious. What on earth he could have meant? The language I used was simple, very straightforward with basic words and no special expressions. He told me answering my astonishment that there is something charming about my choice of words and yes, it is not literature level Italian, but it’s fascinating to read.
I didn’t know what he really meant, I just tried to express my thoughts with the obvious limitations, throwing in adjectives to make it vivid, using simple structures to make it grammatically correct. I didn’t know enough to worry about the quality so I just used what I had — and he loved it.
Italian is not my second language. It’s more like my fourth. I am Hungarian, my first foreign language is English and I speak French. I learnt some Spanish for fun and German for work, but learning Italian was a love project. Just like English has been all along.
When I started to write in English, I have been already studying it for 32 years. Starting at the age of eight, reading a lot, watching everything in English, listening to music in English, in some ways it is closer to me than my native tongue, Hungarian.
I wouldn’t say I have the same limitations with English as I had with Italian, but I am not a native speaker, I never lived in an English speaking area, and I have a lot of limitations with it.
I used to be very self-conscious about it. What if my writing is not good enough to compete with writers who write in English as their main language. What if I make mistakes? What if the mistakes or the quirky ways I choose to express myself will break the writing flow? How will I find my writing voice when it’s not even my language?
I didn’t want to be ridiculed or mocked. I didn’t want to feel inadequate. I was dreading the moment of someone going through my pieces with an editor-eye, terrified that they will find fault everywhere.
I have written over 400 articles since my first one. I worked with editors, I even edited other people’s writing and I wrote a book in English after I went through the editing process without a mental breakdown.
I realized that using a second language is not an obstacle to merely overcome but it can be the very thing that propels you to find your own voice.
Haruki Murakami is the best known Japanese novelist in the world. Murakami’s most notable works include A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84. He is easily one of the most quotable writers, telling his stories of facts and fiction in a dreamlike way, balancing on the fine line between real and surreal. What’s little known about him that to avoid being stuck, he started to write in English, to free himself from the confines of the Japanese language. While writing in Japanese, he claimed he always had to be vague, obscure and only hinting, the English language is direct and straightforward with easy to understand concepts that mean just one thing. He claimed that writing in English gave him an opportunity to find his voice more than in Japanese and later on he incorporated this into his Japanese work as well — which gave him an edge and a unique style, unheard of in Japanese literature.
We all have a second or third language that we learnt at some point in our lives. Besides the obvious benefits of learning and speaking a foreign language, it can help you grow as a writer. And just for the beauty of it, I added some quotes from Murakami itself.
Your limitations can help you grow
If you ever read any writing advice from great and prolific writers, think Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, you will see how simplicity can be more difficult to master than complicated sentences. Simplifying usually happens during editing when you are a beginner and it takes a lit of practice.
If you write in a second language that you don’t speak as well as your first, it will give you limitations and confines you in the restrictions of your abilities. You will need to use simple expressions and words, you won’t be able to be too flowery or too wordy, simply because you can’t possibly know everything that comes to mind, so you need to find a workaround.
The workarounds will help you find the real meaning or drop the unnecessary fluff. You don’t want to work on something that doesn’t add to the meaning, it is not worth it. Striving for simplicity is the best that you can do for yourself.
“It occurred to me what a simple thing reality is, how easy it is to make it work. It’s just reality. Just housework. Just a home. Like running a simple machine. Once you learn to run it, it’s just a matter of repetition. You push this button and pull that lever. You adjust a gauge, put on the lid, set the timer. The same thing, over and over.” — Haruki Murakami
Your thoughts don’t depend on language
Your writing, if you take away the obvious necessary grammar and style and punctuation consists of two major parts: your thoughts and feelings and the words you choose to express them, these add up to your writing voice.
When you write in a second language your thoughts matter a lot more than the actual words you choose which will give you a more reliable writing voice. It also helps to overcome writer’s block, as you can let go of finding the perfect wording, it’s the thought behind that will make it shine, no matter how simple the words you use.
“Sometimes when I look at you, I feel I’m gazing at a distant star. It’s dazzling, but the light is from tens of thousands of years ago. Maybe the star doesn’t even exist any more. Yet sometimes that light seems more real to me than anything.”
Your writing becomes memorable
It’s hard to stand out from the millions of amazing writers. To find your own style and niche and words… so difficult.
The best writers I know write just like they speak. They use the expression they would use in a verbal conversation, they have the same energy shining through their written words as it does through their spoken words. It’s fascinating to see.
If you try writing in another language it can help you figure out what are your signature elements. Without giving it a thought, your second language writing will gravitate towards the core of you and it’s easier to pinpoint the core features if you have two different languages to work with. You might recognize that you are most comfortable using one specific tense or point if view, or you might realize that you use metaphors and analogies most easily to get your point across.
Figuring out what your forte is will help you to strengthen it even more.
“If you remember me, then I don’t care if everyone else forgets.”
You can beat the writer’s block
Writer’s block is usually a mental state where we overthink our writing process, get paralyzed by our opportunities or potential failures and we just can’t seem to start anything.
If you suffer from it long enough, your imposter syndrome might join the party and the two will debilitate you.
This is when writing in a second language can help you out. If you only start writing and keep at it for 5–10 minutes it can be enough to reboot the blocked system. If you do it in a second (or third) language you need to use a different skillset, and without the end goal of making it good enough you can get your creative juices flowing.
Trying to dust off the slightly rusty French or Spanish that you used to study in high school, even if you throw in your first language words, can work like magic.
It’s a great exercise to help you with your writing and it’s an amazing practice too for your next holiday.
You can use it as a mental challenge, to help yourself getting into a state of different level of creativity. You can discover your weaknesses as strengths in your first language by using a second one. You can have fun and you can grow. Not to mention that if you are an overachiever who always needs to win and accomplish, a language that you don’t master yet can make you humble again and it can take the pressure off you, too.