Whenever I read an english text written by a man who I know is not a native english speaker, *Cesar Millan’s voice reads it back to me inside my head. It doesn’t matter how well the text’s written, sensing some Latin or Mexican cadence in the author’s name, my brain automatically reboots to a mechanic, scratched speech.
After some paragraphs of well-written english, this foreign accent fades away, but it only takes a few misspells or the weirdness of a sentence that clearly doesn’t come from a native english mind, to pull me back out. If the text has grammar issues in every sentence I’m done as a reader sooner than expected, and only resume reading from the standpoint of a patient, empathetic reader who understands skin-deep about the struggles of learning a new language, a new culture and, more importantly, a new mindset.
So you’ve decided to write a novel in your second language because you’re used to being praised when you talk with english natives.
“Plus,” you tell me, “I get extra points because those are one oh one conversations. In person,” you add proudly.
The truth is, ‘in person’ it’s easier because our body language compensates for any misunderstanding. Maybe you didn’t make much sense but you seemed like a nice guy and your audience kept nodding. Unless you’re writing a sex ad, and you’ve nailed a nice angle of your [fill-in-the-blank] for the quirky snapshot on the side, you’ll find that all that gets up [mind you] in your defense is paper and ink. The words will not magically lift off the page into the reader’s brain and connect the dots by themselves, nor will the reader try to make sense of what you just wrote, line by line, when he has so many fast-food reads out there. In another non-metaphorical thought, what stands between you and your readers is something that may paralyze you from the shoulders down, if you let it: native english speakers that write all of what I just wrote better and faster than I could blink. Forget about the Cookie Monster; these guys are scarier.
And they’re off to MacDonald’s…
Now that the lucky bastards aren’t listening, let’s be honest: if you don’t think like them while you are using their words, nobody’s reading. There’s no point in setting yourself to write in another language if you’re not connecting with the readers of that language. They are the reason why you first decided to write in english; they’re your audience.
You may say otherwise, that you write in english to reach an audience on the other side of the Planet, whose mother tongue is not english, but english is the only thing you have in common. That could give a good chick’s novel. But even when mother tongues are the same, if I’m reading you in english my brain has already reconfigured its cute, twinkling, little neurons to a connection of words in a specific order. This means my neurons have expectations (and feelings, BTW) for how those words connect in a sentence. Certain expressions have pre-defined meanings that offer resistance to new contexts; paragraphs have an introduction, expansion and conclusion in this precise order; some words are official UK English, others are upgraded American (spell-it-as-you-say-it is always an improvement for someone learning a new language), and others are pure slang that makes me think you’re a guy trying to sound cool when expanding on serious issues – like cancer.
You’ve lost me.
While I may understand your subject matter, without grasping your mood (how you sounded like, how’s the speech suppose to be read), I’ll not grasp your goal. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re still explaining your story in multiple ways, typing like a maniac – you’re a microscopic *Cesar Millan* jumping up and down inside my brain, and all I can think about while [not really] reading your text is how I miss having a dog.
You may shout, “But hey, Vanessa, what’s up? I’m portuguese just like you –”
I’ll still be dreaming of puppies.
It’s not mother tongue that matters, it’s the language you chose to communicate in. Mother tongue gives you original thoughts, resources from your own experiences and culture, it doesn’t give you the liberty to reinvent grammar and ignore the centuries of development that led to any given language.
Also, vocabulary is very culture specific so that in some cases there are no direct translations of words from one language to another, only approximations.
This is how important it is for you and me both any writer to fully embrace the language in which he/she is writing. This is why Google Translator is simply-not-enough (try answers.com). This is why all your high-school english classes are simply-not-enough. And the same concept applies to good intentions, age, relevance, originality, praises of cyber buddies, siblings, friends and pets or any other excuse that may boost your ego.
Ego. That’s a word I wanted you to think about, because it may be the only string restraining your writing from becoming airborne and be better than chocolate (apologies, new diet). More than stupidity, I’ve discovered, the ego can turn you into someone unable to learn, and you may be thinking faster than your excited fingertips can handle. There are three reasons why someone would seem clumsy about their work (and lets call this a job, part-time or not, since I assume you are taking it seriously): lack of passion, control and/or ego.
Lack of passion is easily fixed – find another hobby. Control is a different matter, as it brings problems of its own and usually traces back to unresolved issues of your past. In a word, fear of losing control dates back to self-esteem. Now the Cookie Monster’s behind your laptop, waiting to boo you at any moment if you don’t give him sweets in every line.
The good news is that you are not alone. In fact, most writers struggle with issues of self-esteem during their careers and they’re not even shy about admitting it anymore. “When in doubt, keep writing, one word at a time,” I can almost hear them say. (I’ve read so many books on Creative Writing that it feels like they’re all talking at once inside my head).
But how does this fear of losing control relates to learning another language? Well, think about it: aren’t you being asked to forget about your own dictionary of words and replace it completely with another? The vocabulary you’ve learned and use since toddling and became your identity. Isn’t this setting yourself to failure? Isn’t it a sure fact that you’re going to make mistakes and sound like a fool, no matter what your college degree states? Aren’t you compromising to a contract that asks more than what it offers in return? [Come down from wonderland, please.]
Okay, take a breather.
As I said before, you’re not alone. None of us is ever alone. If you’re faced with a challenge, chances are others already experienced it and someone rose above it. The only thing you need doing is accept that you’re not in full control of the language, you’ll have to stop many times to check words and meanings but that’s just part of the process. Then, lose the ego.
You’re not an exception; you’re not better than any other foreigner; you’re not going to be discovered by a renowned Publisher who finds the fact that you’re writing in your second language amazing! You’re not.
You’re really not.
If you still think you’re not made of flesh and bone like us mortals, and that your skin lights in the dark, pay close attention to the next transcription:
English has become the language of international communication and is becoming even more dominant as technology increases and spreads. While English is not the world’s most widely spoken language—Chinese is—it is the most widely spoken second language and has the distinction of having approximately the same number of native speakers as non-native speakers*. These non-native speakers have learned English as their second language or even their third language; they may be communicating with native English speakers or with other non-native speakers.
*According to Shipwrights the number of non-native english speakers writing in their second language now triples that of native english speakers (1.2 billion to 375 million respectively)
Still up for it?
This is the part where I should end with some motivational speech but the thing is we all have our reasons to write a full-length novel in english. They should be strong enough to support you along the way, even if faith and passion is all you have when people roll their eyes at you when you say you’re an aspiring english writer (Phew!). But they should also be your reasons.
I can only leave you with mine: the reason why I chose to write in english is the same why I decided to write fiction – because it takes me away to an undiscovered world where all that exists is my imagination. It’s therapeutic and there are no pre-conceived notions. Away from my quirks and worries. And what could be farther from my automatic thoughts than a whole new language?
* Don’t get me wrong, I love Cesar Millan’s insights.