The Difficulties of Style in a New Language

This blog is not about the Basics of English Language. If you still had to learn that you wouldn’t be reading this now, am I right? There are a lot of Courses out there that teach you the basics of any given language and all good Word Processors correct misspells; so there’s no need for me to repeat what you can get, in person, from a qualified teacher or with self-help books and DVDs that already flood the Market.

What doesn’t exist out there is a Self-Help book on Creative Writing for Foreigners wishing to write in English. The Courses that do exist teach how to build a CV, interact within a society and how to handle customers. When you’re at ease with common expressions and grasp the logic behind english grammar (many times better than a native, as they write without thinking about the rules but because it comes natural – as you do with your mother tongue), you can evolve to write business letters and project proposals. But even so, you aren’t taught to write creatively. [Exception: good Graduate Degrees in your own Country, set to teach English as a Foreign Language]

English Courses sell practical, useful Packages of Tools, but Creative Writing is more about quality than quantity. It has less to do with what’s needed to convey a message, and more to do with the multiple ways in which that message can be interpreted. This is a matter that seems so abstract and difficult to explain, that an English Course expanding on Creativity and Novel Writing would take several months to teach and have to be much more personal – and therefore more expensive – than what existing Packages have on offer.

After an English Course for Foreigners, you are not equipped to write beyond the technical words or chitchat slang that fills any other everyday job. Foreigners are left to learn on their own the intricacies, ideas, metaphors and similes, that exist behind the english language – foundations of all expressive thoughts. Empowered by their single will, blocked so many times by the months and years of hard work standing in from of them, foreigners often give up before they start. Writing creatively is hard work for any writer, this effort doubles when you are swimming in an undiscovered and often judgmental new World of words.

I am still too little, as a writer, to judge the reasons why there are no such courses, but I can guess at a few:

a.       Almost no candidates up for that challenge;

b.      Almost no chances of finding an agent willing to work with a slow writer;

c.       The difficulties of teaching Style (feelings, rhythm, balance, inner meanings) in a language that is not the student’s mother tongue – innate source of all his thoughts.

Let me assure you that I never found anything about this subject, but it’s something that intrigues me often. I’m used to the idea that if something doesn’t exist yet is because: 1) there’s no market for it, 2) profitability or 3) nobody really cares about that service – and, of course, all factors are interrelated. But in my opinion the difficulties of defining Style [ c. ], much less confine it in a set of rules and concepts in order to convey it to one another, is the main reason why these English Courses for Foreigners don’t go beyond the mere basics. I call it The (Necessary) Shift of Style.

This shift occurs at first with a lot of hard work – mostly through reading – and evolves subtly to a new understanding of the rhythms behind the new language. At times, the foreigner almost misses this instinctual editing, and doesn’t recognize his thoughts are being re-organized within is mind before they reach the page. However, many don’t understand that a shift is not only needed, but crucial, and continue to write with a ‘foreigner accent’ unaware of their mistakes. After you improve as a writer of a second language, the Shift of Style allows for the transformation of sentences from mother tongue into the new language and, within that process, clean all artificiality, roughness and lost of meaning.

The Shift of Style is, therefore, a main and permanent goal to all writers who choose to express creatively in a new language. The sooner you acknowledge it and work to improve [ergo: reading,] the better the chances of writing ‘like a native’.

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10 thoughts on “The Difficulties of Style in a New Language

      • I do use dictionary when I don’t find a word I need. But you know most often I write stuffs related to real life. When I try to write on a new topic which requires new words that I already don’t know, I have to look up in the dictionary then. I check a few synonyms and see example sentences/usage and then pick the best one.

        The idea of thesaurus is still not clear to me.

        • An English-to-English Thesaurus gives you much more than a Dictionary from your mother tongue to English, because it explains how each word can be used within different contexts and sentences.

          The fact that you said you already write with a set of words in your mind is exactly why I recommended you a Thesaurus. Find out how those words are used more often, find out synonyms to define what are the best words for what you want to say. Your texts lack this kind of dept and understanding of the english language, because you are stuck with the vocabulary that first pops into your mind and don’t improve beyond that.

          I believe there’s not a great difference concerning sharpness and correctness of written english, regarding real life OR fiction. In both you benefit from a diverse use of adjectives, adverbs, verbs and nouns. Your posts lack this diversity.

          Of course its easier to just write what first popped into your mind if its already in english, instead of doing the work and assuring its the best word. But that’s not how professionals do it: fiction AND non-fiction (no excuses). They edit their draft afterwords and use Thesaurus.

          Here’s an example of what a Thesaurus can offer you for the verb ‘run’

          http://www.answers.com/topic/run#Thesaurus_d

          I’m only insisting on this because you said you want to be a journalist and write in english, and you’re only 15 – I wish I had someone telling me this when I was your age. This is only my opinion, now it’s up to you. Keep it up.

          Good luck

        • Now there is a problem. You already know that I’m not a good reader in English. I have a few books on my table. English fictions by Ruskin Bond. I read them. But I can’t picture the story as well as I could if the stories were in Bangla.

          I’m telling you this because thesaurus is in English. I checked the link to ‘run’ you provided in an earlier comment. But I couldn’t understand most of the meanings on that page. :(

          Worst of all, I guess, there is no thesaurus in Bangla that could help me understand when to use which word in Bangla text.

  1. To Sajib:
    Yes, that’s harder.

    My best experience in the beginning was when I read a book in english I had already read in the Portuguese translated version (my mother tongue) back home.

    So: read a book in english that you already read in Bangla. If you don’t have such book, find it, buy the two versions (bangla and english) and read them. Bangla first, English second.

    Remember: the book must be about something you truly love and it’s better if it’s fiction because fiction has more diversity of words and expressions.

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