English is my third language, and the one I most prefer to write in.
That’s because it’s the language that I’ve read the most in, and the one I’ve practiced writing in the most.
It wasn’t always like this.
When I was young, I’d write in Swedish (my second language, but the one I learned in school.) Writing in Swedish was easy, writing in English didn’t even cross my mind because I didn’t have the skills to do it.
That’s secret number one to being a multi-lingual writer: practice really does make perfect.
If you don’t write in English, you won’t get better at it.
Unfortunately, even if you do write in English, you might not get better at it. Because practice, in itself, isn’t enough. You also need to correct your problematic behaviors. That is, you need feedback.
For me, that feedback has come in two forms.
At first, it was the crushing realization, fed to me by my infernal editor (i.e. internal monologue voice that keeps telling me that I suck,) that my writing wasn’t the same as the books and stories I was reading. My skill in writing, both in English and in Swedish, wasn’t enough to reach a level I was comfortable with.
This made me stop writing in English. Yes, I know, stupid reactions.
But I’m human, and we humans tend to go for the easy solutions. Or rather, we tend to go for the emotionally easy solutions, the ones that feel comfortable in the short term. It’s like eating ice cream because you sprained your ankle and can’t go running – it’s great the moment the spoon of tastylicious hits your tongue, but quite bad when you next step on a scale…
So I quit.
Fortunately, I didn’t quit reading, and that upped my skill level in general English. And as I talked more in English, I worked on my ability to express myself.
All of this was invisible to me. I didn’t realize that spending countless hours playing Kings Quest and the Sierra type-to-act games was improving my language skills. (Neither did my parents, BTW, who wanted their son to do something decent with his life, not waste it in front of a screen – but that’s another story entirely.)
But, years later, I started posting stories on the forums I visited, mainly gamer forums. Which brings me to the second type of feedback:
I’m not talking about asking someone to look at your story/language/wordings and decide if it’s good or not (although that can be part of it.) Rather I’m talking about reader reactions.
When people love something about your writing, you learn. When they tell you they don’t understand something, you learn. When you get a strange reaction, like when someone guffaws at the scene you write all tear-stained and emotional, you learn.
You learn how your writing affects others.
And of course, you can ask for direct feedback on your word choices, but that’s small scale – intellectual and emotional comprehension, the ability to get what is in your mind into someone else’s is the key aspect of writing. And it’s got little to do with grammar and word choices (they are part, but not the major part.)
But enough about me. How do you learn to write in a second, third, or fourth language?
- Write in your most comfortable language, then translate.
- Write in the other language directly.
- Mix them.
The advantages to writing in your primary language and translating are that you can separate the act of adding information/story from the act of expressing it.
This makes it easier to focus on the form of expression, the individual words.
It also, in my opinion, trains the wrong thing – you’re practicing becoming a writer in one language, and becoming a translator in another.
Yes, being a great translator has its uses. I’ve translated articles and works from Swedish to English and vice versa, but that’s usually for someone else, where I can’t know exactly what they wanted to say, and if they succeeded.
When I do it for myself, I can see the gaps in what I’m trying to say, and what I’m actually saying. And I can’t fill them.
Because the structure of the language, its flow if you want, is sufficiently different that I’d need to rewrite the piece, not translate it, in order to get it to say exactly what I meant originally.
At the same time, translating is a great way to learn – when you’re starting out.
Unless you’re some kind of genius, keeping two separate threads (content and expression) in you mind (assuming you think in your primary language while you write) is difficult. When you’re starting out, you want to keep the difficulty as low as possible.
So I’d advice to work on translation when you’re doing highly focused things. That is, when you’re doing deliberate practice, translate, at least in the beginning.
But when you write, and practice the skill of using your second language, write in that second language.
It will be slow. It will be frustrating. You’ll need to use a dictionary and a thesaurus and a visual dictionary.
It will pass.
Basically, with writing (and reading, and talking) in your second language, you’re building new neural pathways that will enable you to start thinking in that language.
Because that’s the end goal.
At first, when we learn a language, we speak our own language in the words of the other. The word might be right, but the idioms, the grammar, the flow, is wrong.
As we learn, we stop translating in our heads, and start using the other language. We pass from functional speakers to natural speakers (curiously enough, in language learning terminology, you’re always a speaker, never a writer.)
But there’s a point in translating even then. It raises our awareness and lets us see when we’re using idioms or patterns from our primary language when writing in English. But its a case of diminishing returns – at a certain point, you’re practicing translating, and not really writing.
So to sum it up:
- Practice translating when you’re starting out, and you need to focus on the words and word patterns themselves in order to write.
- Practice writing in your second language as soon as you can handle it. This will start teaching you to think in your second language.
- Mix writing and translating when you want to increase your awareness of the differences between the languages, but don’t let it become a crutch for you – at a certain point, you’re practicing becoming a translator and not a writer.
Luck and Persistence!