Writing in Non-Native Languages

I just finished reading an article on tips for writing in non-native languages, and … can I just take a moment to say how much I admire those of you who are bilingual or multi-lingual enough to take on such a challenge? It’s hard enough to write well in a primary language, but to do so in a secondary or tertiary one must qualify as some kind of super power. 🙂

I have always loved linguistics and always wanted to be fluent in another language. I remember being interested in Spanish first when I was a small child because I lived in Florida and watched several bilingual kid shows. That’s where I first became aware that there were different ways to say things. But then I moved out of that multi-cultural setting and latched onto French in high school — minored in it in college to go with my English major. Over summers I would try out other languages: Russian, German, Swedish, Old English, Drow … 🙂 (Yes, even archaic and fictional languages intrigued me enough to learn some basics.) I used to work as a librarian, and I can remember sitting at the desk counting microfiche, 5 per envelope for boxes of hundreds of slides. And that would get terribly boring, so I tested myself on how many languages in which I could count to 5. Drew some very strange looks from passers-by, but it kept me alert and awake because language is music to my ears.

But I never got to truly develop my French skills in spite of my six years of education in it because I never had a reason to use it. Then I unexpectedly move to Japan. (Cue “Hallelujah” chorus.)

So OF COURSE I was excited to have a reason to study Japanese!  I dove in head first and fell in love. I loved the language. I loved the culture. I loved being immersed in the language I was studying, so that I could actually use it, rather than being limited to repeating what I heard in lab recordings.

(This was before the Internet allowed us ordinary people access to the world at large, so you could be stuck in a lab two hours twice a week saying, “Des saucisses, sans doute,” into a microphone for the teacher to grade your pronunciation and listening comprehension skills … you know, in case a French person ever asks what’s for lunch and you happen to be having sausages. And that was it. That was your entire foreign language exposure in the American classroom experience.)

But then I had to return to the States and suddenly my Japanese immersion morphed into isolation. To say that I miss Japan terribly is an understatement. It was one of the few places I’ve lived, out of 22 addresses so far, that actually felt like “home” to me. I’ve never really fit in anywhere because of my constant moving, but Japan felt like a perfect fit for me — like I could have been happy to spend the rest of my life there. And I’d never felt any kind of “sense of place” or “connection to place” like that before. So, memories of Japan are bittersweet for me because I don’t know when or if I will ever be able to go back.

But I am desperate to hang onto my Nihongo skills, since my French is all but lost to me after so many years of disuse. A couple of years ago, I decided to restart Japanese lessons. At the same time, I wanted to restart French and add German and Spanish to my lessons, as well. Ballsy to take on that many languages at once, I know, but it was a bucket-list thing. I had graduated from counting to 5 in five different ways. Now I could say, “That is a red car,” in five different ways during my neighborhood walks. But those plans eventually fell through because of unexpected life events that shook me to my foundation. Yet here I am missing Japanese again. The desire to learn it just won’t go away.

So, I’m restarting lessons again. I pulled out an old notebook the other night to look at old study pages, and looking through it made me even more determined to regain my old level of fluency and surpass it. I want to be able to add “translator” to my freelance jobs. And if I get a chance to move back to Japan, I would like to be able to seriously consider it.

日本語のノートです。
私の日本語のノートです。My Japanese language notebook.

At the same time, I’ve also become interested in Korean, so I’m now learning the Korean alphabet. (You know you’re a language geek when you get giddy over adding a new keyboard to your language bar and can type “ㅏ” for the first time.)

Someone dear to me once made a comment that made me feel like loving and studying languages was stupid because it’s not as employable or practical as other kinds of degrees.  Au contraire. 🙂 I think it’s one of the smartest things a person can do, even if you’re not employed as a translator or interpreter. The world is a global village now, so you open more doors for yourself — and for others — by learning more than one way to give and receive information. You are less limited in the business opportunities and friendships you share. Polyglots are usually more open to understanding the cultures of the languages they study, because languages inherently teach us about culture. Plus, recent studies have shown that knowing more than one language just makes you smarter. Doh! … Did we really need a study to prove that? Apparently so because just a generation ago experts thought learning more than one language would confuse children. So, in America, immigrant parents were discouraged from teaching their own non-English languages to their kids. (American culture still has issues with non-English languages, but that’s a rant for another time when I feel like discussing how crippling it is to be limited to only one language … how it fosters prejudices.)

I have many friends whose native languages are something other than English, and I cannot express my admiration of them enough. I’m truly envious of their ability to communicate so effectively in English. (Especially since, in my opinion, English is one of the most screwed up languages around!) 😉 They are my inspiration to keep trying to overcome obstacles to fluency. And recently I’ve been reading several articles from other non-native-English speakers that have also been inspiring.

So, in my fiction, I have my own elven languages. And I had fun researching Old Norse, Gaelic, Welsh, and Faroese to create them. Maybe I will share a little more about my language creation process in the future.

But for now, as I trace my Hangul vowels and crack open my 日本語のノート once more, I just want to take a moment to express my admiration for all writers out there who brave writing blogs, songs, stories, whatever in a language that isn’t their primary one. The whole point of language is human communication. Spelling might not be perfect. Grammar or idioms might be tough to navigate. But you do it anyway because of the desire to express yourself and be understood beyond the language barriers. You learn from your mistakes gracefully. You get better by doing — by being courageous enough to try to speak your mind with unfamiliar tools. And many of you have gone beyond basic communication to truly touch base with the beauty and melody in other languages. Hopefully, I will be able to join your fluency ranks eventually. 🙂 Wish me luck on finding the time and energy to add these studies to my daily responsibilities, so that I can eventually add them to my job descriptions. がんばりますよ。^_^

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7 thoughts on “Writing in Non-Native Languages

  1. Hello! I think sometimes I’m of those people who think that japanese is a “useless” language, besides I’m studying it. But your right, in this globalized world I hope if I learn it in a fluid way, it can be useful to me, and maybe give me a job with it. It’s a beautiful language and really fun to learn it. Also dificult. I’m impressed with your passion for language learning! I’m just starting to get into this world, but I really want to master various languages in the future, I want to start with german soon, I’m thinking to go there to study a master when I finish my university this year. Good luck with all your studies!

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    1. Well, I spent six years studying French and ended up in Japan. 🙂 It’s hard to know what knowledge will be useful in the future, so it’s good to know lots of stuff. Maybe we can help each other by sharing information and encouragement, at least.

      I enjoyed a short study in German. (Too short.) My college roommate studied it more in-depth. I have some Austrian friends. Plus, my family has some German heritage. So, someday I want to be better with German, too. But if I can master Japanese for job-related translations, to possibly go back or at least work with international relations here, I would be happy to continue learning others languages for fun. I tutored English while in Japan, so I’d be willing to do that again. I’m considering tutoring English here among the international students at the local university. If I can be of assistance in English or Japanese, I usually try to help. 🙂

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      1. Thank you! That’s a lot of languages on your waiting list! If you want to add spanish some day, you can write to me for practice.

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      2. Thanks! Right now I rely on similarities to French when I hit short bits of Spanish, but have to resort to a translator bot for the longer reads. Spanish has been on my “someday” list for a long time now. (If I had a superpower I think I’d want it to be either understanding ALL languages or being able to teleport all over the world wherever and whenever I want. So for now I’m stuck with a long wish list of languages and travel plans and “someday”.)

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  2. I’ve studied Japanese for practically longer than I remember but my writing skills are still very weak. Problem is that, living in the US, I have no use for writing, so even if I force myself to practice (and I have) I just forget it eventually when I stop practicing. This contrasts to other skills like reading, listening, and speaking which I can find some way to practice ‘naturally’ without forcing things.

    But it’s still awesome to be able to write in Japanese. Your handwriting is great, much better than mine was when I actually remembered that many characters! (:

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    1. Just checked out your blog, and it looks very useful, so I will be following. 🙂

      And, yes, I know exactly what you mean about no use for Japanese in the US, short of maybe working with a Japanese company or transfer students at universities. What I loved about living in Japan — well, one of the many things I loved about living in Japan — was actually having a need to *use* what I learned. In fact, one of the stark realities about coming back to the US was the signs. I was used to seeing everything written in Japanese with maybe some English underneath it, but suddenly everything around me was English. I didn’t have any culture shock moving to Japan. Moving back to America, however, I had awful culture shock. The signs, it wasn’t that I’d forgotten English to the point where I couldn’t use it, it just looked *weird* to me to see everything already translated. I didn’t have to process anything, and that felt strange — too easy. I’ve had many issues with culture shock upon leaving Japan, but I distinctly remember riding to the hotel in the shuttle from the airport and staring at all the English signs feeling very sad … because that’s when it hit me that finding Japanese to read, or a reason to write it, or someone to speak with, would be very difficult now just because I’m no longer immersed in it.

      Thanks for the handwriting compliment, too. It’s amazing how quickly it disappears from memory if it’s not used. It’s slowly coming back to me, but I’m frustrated that I get hung up on some of the katakana and kanji I once knew, but have forgotten due to disuse. I have to go back to keeping a little chart nearby for reference. I’ve had to turn the subtitles back on for anime. But it IS coming back. 🙂 So, I’m determined to get back to my former proficiency and surpass it. I just have to be patient with myself and diligent in my studies and attempt to immerse as much as possible once more. That was the key to my picking it up so rapidly — being there and having to use it.

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      1. Having to turn subtitles back on anime, ouch that’s harsh ):

        What I said about no use for Japanese in the US I meant mostly about writing, since I can get my share of the other things (reading, listening, etc.) by enjoying things like manga, novels, dramas, and anime. I’ve made it a habit to try and read a few Japanese novels a day, as well as Manga, and that really helps keep up my reading abilities and learn more Kanji.

        Good luck getting your abilities back, I’m sure you’ll be able to catch up eventually and break new ground.

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