Writing in another language

There are a number of well-known authors who choose to do just that, in many cases writing not only well but brilliantly, in a language that was not their first.

Are You an Exophonic Writer?

The word derives from Greek–exo in Greek means “outside”; phonic means “voice.” The University of Warwick in the United Kingdom even offers a course on it, called “Exophony, or Writing Beyond the Mother Tongue.”

Exophonic writers come to their work and their other language for many reasons, with various levels of comfort and ambivalence. Theirs is an extraordinary talent, but what it speaks to can resonate with all of us aspiring to or achieving bilingualism.

It could be that the languages we embrace the most are the ones that embrace us—that make it possible for us to express something more compellingly, and with great relish. Different languages speak to us in singular ways, strengthening the power to inject more meaning into our thoughts, enriching the rewards of conversation.

Exophonic authors who chose to write in English and deservedly gained notoriety

Joseph Conrad. A Russian seafarer born of Polish parents, Conrad turned published writer at 37. He didn’t speak English fluently until he was in his twenties. Today he’s considered a master of prose, a Charles Dickens of a sort whose foreign approach of English gave his work a unique and praised stylistic flair. Remember that in Conrad’s case, the fact that Polish was his first language and not English was never a barrier but an advantage! Of course, it wasn’t always easy. “I had to work like a coal-miner in his pit, quarrying all of my English sentences out of a black night,” he mused.

Agota Kristof was a Hungarian woman who, at 21, fled her native country to Austria and then Switzerland. After a few years as a clock factory worker where working in silence drove her mad, she decided to learn how to write in French. This newfound way of self-expression led to the publication of Le Cahier in her adopted language, a book known as The Notebook in the English speaking world. In her words, she did it because “it was fun.”

Related: English through the ages

One for the Russian roadVladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) is one of the best known. As the child of an aristocratic household in Russia before the communist revolution, he spoke not just Russian but also French (as did many Russian elites) and English. He described himself as “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library.” Later, as an exile in America, he wrote initially in Russian but reached a point where, as he told an interviewer, he felt he had “to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom” for what he called “a second-rate brand of English.” Of the nine books that Nabokov wrote in English, it was the fourth that catapulted him into the iconosphere. 

Lolita sold 100,00 copies in its first fortnight of publication in 1958, and quickly came to be considered a classic of American literature and one of our most famous—or infamous—road trip books. Ironically Nabokov didn’t drive, but he did hang out on city buses, eavesdropping on kids’ conversations to pick up their American slang.

On the road avec Jean Louis – Another classic American road trip story was the work of a French-Canadian named Jean Louis Kirouac. Most readers know him as Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), the author of On the Road. Although he was from Lowell, Massachusetts, he spoke only French until he was 6 (actually, he spoke joual, a dialect of Québécois). He started his most famous work in French, then started again—and finished it—in English. But he still wrote other novels and poems in French, and in later years migrated back to his first language. “Sé dur pour mué parlé l’Angla,” he wrote (in joual) in 1951. “It’s hard for me to talk English.”

Related: Langston Hughes

A Dickens of a journey – Another writer more comfortable writing in French was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857-1924). French was his second language, after Polish, and he picked up much of it as a 16-year-old who went to Marseilles to become a sailor. He maintained that “l’Anglais m’est toujours une langue étrangère“—”English to me is always a foreign language.” But try telling that to readers of Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (his Anglicized name), which he wrote in his third language. And if there are elements of Conrad’s epic storytelling that seem almost Dickensian, it’s because the very English Charles Dickens was one of Conrad’s fiction-writing heroes.

As he labored in English, Conrad may have felt at times like a character out of Dickens. As Professor Steven G. Kellman, the editor of Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft, wrote, Conrad described it as unforgiving hard work. “I had to work like a coal-miner in his pit, quarrying all of my English sentences out of a black night.”

PropheticKahlil Gibran (1883-1931) had no formal education until he was 12; his family was living with myriad other Syrian immigrants in the South End of Boston, having emigrated from Lebanon. That’s when the Arabic-speaking Khalil (the actual spelling of his name, before coming to America) learned English. He wrote at least six books in English, with his American friend and patron, Mary Haskell, editing them before his publishers did. To do so, she tried to learn Arabic so she could better understand Gibran’s thinking. Gibran’s most famous work, composed in English, is the collection of his hypnotic prose poems on life’s passages, The Prophet. Published in 1923, the book has sold four million copies in the United States and is still in print. It can also be read in 40 other languages.

Related: Proto-languages

Going home again, through another languageKhaled Hosseini (b. 1965) learned English at about the same age as Gibran. He was 15 when his family emigrated from Afghanistan, and was fluent in English within a year. He has chosen to write all his novels (thus far) in English. Both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, his best known works, are novels set in his homeland, as is And the Mountains Echoed. Another contemporary author who writes in an adopted language about her native country is the novelist Edwidge Danticat (b. 1969).

Originally from Haiti, Danticat was born to Creole and schooled in French. She, too, was 12 when she started to speak English, and finds it to be, as she once described it, a “neutral” language for writing. Even so, as she recounted in Conversations with Edwidge Danticat, “Creole, more than French, is always behind the English I am writing. My characters are speaking in Creole and in my mind I do a simultaneous translation as I am writing.” Krik? Krak!, her collection of short stories about Haiti, was written in English, but then translated (back) to Creole for Haitian radio stations.

Leaving English for other linguistic shores

While these writers all made English their other language, some well-known native-English-speaking writers have chosen an other language as well.

 In Altre Parole (In Other Words) -  Jhumpa Lahiri
Writers who left the English Language

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the Irish playwright, felt most at home writing in French. Thus, before there was a Waiting for Godot, there was first En Attendant Godot. Writing in French made him a better writer, he said, his prose more streamlined. Beckett equated departing from his mother tongue to tearing off a veil. No doubt one of Beckett’s literary antecedents, the Irish playwright, novelist and poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), would have approved. One of the plays he wrote was also in French: Salomé.

Perhaps the most well-known contemporary writer who has turned from her native English is Jhumpa Lahiri (b. 1967), whose first book (in English), Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. She was already bilingual—Bengali and English—although not biliterate. She neither read nor wrote Bengali. Then on a trip to Florence after college, she fell in love with Italian, despite its having no point of cultural reference for her. But it offered her something else.

“I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself,” she said in an interview with NPR. Writing in Italian signals “the first time I really feel the freedom to express myself as I want to.” She told her story in the book In Altre Parole (In Other Words), published as a dual-language edition in 2016. Lahiri wrote the Italian but was not the one who translated that into English.

As an Italian-speaker I understood her book to be among many things a love letter to the Italian language itself. And I thoroughly recommend it for all Italophiles out there.

Writing for EFL Students

Feedback is an important and essential issue in writing courses especially in process approach since this approach recommends the effectiveness of intervention at all stages of writing.

Writing is an important communication skill and has an essential role in second language learning process. Ultimately, the best piece of advice for writing in your second language is to stop stressing about it.

Read as much as possible

I feel silly reminding you of this, but really.

Most great writers love to read. By reading in English as much as you can, you’ll become more familiar with sentence structure, get to know commonly used metaphors and widen your vocabulary. Put simply, the more you read, the more you will learn about the English language.

Don’t let one word slow down your draft

Don’t be a perfectionist when you’re writing your first draft. This advice applies to all people and all types of writing. If you aren’t sure which English word to use, just write the closest word in your native language and continue with your draft. Once you have finished your draft, go back through your work and replace those words with their English equivalents.

Tip: It may be helpful to highlight or underline any words you write in your native language – this will help you make sure you don’t forget to replace them later.

Be concise and coherent

Good writing is simple, clear and easy to read. Some people think that using long words and formal language will make them sound more academic, but this is not true. Use terms related to your field of study where appropriate, but keep the rest of your language simple. Avoid buzzwords and excessive use of jargon words. Long sentences make it difficult for the reader to keep track of what you’re saying.

Tip: Keep your sentences under 25 words wherever possible. When you are editing your work, look out for very long sentences and see if you can split them into two sentences instead.

The prominence of writing ability and its serious position in representing students’ learning degree is indisputable in second language teaching and research. In effect, writing is considered as a difficult task, even for native speakers though it is much more intimidating for non-natives, especially EFL learners.
The special characteristics of writing which give it such importance as well as some of the factors making writing one the most difficult language skills to learn has been enumerated above. Generally, writing research topics in second language 22 IJELS 6(2):15-25 studies range from disciplinary to interdisciplinary and finally to metadisciplinary field of inquiry.

In addition, while behavioristic and contrastive rhetoric are considered as the two main approaches to teaching writing, we can name the product-oriented, the process-oriented, and the post-process approaches as the prevalent ones to the study of writing. Finally, the administration of writing assessment is categorized into analytical and impressionistic (holistic) approaches which have long been drawn on by language teachers and researchers. Continue reading study

For tips on how to write a speech in English go here:

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