Interesting piece this week-end in the NY Times about authors writing in adopted languages, such as Francesca Marciano, the author of a collection of short stories, he Other Language. It’s hard enough to be a writer in your native tongue, but imagine writing publishable stories in a second language. Creative writing is quite different from conveying information – that’s something that can be done, even if grammar is faulty and word choice seems strange. To write well necessitates having a “feel” for the language, including the use of idiomatic expressions and of valid collocations – those chunks of languages that go together. Native speakers have internalized this kind of pragmatic language use through extensive exposure to the language over time. It’s much harder for non-native speakers to capture believably the tone and nuance of a language, including hitting the right registers – for example, what level of informality or slang to use. It’s notoriously difficult, for instance, to use profanity correctly in a foreign language. The popular view of language learning is that it involves learning new words and new rules, but anyone who has tried to function in another language/culture has experienced the reality that such knowledge is necessary but insufficient. Speaking rather than writing provides some help in the form of non-verbals – facial expressions, tone, etc. – but in writing it’s just you and the blank page.
There are famous examples of writers of English who have not grown up speaking the language, Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov (although he learned English and other languages at a young age). What’s remarkable about those two writers, is the fact that they are know as great stylists, writing in a learned language. In fact, non-native speakers (like non-native language teachers) have a critical perspective on the language that may offer new insights. The Times article quotes Chinese writer Yiyun Li, who has just published her third novel in English: “If you are a native speaker, things are automatic…For me, every time I say or write something, I have to go back and ask, ‘Is this what I want to say?’ ”. Non-native writers may feel freer to play and experiment with the new language, more so than when writing in their native language.