A Second Language Writer


Vision 71


A Second Language Writer


Arike van de Water

Copyright © 2013, Arike van de Water, All Rights Reserved




When we talk about the language we write in, we often mean style and regional or social variety. But writing in English, whatever style or variety, is not a foregone conclusion. Many people abroad, and even in the United States, speak two or more languages. To us, choosing a language we want to write in means choosing an actual language from our repertoire, and English isn't the obvious choice. Our native language would be, because hey, it's easier. So it can be hard to explain why we choose a different language, especially if the conversation makes you want to defend yourself:


"So . . . you write. When are you going to publish your book?"

"I'm not ready yet."

"What do you mean?"

"I write in English. It takes a bit more practice."

"Why? You're Dutch."


When I cannot think of a good answer, the other frowns and the conversation ends.

Language choice for writing is complicated. Countries that once upon a time belonged to the British empire usually have an etiquette set up to explain why writers should choose to write in English or not. It's part of the discourse of post-colonial literature, whether in Ireland, South-Africa or India. This has to do with reaching a certain audience, the education and preferences of a writer, and often also the preferences of publishers or readers. Sometimes, it's a way to pick a side or make a point.

But writers in countries where English isn't even an official language, and has never been, are facing the same choice now. I cannot speak for the professional market, but every year I've participated in NaNoWriMo, informal polls show that half of our region, over six thousand strong, writes in English, and only a small percentage is native English speakers.


One reason is genre. I prefer to write fantasy or science fiction. The number of local publishers I've found who would accept submissions for speculative fiction can be counted on the fingers it takes to make a peace sign. Most of the books on the shelves in the store are translations from English or straight-up English books, imported from the United Kingdom or the States. Even writers who are not (yet) looking to be published are avid readers who sometimes like to read books in their original language if they can. They do so as soon as they are far enough along with language learning in high school. They will go on to write what they read, which is - guess what - English.

Another reason: audience. The reach of a story written in a particular language is equal to the size of the language community, the amount of people that speak it. A novel in Spanish can find readers throughout South America, in Spain, and parts of the United States. English has roughly a billion speakers, spread out across the world.

English, as a world language, also attracts people, to the point of absurdity sometimes. A Dutch journalist visiting Ramoji recounts how he "proposed to the tour guide to go to suicide point (a landmark) so he could comment on it with the camera running. He reluctantly agreed, after much deliberation. I thought he was a shy kid. Once there, conversation proved difficult. So difficult, I thought he was about to jump himself. Turns out the guide didn't speak English at all. The speech he gave during the tour, he'd learned sound for sound by heart. I admired the boy, who was able to reproduce what were to him meaningless noises for 45 minutes, without a single mistake" (1). Like the most popular kid in school, with the best toys, it gathers followers simply because of its popularity. Speaking English can also mean getting a good job.


What's growing more important, especially for writers choosing English over another language, is the internet. More specifically, the support found there. It can take a few long and lonely years to write a good book, especially counting the time between messing around as a beginner and the moment you can write fiction fit for publishing. I have been able to take writing classes in Dutch, find a magazine or two and several forums. For the larger resources, say events like NaNoWriMo, the majority of blogs and articles, conferences, etc., are in English. And if you read and write about writing in English, chances are higher you'll do the actual writing in English as well. It's easier. You want to share the work with friends or for feedback. It's easier not to switch between languages when you go from reading advice to trying to reach your writing goal for the day. There are lots of reasons to write in English.

Another reason is where and when you speak a language. It's less common in countries where English is a foreign language rather than a second language, but it happens that you grow more comfortable with your second language than your first. This was true for me when I'd been studying English for a while and only private conversations were in Dutch. Almost everything I wrote, spoke and thought was in English. It was easier to keep writing in that language than switch to Dutch and train myself in that, when I had learned to speak one language like an adult and still spoke the other one like a teenager.

I have spoken to people who do have an answer to the question why do you write in this language? I've found that most say the same as when you ask them why do you write? It feels right. I have to do it. This is what makes sense to me. It isn't often a choice based on pros and cons. It's a choice based on instinct and experience, as most things about writing is. People write a bit in each language that they know, get a feel for both, and find that they have a favourite. Say you've lived in Paris for four years, and speak French. You move back home, and switch to English again. But the city has conquered your heart and all your stories are set there. Chances are you're writing in French, and will keep writing in it, if practical reasons don't force you to do otherwise because we write what we love, even when that's a bit hard to explain.

I could tell you that there are many reasons for choosing a language to write in, that I chose English because it felt right. You need to follow your heart. Truth is, I'm still unclear as to what finally decided my language choice for me. It's also true that you're limited by what languages you speak and how well you speak them and by the market, if you're a publishing author. What I can tell you is that in the 21st century, it's a lot easier to write in the language of your choice and find both support during the writing process and an audience for your book when you finish. What I can give you is this: if you speak another language, use it. Experiment with it. Because writing in your native language is not a given. You might find you write other stories in that language, like you would if you tried out another writing style. If you're a language learner, and you love writing, writing stories in another language makes the process a lot more fun. So use your full language repertoire: it's an asset.


(1) "Ik stelde aan de gids voor dat wij naar suicide point zouden gaan, waar hij voor de camera wat over kon vertellen. Pas na lang twijfelen ging de gids akkoord. Verlegen jongen, dacht ik.

"Een maal op suicide point ging het gesprek maar moeizaam. Zo moeizaam, dat ik bang was dat de jongenzich in de afgrond zou werpen. Wat bleek: de gids sprak helemaal geen Engels. De tekst die hij opdreunde tijdens de rondleiding had hij fonetisch uit zijn hoofd geleerd. Ik had grote bewondering voor de jongen, die in staat was om 45 minuten betekenisloze klanken te reproduceren, en dat nog foutloos ook." Jelle Brandt Cortius, "Jelle – weet echt niet meer wat echt is." Trouw, page 6. 12 January 2013.