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03 April 2009 @ 11:20 pm
Writing in a foreign language, or why I find it hard to discuss SF in French  
Most of the people reading this blog will probably know that English isn't my first language--and not so by a large margin. I started learning English at the beginning of high school, at 11 years or so, but that was school stuff: I didn't really start practising it on a regular basis until I turned 16, and didn't start writing in it until about 18.

Most of my daily life is in French: I speak French at work and at home, and about everywhere in between. The only English I get is from books, writing forums, and the occasional UK/US TV series.

And yet I write in English.

I could go on for a bit about the reasons I write in English (the main one being that SF and fantasy remain very much anglo-centred), but that's not really the point of this post. What I wanted to talk about was what the experience of writing in a foreign language was like, and how it differed from writing in your native language.

OK, let's start with the obvious one. I make mistakes. Grammar mistakes, usage mistakes, gallicisms, and probably a bunch of other egregious stuff that isn't so easily caught.

The hardest one is usage. I used to have a dictionary by my computer (nowadays I've moved online to wordreference.com) to translate the words that came to me in French; and it sometimes happens that I have to check my OED for the precise usage, meaning or connotation of a word. Connotations are the ones giving me the most troubles: no matter how fluent I may be, I'll never be a native English speaker, and some of the nuances of the language will be lost to me.

In particular, dialogue was the thing that gave me the most trouble for a long while--and is still, to some extent, problematic: as I've already said, I don't speak English at home, and thinking of realistic things characters might say is much harder for me. In that respect, going to conventions has been an enormous help for me, because I get to speak English (ok, it's writer-English, which brings an additional set of problems, but still).

But I still write in English, and for the most part I do it very smoothly. Having thought about this for a while, the main reason I've found is that over the years, I've succeeded in wholesale compartimentalisation.

See, when I became fluent in English, the first thing that happened was that I stopped mentally translating my thoughts from French into English: when I'm writing, speaking or reading English, I'm also thinking in English. That's the path to fluency--but it also means that the hardest thing becomes not understanding or producing the necessary bits of English, but the act of mentally shifting between languages. Going from French to English or English to French is damn hard--it's still the hardest thing that I get to do.

I frequently have people asking me for translations, and the first thing I do is ask for context. That's not so I can access my mental dictionary and choose between two different translations of the same word. That's because I don't know the French equivalent for a given English word: all I know is the English definition of English words, and the French definition of French words. When you ask me to translate a given word from French to English, my mental process goes something like this: "ok, so this word has this French definition, which corresponds to this concept. This concept corresponds to this English definition, which is this word in English".

Where does that leave me for writing? It means that I've separated the writing activities from the rest of my life, and that speculative fiction in general gets associated with English. I read SF and fantasy in English, which is where I pick up the vocabulary and the cool and nifty ideas; I do my research in English when I can, because translating words back and forth is tiring and makes my writing drag like a snail in molasses. And it also means that my writing habits (and indeed, my writing life), to a large degree, are "pre-registered" in English. It's a sort of feedback loop between writing, editing, reading and discussing writing with other people. And that takes place in English.

Among other secondary effects, it does mean that I find it very hard to discuss SF in French. Which is weird, but there you go.

There are a number of positive sides to doing my writing in a foreign language that might not be obvious. Yes, there's a painful and error-filled process involved, but it's also immensely liberating. In many ways, my French is fixed--hammered into me by years of teachers trying to teach me correct grammar, and filled with the clichés I encounter in daily life (clichés being bad in writing, but amazingly practical for quick communication). I don't have the same inhibitions at all with English: I feel much freer with the language, much more at liberty to take words and sentences and twist them until they bleed. That makes for much more interesting composition, and a point of view that's not necessarily that of a native speaker: diversity, if nothing else.

There's also what I would call the glamour of a foreign language: to me, English is musical, and even the simplest words can combine to form beautiful sentences--because what I hear is the mostly the language. In French, it's a much more complicated relationship, because most words are loaded with associations and history from my personal experience, and all those connotations, which have much to do with me and little to do with the language, tend to get in the way of crafting language that sings.

Finally, there's a side effect, which is mostly due to the fact that my first reader's native language isn't English either: when I brainstorm problems with the boyfriend, I do so in French. This is actually a godsend, because it forces me to take the problem, not only out of the context of the story, but also out of the context of the language. Both of those make for a radically different setting for the question--which is almost always illuminating.

At any rate, that's my experience so far, the good and the bad. I would love some feedback and/or comments (I know there is a significant number of people with dual-language experience on my f-list, and would love to discuss this more).

(the basis for this was a question Mary Robinette Kowal asked me in her interview of me: if you want the short answer on writing in a foreign language, it's up at her website)
(Deleted comment)
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 4th, 2009 10:42 am (UTC)
No problem. It just never occurred to me until Mary asked that this might be of interest to people.
ext_179228 on April 3rd, 2009 09:59 pm (UTC)
I bet you are in a miniscule minority of 2nd-language writers. I bet over 95% of non-birth-language writers switch languages because they have physically moved to another country.

The partitioning of your language into English writing/French living is very cool. Makes me think of the tricks my heroine Heloise does with her own brain ;^)
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 4th, 2009 10:44 am (UTC)
Re: Fascinating
I don't know... I know a number of people who live abroad and are writing in English because they are expats, and another number of people who do so for other reasons (Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Floris Kleijne, Sara Genge, to name a few). It's not that widespread, but I'm not sure it's all that uncommon. Maybe I should do a poll.

I didn't really realise the partitioning thing until someone asked me to do a translation at work.
Re: Fascinating - (Anonymous) on April 26th, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Fascinating - aliettedb on April 26th, 2009 08:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Fascinating - (Anonymous) on April 4th, 2009 12:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Mer, rhymes with bearmerriehaskell on April 3rd, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating. I knew you were French, but I had assumed from your fluency that you grew up bilingual. I've never even considered writing outside of my native tongue, though that's the privilege of being an American SF writer, eh? I don't really need to consider it.

I understand the compartmentalizing you're talking about on a much less fluent/impressive level--I traveled through France for six weeks once, interpreting for my English-only aunt, and if she tried to stand next to me and ask questions while I was buying a train ticket or booking a hotel room, I would nearly lose my mind. I had to send her away so I could just speak French. However, in a museum, I could translate description placards (particularly ones related to archaeology) out loud to her very well, so not completely compartmentalized.
(Anonymous) on April 3rd, 2009 11:14 pm (UTC)
On picking a language to write in
Very interesting article, to which I relate to a great extent, being a native French speaker who writes fiction both in French and English myself.

I think you've summed it up well: I also find that each language has its own universe and writing a story in one of them makes use of all the "spirit" we associate to it. I also have the same experience with what you call the glamour of English, and how French is so strongly connoted to us.

Personally, I think there is an extra point to be made about writing science-fiction (specifically) in French. See, I recently read an article arguing that all programmers should know English well, because that's the lingua franca for this domain, just like you'd have to know German if you were a physicist in the early 20th century, or Latin if you studied medicine the century before that. As an engineer/scientist, I'd extend that to the whole of science and, on a cultural stand, to the universe of geeks.

I don't argue that all science-fiction has to be scientific and geeky; there is a lot of more literary, intellectual science-fiction in French that's not necessarily well represented in English (to the best of my knowledge). But the thing is, *I* love geeky and scientific SF (Stross, Gibson, Doctorow, Stephenson, Schroeder, etc), and there is hardly any in French. And that may well be because it's a culture strongly anchored to the English language (which the French are so notoriously bad at), and it makes it very hard and awkward to write it in French.

So I guess my point is that sometimes, the culture you want your fiction to breathe from simply requires you to use the language effectively attached to it.

Currently, I make a point at trying to write it in French, but it still feels tedious and artificial. Perhaps that if I could find the right angle for it, it could bring something culturally interesting to French SF (whether people would actually be interested in it is another matter).

Now I must confess that I haven't ready anything more than snippets of your fiction Aliette, and that might not apply in your case. However, perhaps you do get a bit of that effect, in the sense that your "foreign" use of English is influenced by that distance to the language and the result might well be something that could only be brought by someone from another culture?
Any thoughts on this?

Thanks for sharing,

Sébastien Cevey
Re: On picking a language to write in - aliettedb on April 4th, 2009 10:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: On picking a language to write in - (Anonymous) on April 11th, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: On picking a language to write in - aliettedb on April 16th, 2009 10:44 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on April 4th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on April 3rd, 2009 11:01 pm (UTC)
Bi-lingual writing
Very interesting, Aliette. I could immediately relate to it because my first language is German and I, like you, started learning English in 5th grade in middle school. I had a hell of a time with it too, until 8th grade when one of my teachers went back to explaining the basics of English grammer and I suddenly "got it" and from there on it became much easier. I was intrigued when I found out you won the Writers of the Future contest being French and English is your second language.

It's very true what you are saying though about the transition from "speaking English" to "thinking English". Now even I dream in English and when that happened I knew I was really in trouble. I admire you for having such an incredible grasp of the English language without actually speaking it on a daily basis. I didn't write well in English until I moved to the US. Hats off to you!
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 4th, 2009 10:57 am (UTC)
Re: Bi-lingual writing

I didn't actually "get" English until I moved to London and started, not only using it intensively, but also reading piles of books in English. That's when I made the transition from speaking English to thinking English--and internalised many of the grammar rules.

That's funny about dreaming in English. My dreams tend to be language-less--there's not enough clues for me to remember what language they involved...
jjschwabachjjschwabach on April 3rd, 2009 11:18 pm (UTC)
Joseph Conrad wrote exclusively in English, though his native language was, of course, Polish. He reported told people he thought English was beautiful language. I might question that, but he certainly had no problem writing in English. I wonder if he compartmentalized his brain?
Tithenaitithenai on April 4th, 2009 01:05 am (UTC)
In addition, I believe he learned English when he was 24.
(no subject) - jjschwabach on April 4th, 2009 03:24 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on April 4th, 2009 10:59 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - marshall_payne on April 4th, 2009 04:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jjschwabach on April 5th, 2009 12:16 am (UTC) (Expand)
Swan Towerswan_tower on April 4th, 2009 12:49 am (UTC)
That's fascinating. And I take my hat off to anybody who learns this damn thing as a secondary language -- I have enough familiarity with enough other languages to have perspective on English's grammatical and orthographical weirdnesses -- but I bow down to anybody who manages to create art in a non-native tongue, whichever that may be.

And it makes me feel guilty/sad about the fact that I'm not fluent in anything else. I'm not the stereotypical monolingual American, but I've never gotten more than barely competent with either Spanish or Japanese, and my best language after those was probably Latin, which I never used conversationally. (From there, it's a downhill slide through small amounts of Irish Gaelic and Old Norse to the nadir of two weeks apiece of Finnish and Navajo, or trying to teach myself German or Welsh out of a book. But nobody can say I haven't looked past my own linguistic boundaries, at least.)

(As for your native tongue, well, I generally sum it up as saying I could kill a Parisian at twenty paces just by trying to speak French at them; my accent is so Spanish it isn't even funny.)

What made you decide to practice your English more seriously? Did spec fic drive that interest?
Aliette de Bodard: darkwingaliettedb on April 4th, 2009 11:02 am (UTC)
That said, I can't create art in my native tongue, so I have to make up for it...
I moved to England when I was 16, and that was when I started reading a lot of English books and a lot of spec fic in particular. When I decided to write spec fic, I chose to do it in English because the native French market is so small (there is some spec fic being written, but the great majority of what's on the shelves is translations of English-language authors). So yes, it was being very much driven by spec fic--English is irretrievably associated with spec fic in my mind.
squirrel_monkeysquirrel_monkey on April 4th, 2009 02:42 am (UTC)
I do get asked a lot about translating, and I always have to explain that this is the skill I do not possess, and a skill separate from speaking more than one language. That is, translating ability is not automatic, and distinct from thinking/writing in a non-native language.
Lawrence Schimeldesayunoencama on April 4th, 2009 09:16 am (UTC)
Oh, yes, total agreement.

As someone who creates in both Spanish and English, and also translates (but only Spanish->English), I've been meaning to think and write more about this, but haven't had time.

Maybe Aliette's post will be the needed spur to do so...
(no subject) - aliettedb on April 4th, 2009 11:03 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on April 4th, 2009 11:03 am (UTC) (Expand)
mmarques: blondebimbosmmarques on April 4th, 2009 04:45 am (UTC)
Thanks for a fascinating post. I think in other languages when I speak them, but my thoughts are stupid and slow. I cannot imagine writing anything beyond a letter or essay in French.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 4th, 2009 11:04 am (UTC)
Thinking in other languages is already a huge leap forward--after that, I think you need mostly practise to finish internalising.
Stephanie Burgisstephanieburgis on April 4th, 2009 07:08 am (UTC)
I continue to be in awe that you can do this. One of the big reasons I decided not to live permanently in Vienna was that I realized, no matter how good I became at German, I would never be good enough to write fiction in it - and yet, living in Vienna, I couldn't afford to buy enough books in English (and the English fiction sections in the libraries weren't large enough) to stay current with the sf/fantasy being published in English. I guess part of that is probably because I didn't start to learn German until I was an adult, but in general, I'm guessing that you're just much better at languages than I am.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 4th, 2009 11:06 am (UTC)

I didn't know that was one of the reasons you left Vienna, but I can totally relate to this. One of the biggest drawbacks to living in France is not being able to go into a bookshop and browse all the neat English books--though now, there's amazon for ordering most of what I crave, but it's not the same.

I'm not really sure if I'm good at languages or just maintain this by a lot of practise (I suspect there's a bit of the former and a lot of the latter).
(Deleted comment)
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 4th, 2009 11:08 am (UTC)
No problem, I thought it might of interest to some people.
I'm with you: it's darn hard to write in a foreign language. I'm pretty sure most of what seems effortless to me is the result of about 10 years of internalising the language and the writing process. And I get to live in fear that I'll lose it one day, as well...
When I try to write a first draft in English it does become a different story.
That's interesting. I've never tried the exercise, but it makes a lot of sense. There's a potential for experiments there...
Lawrence Schimeldesayunoencama on April 4th, 2009 09:18 am (UTC)
Has anyone else ever translated your work into French?
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 4th, 2009 11:09 am (UTC)
Not yet, no. I'd be very curious to have that happen--it would be a weird experience, I suspect.
Has it happened to you to have Spanish stories translated back into English?
(Anonymous) on April 4th, 2009 02:46 pm (UTC)
Hi Aliette

Very nice post. My experiences have been largely similar - especially with dialogue being difficult, but also as to how having English as a second language gives you a certain freedom with the language that native speakers may have to work harder at.

Personally, I've experienced both sides of the compartmentalization/internalization issue. I started writing in English when I was still living in Eastern Europe, before I'd learned to think in the language. I found that I could, most of the time, fool native English speakers into believing I was a native online (at OWW), but I do think my writing was a tad wooden (partly also because I was in my early to mid teens at the time).

Once I moved to the States later on, I quickly switched to thinking in English 100% of the time, and that definitely helped my writing a lot, as did hearing a lot of natural spoken dialogue. To this day, though, dialogue remains my biggest challenge.

Other than dialogue, I don't find language to be much of an issue anymore. I very rarely think about grammar or spelling or any of that when I write - it's internalized (or else I'm making a lot more mistakes than I think). If anything, I struggle with the same issues as many natives - I didn't start using 'whom' correctly & consistently until very recently, for example.

What I do find is that having such a thorough experience of another language and another culture helps me add an 'otherness' to my writing. It helps me create a sense of transport and wonder in the reader. And I've found that having your characters cuss in Russian is a good way around the parental rating problem! Plus Russian is such a great language to cuss in. . .

Anyhow, a very stimulating post. I particularly like the point you make about English being like a musical language to you, lacking many of the associations your native language has. That's sooo right. When I write in English, a lot of the time it's like listening to poetry in my head, and I just know when the flow is right and when it's not - it's not so much an intellectual decision as a sensual/emotional one. I wouldn't even have to hear the words to know - just their shape, rhythm, intonation.


Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
Hi Tom,

Thanks for chiming in! I'm amazed at the variety of different experiences that crop up.
What I do find is that having such a thorough experience of another language and another culture helps me add an 'otherness' to my writing.
Definitely. Somehow, you end up not focusing on the same aspects of the language, and this makes it different (see Dario's post below)
princeofamber on April 4th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC)
Interesting and thought-provoking
Aliette, that's really fascinating. Ditto Doug - the revelation about compartmentalization, and the illustration of how you approach translating a word (by moving up a rung and comparing base concepts rather than simple word equivalence -- and I wish I could phrase that better) was fascinating. As someone who speaks 3.5 languages, I understand. I was particulaly struck at your subtle awareness of your own higher process... makes sense given your profession though :)

Having read a lot of your work, I think all this also gives your prose an intangible flavour. It's not obvious that you're not writing in your first language, but there's something there, maybe an accumulation of slightly unusual rhythms, that makes it very distinctive. I think it's in the prose beat rather than the language per se.

English -- unlike the stiff, Latinate languages --has a very supple architecture which makes it particularly suited to some things; rock lyrics for one, the pyrotechnics of F&SF, another. Borges once wrote (I'm paraphrasing) how he envied the English writers' ability to achieve very targeted effects by simply hyphenating two words. ('evil-smelling'; strange-seeming; etc.)

Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 05:18 pm (UTC)
Re: Interesting and thought-provoking
Hey Dario,
Welcome to my little corner of the web, good to see you here :)

I was particulaly struck at your subtle awareness of your own higher process...
OR I'm just very good at making up something plausible that sounds like my high processes :) Just kidding. I'm definite on the translation thing, because that happens a lot to me, and I had to wonder why on earth I couldn't translate as well as I'd used to.
And I love how hyphenating two words works in English. French has no easy way to make new words up like that (plus, we have language watchdogs in the form of the French Academy--a cunning way that the authorities found of occupying pamphlet writers back in the 16th or 17th Century).
Your point on the flavour of the prose is interesting. I hadn't stopped to consider that, but it does make much sense.
Artemis Jones: Delacroixrimrunner on April 4th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC)
Very interesting! I hadn't thought about it this way before, because I haven't tried to write fiction in French since I was a kid, but you're absolutely right about the compartmentalization; when I finally visited France a couple of years ago, after a few days I had switched languages entirely and found it a little difficult to change back to English!

I think translation is sort of its own compartment, if you will. When I want to say something in French, I don't think of the word in English and then reach for the French equivalent; I go straight to trying to remember the word in French. (My vocabulary has suffered from not using the language on a daily basis for years.)

(My background in the language: I went to a French immersion school in the U.S. starting at age 6, through age 11, then had French classes in school until I was 16. I haven't studied the language since and rarely use it, but when I finally went to France I was pleased at how much of it came back.)
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
I think translation is sort of its own compartment, if you will. When I want to say something in French, I don't think of the word in English and then reach for the French equivalent; I go straight to trying to remember the word in French. (My vocabulary has suffered from not using the language on a daily basis for years.)

*nods* Exactly. When I want to say something in English, I don't go through French. You have to stop going through your native language to become fluent in anything. Translation would qualify as a whole new set of reflexes.

(and I didn't know you spoke French, that's awesome)
Sue Burkemount_oregano on April 4th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
As a native English speaker living in Spain, I generally agree -- and totally with the compartmentalizing of languages. I hate switching languages. There are things I know in Spanish that I have trouble expressing in English because I learned them in Spanish without translating them.

The only thing: You call English musical. I love English, but I think that Spanish (and French) sound more beautiful. English can be beautiful, but in an entirely different way, in parallel or linear development of ideas. But Spanish can express complex relationships in a way that English can't, because in Spanish, a 200-word sentence is easy to write.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 05:25 pm (UTC)
I think English is musical to me largely because of poetry, which relies on rhythm more than rhyme. French poetry, up to the 20th century, relied more on rhyme rather than rhythm, which makes for evocative poetry, but something I wouldn't exactly call "musical". Also, French has barely any accents to speak of, which tends to make it flat-toned (at least, Parisian French, the South is different). I do find Spanish (and Portuguese, and Italian) musical languages.
I may be wrong, but I think the trouble with expressing complex relationships in English is that it's a very straightforward language: there are many ways to qualify "walking", for instance, but they're nearly all category verbs (stalk, plod, stride...). If your particular nuance isn't covered by the existing nouns, you're done for. In French, we don't have as many verbs, but we're much more used to modifying them, so that makes for possibly longer sentences with many nuances. I'm not enough of a good Spanish speaker to know what the equivalent would be, though.
(no subject) - mount_oregano on April 5th, 2009 09:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on April 5th, 2009 09:47 pm (UTC) (Expand)
sueo2sueo2 on April 4th, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)
I believe you have the heart of a science fiction story in this post, the two-brained person. You could extrapolate and produce some interesting twists.

Apart for that, thanks for the post. The scary thing is, your English is soooo much better than most of the people I know ... and English is, in theory, our native tongue.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 05:25 pm (UTC)
I will keep the extrapolation in mind. I had a story planned about those concepts, but I can't find a plot yet...
Thanks, glad you liked the post (and my English :) )
david_de_beer on April 5th, 2009 07:11 am (UTC)
I'm perhaps a bit more fortunate than you in that English is a widely spoken language in my country, although I largely started speaking it more often when we came to live in the city. It's more prevalent here.

Idioms -- I have trouble with idioms in English. Second-guess my understanding of them when someone uses it and prefer to stay clear when I'm talking or writing it as well.

I hate translating. So hard to explain to people that I can't just swap one word for another, I need to know the meaning of that word in that precise context and then I have to reshuffle the whole sentence, not just word for word.
When I'm tired, my speaking and sometimes writing of English [writing on blogs and forums like] will get awkward and grammatically begin to represent my mother tongue.

I mostly read in English and think in English when I'm writing it too. What I didn't realize until this one guy I once worked with pointed it out to me, is that my accent also switches when I switch languages. That only happens when I spend a lot of time around English people though; I'll sound English when I speak it and sound Afrikaans when I speak that language.
It's a whole internal switch in thinking process though, so that might be why.

You've touched on this, but for me it's very simple in that Afrikaans is my home language, my "casual language for speaking" and English is the writing language. A separation between the everyday and the writing part of me. Switching to a different language helps with that switch in personas too.

you know, I picked up French pretty fast for a little while but I never had anyone to speak it to or read any books in that language so my skills in it withered fast. You do need persistent contact with a language you learned, I think, for a long time to become more comfortable in it.

Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC)
Lots of good points, thanks for chiming in! Yeah, I also have a lot of problems with idioms (the good thing with medieval fantasy is that you get to make up your own idioms), and with speaking and understanding English when I'm tired (cons at one in the morning, for instance).
The whole accent thing: totally. Though in my case, I've also noticed that I took on the English accent of whoever I'd spent enough time with: I was horrified when, some years ago, I went to a seminar with French people who spoke English with a thick accent--and ended up taking on their accent three days into it...
Switching to a different language helps with that switch in personas too.
And the persistent contact thing is why my Spanish is going down the drain, I suspect (my sister lived in Spain for a while, where she worked in English, and she speaks both languages scarily well).
justin_pilonjustin_pilon on April 5th, 2009 09:15 am (UTC)
Having learnt French since oh, kindergarden, having a French Canadian father and still being rather quite lousy at the language I really appreciate your ability to write so well in English. No small feat that's for sure! I could never write in French. I'd have about a gazillion grammar mistakes... Anyway very cool is all I got to say! :-)
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
If that's any comfort, I could never write in French either (for different reasons, but it would definitely be more work than I can afford).
Thanks :)
denni_schnappdenni_schnapp on April 5th, 2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
Living in the UK for 22 years means that I have forgotten how to write in my native German and people still tell me that my English sucks ;)

Writing in English is harder than it looks! I admire your prose and I also thought that you grew up bilingual.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 08:59 pm (UTC)
I had no idea German was your native language... (should have guessed from the name, but I was never very good at picking up subtle clues).

I do wish I'd grown up bilingual, but I think it's too late for that :)
jakobdrud: Cloverfieldjakobdrud on April 5th, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post, Aliette. When I first started writing science fiction, I tried to do it in my native tongue. It only took 20 pages or so for me to realize that a story in Danish didn't have nearly the same flavour as the English stories I had read (and not just because my writing was obviously, hmm... amateurish). English simply seemed the only useful language for telling SF stories, so I decided to make a switch. Now, some ten years later, I think in English every time I compose a story, and I've even found myself to be daydreaming in English sometimes.

Writing in a foreign language was a nice help for me in the beginning, because I really had to think about the way I composed my sentences. In my native tongue I had employed words rather carelessly, and the resulting prose was often gibberish. Switching to English made me realize all sorts of things about sentence structures, usage, grammar, choice of words etc. that I had never given any conscious thought in my native tongue.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2009 09:02 pm (UTC)
Writing in a foreign language was a nice help for me in the beginning, because I really had to think about the way I composed my sentences.
That's a good point. We often employ our native languages rather carelessly (not to mention unkindly :) ). It does help to have to think about sentence structure and prose in general before composing. Though I should think it's mostly a mindset, and that the same thing could be done in French (I've done it at some point, back when I was still writing very bad fiction).

I had an English Creative Writing Course where the teacher made us think about wordchoice, and another course where we had to write poetry--and I learnt a number of important lessons there.
rcloenen_ruizrcloenen_ruiz on April 6th, 2009 11:46 am (UTC)
After seeing that the responses on here are fairly longish, I'm feeling brave enough to add my own experience here. This subject is something I've been thinking about as when we were in Villa Diodati last time, Ben asked me why I didn't write in Tagalog or in one of the native languages I spoke when I was a child.

Someday, I would like to write something in the native tongue. Up until I was eleven years old I spoke Ilocano, Ifugao and English. I learned to speak Tagalog when I was in highschool, and never really got the hang of it when it came to the written word. It is beautiful in the hands of an expert, and I think it's a pity that there isn't more literature in the native languages.

After ten years, I think I'm fairly proficient in Dutch. I can do some minor translation. And I've often thought of my brain as being something like a computer when it comes to languages. Like I switch to the Filipino part when speaking with Filipinos, then I throw a switch for Dutch people, and then another switch for English. Sometimes the switches get mixed up and I find myself substituting either a Filipino or English word for the Dutch when in the middle of a piano lesson. That can lead to some confusion on the part of my students .

With regards to writing in English, I look back and I realize that almost all the major publications in The Philippines were in English. Back when I started writing speculative fiction, there weren't even many publications where you could sent your stories to for publication, let alone speculative fiction work. Happily there are more publications for sf&f right now, but back then there wasn't anywhere to go and there were no clues as to how to go about submitting such work.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 6th, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC)
Yay, glad to see you chiming in!

And wow, I never knew you spoke so many languages! That must be a truly amazing experience to be surrounded by so many cultures. But if I read this right, you didn't go on speaking Ilocano and Ifugao after high school, or are you still fluent in those?
The brain is definitely a computer. And the switch is rusted over, sometimes, too...

I seem to remember that you'd told me about all the Filipino publications being in English--which is a shame given the diversity of the country... I'm glad things have improved in the meantime, and hope they'll go on improving.
(and here's to hoping you'll get to writing in Tagalog or another of your languages someday. That would be awesome)
(no subject) - rcloenen_ruiz on April 6th, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rcloenen_ruiz on April 6th, 2009 08:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on April 6th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on April 6th, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rcloenen_ruiz on April 7th, 2009 08:59 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on April 7th, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC) (Expand)
silviamgsilviamg on April 8th, 2009 05:00 am (UTC)
The hardest part about writing in English, for me, is that there are things that I feel can only be properly expressed in Spanish. There are certain moments that I can describe crystal clear in Spanish but can not bring to vivid life in English. Yet I like English and find it very interesting. I have a weird relationship with the language.

I am also terrified that I make many mistakes and say things improperly. Grammar mistakes keep me awake at night.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 16th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)
That is very much a problem I keep having--I do keep on picking the best way of formulating things, regardless of the language, and everything else tends to look cheap next to it. The luxury of choice, in a way.

I was also terrified of grammar mistakes until I realised that even native English speakers weren't exempt from those.
aidandoyleaidandoyle on April 10th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)
That's a really interesting article. I'm interested in how different languages affect things. I lived in Japan for four years and worked as an English teacher. Although I learned some Japanese, the writing system is very complicated, and it always bugged me that I was functionally illiterate - newspapers and books in Japanese were beyond me.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 16th, 2009 10:47 am (UTC)
How different languages affect things is a fascinating topic, but I think it's so vast it would require its own discussion.
Being functionally illiterate must be really frustrating. I've been lucky enough not to be in a position: the places I went to always had Latin alphabet or something I could read (Greek), but I can imagine how bewildered you'd continuously be if you couldn't even read.
kalie_b on March 9th, 2010 01:08 pm (UTC)
Have you reached the point of involuntarily thinking in English yet? It happens to me and I am glad I've come so far. I still make spelling mistakes, they are involuntary mistakes because in many cases I know the correct forms but I usually write fast to keep up with my thoughts and mistakes may slip. My esl tutor online is well aware of that, she always makes me go back an correct misspelled words. Sometimes I am surprised to see that I've misspelled even the simplest words.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on March 10th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
I think in English when I write in English--and also at odd times. I seldom misspell words unless they're uncommon.
(Anonymous) on May 14th, 2012 04:29 pm (UTC)
And do you think you can "in a way" play you are someone else when expressing yourself in a foreign language?
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on May 14th, 2012 04:56 pm (UTC)
Not really--I'm no more someone else in a foreign language than I'm someone else at work, someone else with my parents, someone else with my husband. We're all a collection of faces and personas that we display to the world at one point or another; and I just feel that I-as-an-English-speaker is just another facet of who I am (and I'm a very different English speaker depending on context, too!).