The Perks of Writing Fiction as a Non-Native Speaker

In writing, I wrestle painfully with (this) language which I feel I do not possess but which possesses me—alas!

~ Joseph Conrad, Polish author explaining his struggles with the English language (his third language)

Portuguese is the fifth most spoken language in the world. But no language beats English in science, business, and art.

English has become essential both inside and outside academia.

In my context, English is the language everybody expects you to speak when you travel to conferences, write scientific publications, your own thesis, scientific proposals, letters to editors, collaborators, and reviewers. For academic creatures like me, there is no other language available. Either you learn how to express yourself in English, or you die trying. The end.

This may seem dramatic and may even cause some outbursts of linguistic rebellions. But I’m one of those rare creatures that believes that English no longer belongs to English-speaking countries alone. It belongs to all of us.

I remember I was but a child when English captivated me. One of my first contacts with this language was through the powerful vocals of Creed, Queens, and Madonna.

In my parent’s attic, alone and fed by those powerful yet unknowable words, I would let myself be transported into the mystical realm where fantasy meets reality, and I would imagine the impossible.

It would take me a few more years before I learned the meaning behind those words; meanwhile, I could only dream (there was life before Google remember?).

The hidden challenge of mastering “literary” English

English captured my attention early in life. I became so obsessed with its versatility; I immersed myself in English-only TV shows, movies, podcasts, videos, books, short stories, scientific publications, newsletters, you name it… I’ve done it!

Despite this active consumption of English media, I consider myself an average speaker and writer. I can write boring scientific papers because I’ve been doing it for the last 8 years. But with literary English things can get hard.

Each time I attempt to describe life outside the confinements of a laboratory, I realize how limited and superficial my vocabulary really is.

I can tell you what triggers and shapes the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. But I cannot show you the beauty of a sunset, the intensity of a song, the aroma of an exotic dish nor the complexities of human emotions. Conversely, it’s painful for me to explain my research in Portuguese because I’ve been thinking about it, discussing it and writing about it in English for such a long, long time (true story!).

It’s shocking and interesting to realize that you can master a small section of a language and remain utterly ignorant of the others.

The reason I never realized this until now was because I could always get away with this limitation when speaking. In the last 3 years, I’ve resorted to intense hand gesturing, to the use of inadequate words to describe ordinary things and to asking Uncle Google to translate simple things in a pinch (like kitchen utensils – true story) and save me from inevitable humiliation…

Those advanced techniques have failed me when I tried transitioning from super technical jargon into the description of a real and imaginary life.

Why bother?

Even I wonder if it’s not easier to accept my limitations and embrace the advantages and shortcoming of writing in my own native tongue. It’s always easier to write in your native language and pay for it to be translated later, right?

Sounds reasonable? Not to me.

And I find this unreasonable because of two reasons.

The first reason is Silence 4. Silence 4, was 90s Portuguese rock band that released entire albums in English. I blame them and, especially, David Fonseca for making me believe that I, a non-native speaker, could find my voice even if I wrote in English.

The second reason will resonate with all bilingual speakers. Each language has its own essence, its own culture and thought process. I’m a witness of the incongruities and complexities of a bilingual brain. Some ideas just sound cooler in English, while others sound much more interesting in Portuguese.

In fact, ask me the same thing in English and in Portuguese, and you will notice my answers are very different. English will be more fluid, more straight to the point, more “in your face,” more robust, less restrictive. Portuguese will be more complex, more vibrant, and filled with possibilities to say what you want to say without actually saying it.

I face different challenges, whether I write in literary English or literary Portuguese. Those challenges are an essential part of my creative process. I don’t want to avoid them; I want to learn how to make my prose shine through them.

Where to start if you want to master writing fiction in your second (or third!) language?

Many people seem to agree that you will never master a language if you’re not a native speaker. I keep meeting people that defy that assumption every day.

You can master English (technical, scientific, or literary) if you put your mind into the task. Writing will be hard no matter which language you choose. And no matter how well you already master it. Because if you aren’t actively writing novels and short stories, there’s a big chance you will go through a learning curve until you find your literary “voice.”

These are just some things I include in my daily routine to improve my literary English.

  • Learn by immersion

Unless you’re a beginner, immersion is the best way to acclimatize to writing in another language. Reading, listening to audiobooks and podcasts will saturate your subconscious mind with the grammar that rules over a language. Immersion turns knowledge into instinct. And instinct makes writing more fluid and natural.

  • Read out loud

Read texts written by native speakers out loud. Read your words out loud. Check the differences. Which parts are easier to read? Which sections confuse you and slow you down?

Sometimes I also print my texts. I know this is terrible for the environment, but I have yet to find another way to detect errors (those that spell checkers tend to miss; like writing wait when you wanted to write want).

  • Get help

Sometimes I ask a friend to proofread my texts. But most times, I rely on Grammarly and ProWritingAid to help me take my grammar skills to the next level.

  • Write as much as possible

And expose your writing.

From experience, I can tell you that your writing style will upset many people. Some people will notice straight away you’re a non-native writer (sometimes just by reading your name) and they will take their time to let you know how awful you are.

I’ve suffered this kind of criticism as a scientific writer, I’m sure I’ll be facing the same challenge as a fiction writer. Some people are just upset because you want to write in another language. Some will even think you’re mentally diminished for using inadequate words and unusually long sentences.

Some will tell you all these things to your face, some will hide behind an alias. But you can’t hide from this type of criticism. Sometimes, amid the meanest of comments, you can also find hidden gems that might take your writing to the next level. Other times there will be no gems inside the ugliness.

On those moments you can do either of two things: you can curl up and cry or you can learn to deal with it.

In the meantime, here’s a little something to cheer you up when you have to deal with bad reviews:

If you want to know more, I’ll link to other articles you might also enjoy reading:

  1. Writing as non-native English speaker by Toni Koraza
  2. How Does Language Shape the Way We Think? Cognitive Scientist Lera Boroditsky Explains by Open Culture
  3. Amazing Bilingual Writers by Francois Grosjean

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