ESL Writers – How Our 1st Language Affects Our 2nd

This article starts with a re-tweet that I came across the other day.

This one, below here:

This tweet hit home for me.

I saw myself reflected in it.

It spurred me to consider whether there might be a link between my own underwriter nature in English and the fact that my mother tongue is Danish (ergo Germanic). Maybe my English writing is concise and abrupt because Danish as a language is more concise than English? Because it has a smaller vocabulary than English, and thus it’s hard to make it flowery/lengthy?

I know my conciseness in my English stories often is my weakness in that I say too little and leave reader confused, even though I personally think I say enough and that the rest can be inferred (spoiler: it often can’t, shucks). This past year, I’ve worked a lot on my prose, trying to explicitly be more lengthy. Both to improve my craft—to expand what I can do with my craft—but also because I want to get better at hitting the proper (read: market-friendly) word count in my first drafts.

All this rumination about myself made me want to see whether my ESL friends felt the same. Whether my friends, for whom English is a second language, can see threads of their own native language weaved into their English storytelling, and how these threads show themselves.

So, of course, I went and asked them on twitter.

I had an Italian and Spanish friend both say they’re overwriters in English, which would fit the theory that native romance languages foster descriptions and complex sentence structures for ESL writers.

I also had a Brazilian friend who said the same, namely that they’re an overwriter in English as a second language and that Portuguese as a native language has lush prose.

Then I had a Hungarian friend who also saw themselves reflected in this theory, saying that Hungarian can be quite rambling, and that this fits their own tendency to overwrite in English. 

Lastly, I had a Dutch friend who finds themselves an underwriter in English, fitting the idea that Germanic languages are very matter-of-fact compared to English. Just like Danish.

I think we can infer a lot from all of this, and I suppose this is where my fondness for cultural studies makes me go full nerd—because I think we’re looking at something that goes beyond language here.

First off, I think it’s fascinating that there is this difference between storytelling and writing when it comes to your second language, even if you’re perfectly fluent in that language. There’s something to be said for your formative years, here. I’ve read more English than Danish in my life at this point, yet it’s obvious that my rudimentary understanding of “How To Tell A Story” remains rooted in Danish, not English. This also shows that storytelling is more than written text. Even more than oral storytelling. We’re going beyond stories, grasping for culture itself as a concept.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?

Language is inevitably linked to culture, after all.

It reminds me of another tweet I saw recently, namely that the stories-within-stories concept is told best by non-western ESL writers. Based on my current knowledge of this, I agree. EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE, by the Viet-American Nghi Vo, comes to mind. The plot of that novella focuses on a cleric who listens to stories about the recently deceased empress. The cleric isn’t the actual story; the story that the cleric is being told is the actual story. CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN also comes to mind, by the Filipino-Canadian K. S. Villoso, in which the narrative oscillates between past and present with the main character chronicling their own story to us, the readers.

The tweeter argued that non-western ESL writers are good at this type of narrative because their culture looks at storytelling differently in that they generally revere and preserve the past more, while being less focused on the future such as western culture traditionally is. I can see this being true, and I can see this making non-western ESL writers into masters of the story-within-story narrative.

To sum up, I find it so fascinating how writing and storytelling aren’t only two separate crafts, but also that you can essentially write in your second language, yet at the same time be storytelling in your native one.

I mean, not to toot my own horn and the horns of my ESL friends, but that’s massively cool, isn’t it?

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