How do you write in a language that’s not your mother tongue?
I write in English even though it’s my third language after Finnish and Swedish. Why I do this, is one of the most common questions readers and other writers put to me.
A few months back, The Economist wrote an article titled, ‘Why do writers abandon their native language?‘. I shared this article widely on social media because it explained so well why an author might choose to write in a tongue not her own.
It made me think about my choice of language, and how I make it work
I moved to Britain some 35 years ago, and before that I’d lived in Sweden. My mother tongue is Finnish, but when, as a ten-year-old, I went to school in Stockholm, I learned Swedish in the playground and it soon became the stronger language. Four years later, my family decided to settle back to Finland, and I had to re-learn my mother tongue. All through this time, I was also learning English, and when as a young Navy Wife I moved to Britain I began writing a diary. At first, I wrote in Finnish, but when it became difficult to describe what was happening around me in Finnish, I turned the notebook over and began writing in English from the other end. Soon the English language side took over and I haven’t looked back since.
Of course writing in a language that is not your mother tongue isn’t easy; there are many purely grammatical issues you have to be careful about. Several proverbs and common expressions are also easy to get wrong. I sympathise with Agatha Christie’s excellent character Poirot, who as a Belgian French-speaker often fails in his use of colloquial English, to everyone else’s amusement or bewilderment.
Five tips for writing in a foreign language
- Check, check and recheck your spelling, grammar, and any proverbs or common expressions you are using. Do this with the aid of software such a Grammarly, and/or dictionaries. I spend a lot of time checking expressions online, and cross-checking with a dictionary or thesaurus. I also have several books on the use of English language, whether it’s on common proverbs, naval speak or romantic words for body parts.
- Read only in the language that you write in. It is very sad, but I have found that if I read books in Finnish or Swedish, my English suffers. This may just be me; I know of other multilingual authors who easily switch languages, but I find that especially when I’m in the middle of a project (which I usually am), I need to keep both my surroundings and my reading English. Even something as small as a visitor from home can be very disruptive to my writing. Of course, the more you read and write in your chosen language the better you will become in spotting the mistakes. Practice makes perfect.
- Do use your foreignness to your advantage: My characters are from Finland or Sweden, and all of my books are partly set in these Nordic countries. My use of language is different and reflects my Finnish/Swedish origins. (I hope anyway!). Why not take advantage of this uniqueness to set your books in your native country? Although I do also write from the point of view of English people, I make sure these passages are carefully checked even before they go to my editor. Which brings me to the next point.
- Do have a native speaker check your work before it goes to the editor. Of course, an editor can also do this job, but I find that having a first reader you trust and who knows you well, is invaluable and saves a lot of misunderstandings between you and your editor. (It also saves time which means the editing will cost you less). I am lucky in that my long-suffering Englishman (and husband) still has the time and enthusiasm to read everything I write. He checks the language for any ‘Finnishisms’, but is also excellent at spotting mistakes in the plot and the characters. Even if we sometimes disagree, it is incredibly useful to have him as the first hurdle which the new book has to jump over.
- Try not to let your inner critic in the use of the non-native language stop your flow. Remember that the first draft, whether you are a native speaker or not, is just that – a draft. Everyone has their work corrected, so write freely! It is the meaning of the words as well as the language that is important. And only you can write that book!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If you’d like to sign up to my Readers’ Group and receive a free book, THE FINNISH GIRL as well as bonus chapters from THE ENGLISHMAN series, sign up here.