The Challenge of Writing in a Second Language

Writing in a second language is a challenge, for sure, but the result is often superior to that of writing in the comfort of the first language. Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright and novelist, said that he wrote in French “out of a need to be ill equipped.” Indeed, there’s something to that. I am never comfortable writing in either of the two languages that I speak fluently. Italian is my native language, but my knowledge of it has never progressed beyond the basic communicative level necessary to carry on a social conversation. So for me writing in that language is out of the question.

English is my primary language—the language spoken where I live and in the country of my academic studies. I make a distinction to call English my “primary language” as opposed to my “second language” because of the assumption that the native language is always the primary one. In fact, I find that my native language falls deeper into the recesses of my psyche as the passage of time moves me farther away from the language of my birth, and my secondary language moves into the primary position. I talk about this process in Chapter 30 of my book Canaries Can’t Cry

Unlike Samuel Beckett who chose to write in his second language, I will always be ill equipped to write in any language. I doubt myself in every printed word and sentence that I write. Have I chosen the proper word? Have I used “that” in place of “who?” Is it, The man who won the race is Italian, or is it, The man that won the race is Italian?” I search the Thesaurus for choices and scour the dictionary definitions and examples of the word used in a sentence. Writing in a second language can be frustrating, racking, and intense. But this is the same process as writing in any language. The vocabulary search may be more intensive, more taxing, and outright exhausting, but that should be the same process for any serious writer, only more so for a foreigner.

Scholars of Teaching a Second Language agree that the process of writing is the same in any language—a continuum of thoughts in the active voice that follows a natural sequence. Thought B must follow thought A and thought C must follow thought B and so on to thought Z. This continuum of thoughts, one following the other, of cause and effect, of struggles and conflicts, leading to the final thoughts of resolution and dénouement is the same in any language. Whether you write for enjoyment or to break the boundaries of convention, the process of writing must follow the continuum.

Who are the authors who write in a second language?

As one author who confronts the challenge of writing in a second language, I stand in good company. Among the most well-known writers are:

  1. Samuel Beckett—born in Ireland, writes in a foreign language “out of a need to be ill equipped.” He received the Nobel prize in literature in 1969.
  2. Eva Hoffman was 13 when she moved to Canada and eventually to USA from Poland. She is the author Lost in Translation: A life in a New Language and several other fiction and nonfiction books.
  3. Jack Kerouac, French-Canadian, spoke a French dialect. He became a seminal figure of the literary beat movement with his On the Road, published in 1957.
  4. Milan Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia. He wrote in French The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Czech.
  5. Vladimir Nabokov, born in Russia, described himself as “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library.” Lolita sold 100,00 copies within the first couple of weeks of publication and is considered a classic of American literature.
  6. Joseph Conrad was born in Ukraine. His novels Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness rank among the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. He wrote in English, his third language. His native language is Polish.
  7. Khaled Hosseini was fifteen when his family emigrated from Afghanistan and was fluent in English within a year. He has chosen to write all his novels in English. Both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, his best known works, are novels set in his homeland, as is And the Mountains Echoed.
  8. Jhumpa Lahiri, was born in India and raised in the United States. She currently lives in Italy and started writing in Italian. Her first book (in English), Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. She claims that she has “felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.” A sentiment that I expressed in the title of my first book, Canaries Can’t Cry: Living with two flags in one heart.
  9. Junot Diaz was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 2008 for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. His native language is Spanish. Born in the Dominican Republic, he now lives in New York.
  10.  Ha Jin from China, Louis Begley from Poland, Edwidge Danticat from Hait, Aleksandar Hemon from Bosnia, Viet Thanh Nguyen from Vietnam. The list goes on

In a previous article I wrote how culture and language are intertwined. Some authors choose to write in a non-native language precisely because of the challenge of writing in the second language. They are not bound by the rules and convention of their native country. Romance languages for example, Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French, while sharing a common Latin root, they manifest their peculiar differences in stress, cadence, intonation, and pitch. However, they have a reputation for beautiful, flowery lyrics—a “no-no” in writing English. More on this in the following blogs. (Click here to subscribe).

Do these authors transfer their multicultural experience to their writing style? James Joyce wrote in English but away from his homeland. He had put a distance between the subject of his characters and their home. Could he have written Dubliners while still living in Ireland? One wonders! But it cannot be denied, the richness of cultures is reflected in the breadth of their works.