Prune to Grow: How writing in a second language can promote development
There’s no better way to feel fresh and awakened than to shed what’s old and familiar. For this reason, some writers take on writing–and publishing–in a second language. In her piece “Writing in a New Language, Writing Anew” for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lucy Ferriss discusses several writers who follow this ambitious path.
Our native tongue leads us to common ideas. Do we favor styling of affect over creating meaning? Do we become lethargic about achieving what we intend to convey? Ferriss paraphrases several writers who describe writing in a second language as going “without style”. In a new language, we are stripped bare of the comfortable spaces we can hide–among idioms and other devices that might obscure clarity and originality.
Ferriss says of the collected quotes from writers in a second language “What these comments share is an appreciation for what’s left out of the writing when composing in a second language: style, or description, or sophistication — all
things we tend to strive for when we try to write eloquently in our native tongue. I do think we tend to lose sight, in a language that has shaped our world since we were born, of language’s central task: to make meaning. We take for
granted the multiple choices we have; we ramp up the prose; we lose sight of the roots of the words we’re making flowers with.”
It is as if this pruning of the familiar language encourages new vitality, much like a flowering shrub benefits from pruning back its old growth. Ferriss describes author Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian: “Using the metaphor of Daphne from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she adds, ‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.'”
As a lover of literature and a student of French and Italian, I have been humbled by the experience of trying to understand–and be understood–in a foreign tongue. It’s ambitious but rewarding for one to practice her craft assembling the childlike blocks of comprehension gathered in a nonnative language, and seeing what she can build.