Why learning a second language is good for writers

Recently, I started studying Spanish again for the first time in six or so years. Maybe it’s that I want to reclaim my Latina heritage, or maybe volunteering for a Latino serving non-profit organization has inspired me. Or likely, a little bit of both. Whatever it is, I’ve felt very drawn to studying the language. And over the last few weeks I’ve noticed that taking so much time to think about language and words and structure is really valuable to me as a writer (and just fascinating!).

I have to re-learn grammar rules

If you’re a native speaker, chances are a lot of the grammar rules you know are completely intuitive. You know where to place the direct and indirect objects in a sentence and how to use a gerund and an incomplete clause without thinking about why. But learning a second language forces you to learn these grammar concepts all over again, and it can be very useful to have the correct tools to discuss the weird, misshapen sentence you can’t quite figure out how to fix. (No shame–we’ve all got one or two like that!)

I really think about words and sentence structure

Learning a second language forces you to really think about words. Every word we use has a history, a whole set of connotations, and a linguistic context that is very hard for a non-native speaker to pick up on without a lot of time and study. Learning the words of another language isn’t as simple as Word A = Word B and Word C = Word D. For example, “to be” in English translates into two different words in Spanish, “ser” or “estar,” depending on context. Understanding the context gave me new insight into all the different ways I would use the verb “to be.”

It gives me a different perspective

I believe that if you are learning the language, you should also try and pick up on some cultural influences. I think this makes the experience richer and more interesting. For example, I’m currently reading A Hundred Years of Solitude. And I absolutely love La Gozadera by Gente de Zona, and listen to it at least once a day. 

Getting even these small glimpses of another culture are valuable in and of themselves, but it can also enrich your writing by broadening your perspective and pulling in new influences.

It makes me feel like a newbie

If you’re a writer, you’re probably pretty good at expressing yourself with words. If you’re like me, words are your life. The experience of looking at a page of a fourth-grade level book and not being able to understand more than a few words is not one I was familiar with until I picked up Diario de Greg (Diary of a Wimpy Kid in English) and started trying to read it. Being in a room where everyone but me speaks Spanish has been a valuable experience for me, and opened my eyes to what it must feel like to venture out into a different culture.

It can be easy to stay at home, to exist in the bubble of what’s familiar and comfortable. Learning a different language and being exposed to a different culture help us writers remember that differences can be scary and seem insurmountable, but they’re also what help keep our worlds–both the fantastical and the realistic–interesting.

Thanks for reading! And by the way…(sly segue)…I’ve got a book coming out this summer. Yay! You can read about it here. And don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list so I can tell you when to buy it. If ten of you sign up, I’ll give my cat a treat! She’s counting on you, so don’t let her down. Sign up here!

I’ve also got a Facebook page, for those of you that do the FB.

If you speak or are learning a second language, drop me a comment. I’d love to know what you’ve learned from the experience!

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