Finding Your Way in the Land of Babel: Writing in a Second Language

writer, poet, narrator, artist

Finding Your Way in the Land of Babel: Writing in a Second Language

As a writer, we want nothing more than for our work to be seen, read, appreciated. Right? Right. A lot of us write in English, even if it is not our native language.

When you’re like me and your native language is only spoken by a small population, it severely limits your reach. That is one reason to branch out into English. However, even if nobody were to read what I wrote, I would still write it. So that’s not my most important motivation. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to write in Dutch–at least not fiction. It never stops feeling stilted and artificial. That’s why I write in English.

That being said, there are some real challenges to writing in a language not your own. I was fortunate enough to learn English at a very young age, but I still feel the differences somehow.

Tama66.jpgImage courtesy of Tama66 via Pixabay


Vocabulary is not that big of a problem, I think. There are plenty of online dictionaries and thesauruses to be found. Use them to make sure you get your facts straight.

If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and smells like a duck…

A word may sound the same as it does in your native language, but have a completely different meaning.

I’ll use my own native language, Dutch, as an example here. Dutch and English are both Germanic languages, and thus, closely related to one another. Some words look and sound very similar. In English, a man would refer to his spouse as his wife. In Dutch, if a man were to call his spouse his wife, he’d end up getting smacked. Hard. A word that is perfectly acceptable in English, has a very derogatory meaning in Dutch.

To make a long story short, I’d choose my words carefully if I were you.

Tomato, tomahto.

Words may have similar meanings, but with a slightly different nuance. Take, for example, transparent and translucent. A transparent object is so clear that it’s almost invisible. A translucent object allows light to pass through it, but it creates distortion and/or diffusion of the light.

Be smart, you must.

You can only get away with sentences like these if you’re small, pointy-eared, green and wrinkled. The rest of us have to work at improving our grammar.

Grammar structures can vary greatly from one language to the next. How to conjugate your verbs, how to treat adjectives…

The best thing to do is practice. Use the language on a daily basis. Preferably in a place that will allow you to get feedback from other English speakers.

There are grammar check services you can use but they are a placeholder. Relying on them will hold you back from learning to do this yourself. Do yourself a favour and figure out the rules.

Classic pitfalls

Do I lay down? Do I lie down?
I lay a blanket on the ground and lie down on it.
In past tense, this becomes: I laid a blanket on the ground and lay down on it.
So, you use lay for objects you lay down. A person can actively lie down. Past tense is where it gets confusing.

There is the place where they’re meeting their maker.
Now, I know this sentence is not the prime example of beautifully flowing prose. But honestly. You try concocting a sentence with there, they’re and their in it. It’s really hard.
There: Points to a place. Where? There.
They’re: They are.
Their: Points to ownership. Whose? Theirs.
You can read more about it in this article, written for by kick-ass writer and editor R. Jean Bell.

Punctuation is important. Period.

It helps define the rhythm of your prose–the flow. That being said, you have to remember that punctuation varies depending on the chosen language.

Again, speaking from my own experience here, but Dutch speakers love their commas. We add them wherever we want to insert a breathing pause. I used to drive RJ crazy with my overabundant comma placement.

Another example is the apostrophe. In Dutch, phonetics define the placement of the apostrophe. If the word ends with an open vowel, and pronunciation will change by adding a plural or possessive “s”, an apostrophe will be added. In English, the placement of apostrophes is reserved for a possessive “s.”

I imagine other languages might have even bigger differences.

Go with the flow

How do you make your prose feel natural? A phrase that flows in French or German might feel stilted and forced in English or Dutch. That’s why it’s important to write your prose from scratch, in the language you want to end up with.

Writing in your own language and translating to English often doesn’t work very well. The syntax and rhythm of each language is different. We often fall prey to our familiarity with one language and end up forcing the second language into the patterns and rhythms of the original language. The more familiar you are with the piece, the sooner this tends to happen.

When you want to write in English, write in English. Allow your thoughts to flow in English. It helps you form the right patterns and choose the right colloquialisms.

If thinking is hard in English, find people to talk to. Join an online community where English is the language of choice. Talk to people. Practice. It makes perfect, you know?

If you can find an online writers’ community that’s a double win.

Wax on, wax off

This is what it comes down to. Writing is the easy part. Anyone can be a writer. But take that writing and clean it up to your best ability. Polish it until it shines. Perfect it. Find like-minded souls willing to review and critique it for you. Take their feedback and make your work better. This is what we do in critiquing groups. We help each other improve our drafts until they’re nice and shiny.

It can be intimidating for us, ESL writers, to show the work we’ve agonised over, to native speakers. They’ll find flaws and hiccups, no matter how hard we try. But every comment you receive is a learning experience. Take it with you, and never make that mistake again.

Then, resubmit your draft and do it all over again. Learning to write well has nothing to do with writing ‘til your fingers bleed. Make a choice. Either you write a new piece every day, but you’ll lack the time to learn from them, or you write a draft and you edit, improve and polish.

To everyone who tells me this is impossible: I can assure you it’s not.

I started taking my writing seriously about eighteen months ago. And last month, I had the sublime pleasure of seeing my name in print in a contributor’s copy. Illumen Magazine’s winter 2019 edition has a poem by yours truly in it. Two days ago, two other speculative poems got accepted for publication in Scifaikuest, a magazine that focuses on sci-fi themed minimalist poetry.

I’ve written a number of short stories, flash pieces and poems now. I lost count. But each of those pieces was workshopped, polished, workshopped again and perfected.

Rather than churning out story after story, I approached each story as a lesson. I took my time learning them–sharpening my quill.

If I can do it, so can you.

Now go. Write. Find yourself some critique partners. Workshop. Make me proud.



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4 Responses

  1. Katie says:

    Thank you for this article. English is my native tongue but I live in New Mexico where Spanish is almost as common as English and the two languages often get fused together in ways. I’m not sure if this is why, but I have a tendency to personify objects and make it sound like the object is doing a thing rather than the person involved with the object. I often think it sounds better to say something with as few pronouns as possible. It’s so hard to understand when what seems poetic, what seems to be the way I would say it if I were talking, isn’t the way to write it.

    • Jasmine Arch says:

      Wow. Sorry for the late reply here.

      Well, that’s a walk across a tightrope in any language. Thing to remember is that flowing prose is not exactly like speech. It imitates it. But it isn’t it.

      What helps me a ton is reading out loud after I’ve drafted.

  2. merrillyew says:

    Hi Jasmine, glad to have bumped into your encouraging article about writing in a second language. I too, do the same. I write in German as a second language. The problem I run into, is writing figuratively and using symbolisms such that the reader “gets the picture,” as in “show, don’t tell,” when living far away from Germany, and not having a German group with which to interact on an every day basis.

    • Jasmine Arch says:

      Hi hi!

      I bet that’s hard. Luckily, the internet has turned the entire world into our backyard. I hope you can find a German community to connect with over common interests. That would help you a lot.

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