I read my first real book in English as a teenager. I’d started learning the language when I was 8, and I had read stories and books for students, but it wasn’t until I was 19 that I read my first book that was specifically targeted at native English speakers: The Villa by Nora Roberts. I’ve reread it since, and I can only laugh at how much went over my head that first time. I knew English, sure…but only British English, and idioms were not a thing I was ever taught by my language teachers. If you’ve ever read Nora Roberts, you know that she is big on idioms.
Over the years, as I read more and more books in this language not my own, I realized something: there is a difference in how I approach reading in a second language. And when I opened a blog in English to practice my writing skills, I noticed that…oh yeah, I also approach writing in English in a fundamentally different way. It took me some years to parse out the whys, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Reading in English
My native language is Spanish, and I had come to take it for granted. When I read a book, I paid attention to the plot and the characters. The writing was something that I either enjoyed or didn’t, but only rarely did I focus on the craft. At the time, I never read poetry, so reading had become an almost mechanical process by the time I was 16.
But when I started reading novels and short stories in English, I had to do it slowly. I paused at convoluted sentences. I looked up words in the dictionary (shoutout to Urban Dictionary for breaking down many an idiom for me). I took my time to read descriptions of places, something that I had become accustomed to speeding through in my Spanish readings. When it comes down to it, I had no choice but to read deliberately if I wanted to understand what I was reading.
I have a good enough grasp of the language by now that these are no longer concerns: I can read equally well in both English and Spanish, and although I do stumble upon the odd unknown word or construction, that comes down to regional differences. The same thing happens when I read books in Spanish by authors from countries other than my own.
Over the years, I have noticed an unexpected consequence to this: I read at a slower pace in Spanish too. I’ve learned to savor the writing, absorb the descriptions every bit as much as the dialogue. In a way, reading in a second language taught me to read in my own language all over again.
Writing in English
Reading isn’t the only aspect of my life that has been influenced by my knowledge of a second language. Years after I first started my now defunct book blog, I realized that writing in English is, to me, a lot easier. Not because the structures or vocabulary are more familiar to me (although, by this point, maybe they are), but because it is a filter of sorts.
Writing in a different language gives me the opportunity to take a step back, to put a protective barrier between my words and myself. It’s an illusory barrier, for sure – but it still allows me a sense of safety. It’s almost like, by expressing my thoughts and feelings in a language that is not the one I use in my day-to-day life, I am able to take some distance. Even my journal is a weird mix of Spanish and English: whenever I’m writing about something that feels too intimate to put into words, I almost inadvertently switch to English.
Fiction, too, often feels easier to write in English. Most writers are familiar with that lovely little voice inside your head that joyfully informs you that everything you create might be the worst thing ever made by a human being. I am not the exception. Writing in a different language gives me enough distance to put the words to paper and then worry about their quality.
Exit, Pursued By a Bilingual Writer’s Eternal Dilemma
There is one disadvantage. I’ve been meaning to write a novel – I have the plot, the characters, the setting…but I haven’t the faintest idea what language it’s going to end up being in. Oh well. What’s life without a little uncertainty?