To write or not to write in a foreign language?

As some of you probably already know, although I do feel comfortable speaking and writing in English, it is not my native language. I consider myself to be fluent, yet light-years away from any native-speaker.

In fact, I believe having this blog has helped me improve tremendously. As expected, I  have to research some words, and check some spelling. But more importantly, I practice the part of my brain which thinks in this language, and that really helps in both maintaining a conversation or writing a report. Inevitably, I make mistakes. Probably more than I even notice.

So, why write in English? Am I not a better writer when I write in Portuguese? 
Well, yes. I am. I know much more vocabulary, and I have an awareness of how things should sound that sometimes escapes me when writing in english. I do not need to check past conditional forms. It is rare that I do not find the exact word that I want to use to describe the exact feeling I am thinking of. I do not need to worry if I am using the correct pronoun (“should I refer to a dog as a he or a she, or an it?”). The examples go on and on. That does not mean that I never have doubts when writing in my own language. It is a complex beautiful language, and we, native speakers, do not always use it properly, as I am sure happens with native speakers of every single language.

Still, in a way, it is much easier to write in my native language. In fact, I’ve had people tell me that its brave to write in a foreign language, especially to write poetry (or poetic-ish thoughts). I understand what they mean, but it’s ironic to call it brave.

In fact, one of the main reasons I share my English poetry and not my Portuguese poetry, is fearAs you might have felt, when writing in your own language, things get very personal. Sometimes, at least for me, too personal to share. Writing in a foreign language has helped me to create some distancing between the things I write and the person I am, and by using that distancing, I’ve been able to transfer some things from my many notebooks to this blog, thus sharing it with the world. This has given me some confidence, and I hope will result in me sharing some of my more personal poems in the future. When I say “the person I am”, what I mean is that, as creators (writers, musicians, painters…) it is often very difficult to look at your creation as something separate from yourself, and that makes sharing difficult. Sharing is being vulnerable and waiving some privacy, and it is also allowing your work to be subjected to criticism. When you can’t dissociate yourself from your work, then you have to be willing to allow yourself to be subjected to criticism. And I am not fully ready. Now, I hope you do not feel discouraged to read my english poetry now that I’ve told you this. It is not that I contain anything, or wear any type of filter when writing in English. In fact, it enables me to be very honest and raw, but sharing it instead of keeping it in a drawer. I write as freely, and from the heart as I do in Portuguese. But the simple fact that it is a language that my inner circle of friends and acquaintances does not associate with me, and that is a bit less likely to read, creates in itself some natural distancing, which helps.

Something you might be wondering and finding strange about all of this is: what about translating? Well, when I talk about writing in English and Portuguese, I really do mean writing in one or the other, from scratch. Ideas come to me in a given language and I let them pour out in the language that they have chosen to present themselves. Especially with poetic-ish texts, I do not like translating my own stuff. It is hard (if not impossible) to convey the exact same feeling as the original. And in essence, I cannot see the same poem when I do try this exercise.

A few months ago I’ve seen a Ted Talk where it was said that the language we speak shapes how we think. From my experience, I do feel like talking and writing in a different language opens way to new ideas. I do believe that there are many things which I would not have written in Portuguese, and yet, they came out in English and I am happy that they’re here. In fact, some things that I didn’t even create on purpose have been pointed out by you as beautiful, and they are a simple consequence of me being a native Portuguese speaker writing in English. For example in my poem Goals I wrote “Happiness doesn’t work that way, / she only shows up on your way to them”, and dear @925screenings commented:

I like how you referred to Happiness as a “she”.

Beautiful literary accidents such as this happen sometimes. Yet, for me happiness is a she. It was not a thoughtful choice of words to convey that happiness is feminine or some calculated poetic effect. In my latin language everything is a he or a she. And when I read this comment, it blew my mind. I realised that writing in a different language and not being perfect at it (not thinking at the moment that the correct sentence would be to refer to happiness as an “it”) also means unleashing unexplored potential.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and leave you with some key take-aways:

  • Write in whatever language you feel like writing and share whatever writings you feel comfortable sharing, life is too short.
  • Writing in different languages might open your mind to new ideas and create beautiful literary accidents. Experimenting and playing are always good ideas when it comes to creativity. If you try and it doesn’t work or if you grow tired of it, you can just stop. Don’t overthink it.
  • If, like me, you don’t feel comfortable at the moment about sharing the things you’ve written in your own language, because they are too personal, writing in a foreign language might help create the distancing you need between your words and your sense of self.

Please feel free to comment below. Would love to know your opinions on the subject! 💙

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “To write or not to write in a foreign language?

  1. It’s so interesting the little clues that can hint at a person’s native language. Besides Latin language speakers gendering nouns, I’ve noticed that sometimes Cantonese and Mandarin speakers will mix up he and she, because in those languages there’s just one word for both.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your English is PERFECT. As a writer, I think it comes down to WHAT creative ideas you have. In your mind, did the ideas come to you in Portuguese or in English. Write in the language that most inspires you! LOL – one day English, one day Portuguese.

    Liked by 1 person

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