Writing in your second language

Celia Schow

I’ve always enjoyed writing stories. As a kid I had a vivid imagination and I would spend hours writing the stories that I saw in my head. In the beginning it took me ages to finish one story – I had to run my fingers across the keyboard for every letter because I had no idea where each letter was located. I remember wondering a million times why they didn’t just put the letters in alphabetical order.

But I made sure my stories got told. When I was little my stories were mostly about animals. They would talk to each other, but humans could not understand them. They went on adventures together, mostly fleeing from evil humans, and they always ended with the animals surviving because they had their friendship.

Later on my stories involved humans instead, and as I hit puberty they were almost always about love or friendship – mostly reflected in my own “love life” at the time, with the good girl falling for someone and then trying to battle her love for this guy with still being a good girl. Hah!

In school I loved when we had to write stories. My work was always praised by my teacher who I to this date still hold very dear and who I credit for inspiring me to keep telling my stories. I remember handing in my final story, just before we graduated, and her telling me: “One day you’ll publish these stories”.

Even though she told me this ten years ago I never forgot it. Publishing my work has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember.

For many years I stopped writing stories, but they never stopped playing out in my mind. And the only difference in my stories now is that my characters speak to me in English.

Now this presents one major problem for me: English is not my first language. Danish is. I understand English just fine, and living in America presents no issues for me communication wise.

But writing a great novel in your second language isn’t easy. I will see these scenes play out in my mind, but when I sit down in front of my computer to type them out I’m disappointed with the words I’m left with on the screen.

I find them simple and colorless, their impact completely tasteless in my mouth. It’s not that I feel like I write much better in Danish – Danish is a much more limited language than English, since there aren’t as many words in Danish.

I’ve tried telling my current story, which has the working title To Live Forever, in Danish, but my characters speak to me in English and trying to translate them to Danish proved to be almost impossible for me.

So here I am. Struggling with the words I write, but still loving the story. My plan at the moment is to simply write out the story and then have a very rough first draft.

Then I’ll go in and try to edit what I have. That might work. But I’m becoming more and more aware about the long process writing a book truly is. How do authors do it!? My admiration for anybody who has ever finished a book is tremendous – you are all some kind of super humans!

Do you write in a second language? How do you feel about that?

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  • SVAR

    I can’t speak a second language, much less write one. I can’t even begin to imagine trying to create a story with all of the normal hurdles and then needing to make sure you used the right words in the right way and that it doesn’t come across stilted.

    Don’t give up. Get that first draft done and don’t look backwards until you’re finished. It’s much easier to go back and fix what you have than to keep fighting for that perfect sentence from scratch.

    • SVAR

      Thank you so much for your comment, Kristen. I know many Americans don’t really speak another language, but that makes total sense since English is such a useful language that you can use all around the world. You’re not used to hearing many other languages so why would you make an effort to learn one?

      Danish, on the other hand, is spoken by only a few million people. It’s useless the minute you set foot outside Scandinavia. All movies you watch are mostly American, you can’t really Google anything useful in Danish when it’s not something totally mainstream. So in a sense, you’re forced to learn English if you want to understand just a few things outside of Scandinavia. 😉 So we do that. Most of my vocabulary formed one summer, when I watched 14 seasons of South Park in a matter of a few months (yes, I know aaall the swear words in the world, too!) and couldn’t find Danish subtitles. You just learn to understand along the way. And so it happens.

      Then I started forcing myself to think in English. Which I still do. And so the stories I form in my chaotic mind are in English. That’s at least how I do it.

      YES! I will keep working on that first draft and then go back and change it. Thank you so much for the advice, I highly appreciate it! <3