To write better English, learn another language

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M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

learn another language

Photo: Public domain
A heavily edited manuscript page of Gustave Flaubert’s Un Cœur simple. Writing and revision is the most straightforward way to improve one’s writing, but learning another language may also help.

As the editors of this newspaper and other periodicals occasionally lament, the skill of writing English varies. At the extremes, manuscripts received vary from the clear and concise to the muddled and messy. So the need for improving writing skill is frequent.

There’s no foolproof prescription for improving your writing. That said, the palettes of skills of successful writers suggest two routes of improvement. The first is persistent hard work. As Ernest Hemingway remarked in 1926 to American scholar and translator Samuel Putnam, “easy writing makes hard reading.” Hemingway wrote slowly and revised meticulously, leading to his sparse style.

The second is to become proficient in one or more languages other than your native tongue. Interestingly, in the history of writing in the European languages, there’s ample proof of the worth of that approach. The first instance is more than four centuries old. The patron saint of writers and journalists is Frances de Sales (1567-1622), a polyglot French scholar who became the Bishop of Geneva. In 1608, he wrote Introduction à la vie dévote (Introduction to the Devout Life), the first-ever book written for laypeople. In 1609, it was translated and published in English and then in most other European languages. Today, it is still in print, making it the second longest-selling book (the first is the Bible).

Closer to our time are the 19th- and 20th-century greats of American English, Mark Twain (fluent in French) and Ernest Hemingway (fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish). Russian-born and -bred 20th-century American writers Vladimir Nabokov and Ayn Rand were fluent in at least two languages. Today in France, President Emmanuel Macron, novelist Virginie Despentes (Summer reading 2018, The Norwegian American, July 27), and other prominent public persons are fluent in English.

The shared histories of the languages that evolved around the North Sea, including English and Norwegian, brought commonality, as explored in three Norwegian American articles: “Old Norse, new Viking language book” (book review, Mar. 5, 2014), “Is English a Scandinavian language?” (Jan. 12, 2015), and “Dictionary of Newfoundland English” (book review, Dec. 12, 2017). Bilingual Norwegian Americans might then have a writing advantage in writing English. English-speaking monolingual ones might then learn Norwegian to attain that advantage.

Why learning a second language tends to improve communication capability has yet to be fully understood. One plausible explanation is that in everyday life, we tend to take our native tongue for granted and with time seldom think of its grammar and structure. Learning another language obliges us to focus on its grammar and structure, which through conscious or subconscious comparison with our native tongue leads to deeper understanding of it.

The devil’s advocate might argue that skill in writing English can be improved without learning another language as suggested here. Indeed it can, and there are countless courses in the relevant journalism skills. Arguably best in the opinion of this NA correspondent is the BBC free online course at www.bbc.co.uk/academy/journalism/skills/writing.

 
M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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