Writing as a Foreigner

Hi there, my name is Remy and English is my second language.

That felt good to get out.

Wait, most of you knew already, didn’t you? Well, then that wasn’t much of a confession, now was it? Damnit, I thought I hoped that I could get the entire message across with that one sentence. This isn’t something I like writing about. Although the feeling of apprehension towards the subject only ensures me that I do have to write about this. It’s a topic that has been a long time coming, so I guess I’ll have to take my time and elaborate further.

There’s this insult that keeps popping up everywhere. An d it’s not something I’ve just seen online. It’s not exclusive to the English language either, pick any language and people will flaunt their superiority at their mastery of their tongue with just one quick, sharp comment. The comment itself comes to life in many shapes, forms, styles, but it always comes down to the same thing.

I’m talking about comments people reserve for people who learned English (or any other language, as I said, it’s not exclusive to the English language) as a second language. About people who aren’t native speakers.

“Like it’s been written by someone who learned English as a second language.”

Gee. Great. Thanks.

Whenever I read those remarks, this springs to mind.

A lot of well-meaning advice forums, blogs, articles, books, columns, podcasts, tweets, whatevers, keep advicing people to write in their native tongue exclusively as well. They mean well, and they’re probably written by people who have A) come across some really terrible texts by foreign aspiring writers who had problems commicating in basic English. God knows I’ve seen enough of them. Or B) Only speak one language fluently themselves and don’t think it’s possible to actually understand more than one language and master it to an extent.

I’m saying to an extent here on purpose.

You see, the problem I have with both these points is that for every foreigner who actually is exemplary to these two problems, I run into at least two or three native English speakers who prove a truly atrocious use of the language doesn’t just stem from learning it as a second, third, or even seventh language.

During my time in both England and Ireland most people assumed I was American based on my accent. Often enough I’d have to explain what words meant shortly after using them. That’s a weird thing, telling people what stuff means in their own language. You’d think you can just go all out and just use words freely, the way you’d like to talk, and then they still have problems keeping up. And you still need to simplify and explain away, the way you had to when attempting to speak English to someone who isn’t all that fluent in it.

And I’m not the only foreigner who has this. Tons of foreign speakers actually manage to get a level of fluency that’s much like that (or even better than that) of a native speaker. It’s not that rare, or hard. Although it does come in many forms, and as always, confidence is a massive thing in any form it comes in.

When I first started to realize my English was above average, it actually wasn’t too great. I still took pride in it of course, but looking back I feel like an idiot. I wasn’t a stranger to using the second language excuse whenever people pointed out flaws in spelling and grammatical errors. Hey, it’s my second language, of course I’m not going to use the language perfectly. I’m still better than your average foreigner, so what if I screw up every now and again?

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog that I stopped doing this. I actually went online and studied basic grammar. Made a mental note whenever something came up with the cursed red line of doom thanks to spellcheck. Then after a while I started going without spellcheck. Funnily enough, that actually improved my spelling even further.

At the same time, I started reading a heck of a lot more as well. To the point that I’d read something from the same author and wonder if they had simplified their writing. They hadn’t. My English had just improved a lot.

And again, this isn’t a success story of how great my English is. There are foreigners out there that put me to shame. There are native speakers who put them to shame. Maybe there’s some more foreigners who put them even further to shame. Who knows?

The thing is that what it all comes down to is effort. Well, effort and laziness. Anyone can improve their understanding of a language, provided that they put effort into it. Maybe not every foreigner will reach full fluency and understanding in every language, but a little effort goes a long way. Native speakers don’t exactly get a free pass here either. They still need to study and improve.

If there’s anyone reading this who used the “non-native insult”, and anyone reading this who is a foreigner who prides himself in his skill with the language, let’s strike a deal.

  • We’ll stop being proud of how we picked up our English from television. We’ll stop wasting time bragging about. We’ll start actually studying the language and improving it.
  • You’ll stop blaming people’s inability to properly speak English on them being foreigners. You’ll accept that there’s enough people speaking your tongue natively who can’t formulate basic sentences to save their lives. You’ll have some respect for people who picked up your language as their second, third, fourth, or maybe even fifth tongue.

Is that a deal?

Okay, cool! No, really I appreciate that. I feel like a massive weight has been lifted from my shoulders now.

That leaves me with enough time to make another confession.

During the last year I’ve spent about 9 months on foreign soil. I’ve barely used my Dutch during that time. The result? I have problems speaking Dutch now. I have problems finding basic words. I can’t remember sentence structures. When surprised or shocked, my mind jumps back to English. All the problems usually associated with speaking a language as a foreigner. It’s incredibly strange to have this happen to your native tongue. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a year or two spent abroad, I’d almost completely forget my Dutch. Or at least, have some severe problems speaking it.

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6 thoughts on “Writing as a Foreigner

  1. I blame people’s inability to pick up a book and learn or to ask for help on why their language may be bad. For myself I blame laziness when I’m not using my language correctly. I may pass it off as being tired but really it is laziness. And you have always spoken better English in my opinion, than MOST Americans Remy. Though I think on a whole, Americans are some of the laziest people ever…

  2. I’ve never actually had this problem before, due to English being my primary language. However I do see the issues that you have seen, abet perhaps to a greater extent due to the language being my native tongue.

    What you’re writing though, it strikes true in so many regards. We hear comments by native speakers of the language bitching about the fact that some immigrants to countries don’t have a great grip on English, but time and time again, we’re proven that they’ll go the extra mile to not only learn, but succeed greatly at it.

    Although Facebook perhaps isn’t the greatest way to judge this, you see the basic grammatical and spelling mistakes made, many of which, were taught to avoid at a young age.

    In short, it was an excellent read, something I enjoyed greatly; it also caused me to examine, not only my own writings, but what other native speakers of English say and spell around me. Good show.

    • Thanks Void! And as always, your comment’s spot on as well. It’s even more noticable if you’ve spent time in an English speaking country as a follower and the majority of your contacts on social media sites are all native speakers of the language, with the odd foreigner speaking English mixed in.

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