Some time ago I wrote this piece about writing as a foreigner. Today I want to touch upon this again, although rather than explaining what it’s like for us writing in a foreign tongue, I want to encourage those who keep up the good work. Because you deserve the extra encouragement.
We’re an insane bunch. In a world where we are surrounded by an incredible amount of writers, we join the ranks of writerhood with an extra handicap. I mean, it may not feel like a handicap to you and me, but to people who get to judge us and decide whether or not our content is good enough for their site/magazine/company/dog we often are. Often enough you’ll see signs downright stating that this job or position is for native speakers only. And as much as you like to hide the fact you’re not actually from a country where English is taught at an almost passable level in school, it will come up sooner or later.
Now this is assuming that you are completely fluent of course, if you’re not, then you’ve got some extra work to do. You’ll need to work to get at the level of a fluent English-speaking writer. And guess what? You know those people who speak the language natively? Or those people who don’t speak it natively but are perfectly fluent? Well, they’re still working hard on improving their game as well. You’re starting the game a few spaces back from the rest. If you’re a prodigy who speaks the language fluently, you’ll still start a space or two back. Natives? Well, they get to start right at the start. And that start isn’t exactly anywhere close to the finish line either.
Heck, the first 50-odd spaces are full of people who are constantly tried and questions. “Do I really want to continue with this?” “Am I ever going to make it?” “Maybe writing really isn’t for me.” “Maybe I should become a shoe salesman instead.” And I’m pretty sure that these questions, as well as many others, are still constantly buzzing around the heads of those who have been at it for a long time. Those who have been published, who are have refined their craft and know what they’re doing. Everyone is struggling in one way or another. Why? Because writing isn’t easy.
Now remember, those people are still ahead of us. They’re in a better position than us, and they’re still asking themselves these questions. They haven’t even come across freelance writing jobs that seem perfect for them but for the small tiny little bit at the end saying “native speakers only”.
Feel discouraged yet?
We’re still on the same playing field. We’re not cast aside and told to go home pretend we are writers someplace else simply because we learned the language at a later time than some. If you have been told to go home and play writer somewhere else, keep in mind that the people who do say these things likely say it to native, fluent, and world-building-ink-gods as well.
The gap is only a temporary one. And the less you struggle with it, the easier it will be to move on. The only thing you can do against it is to keep studying, learning, and refining you craft. Keep reading, keep writing.Keep going.
Wait, this mostly seems like the regular advice given to regular native speakers, right? that’s because it is. And again, this is because we are on the same playing field. We don’t get any special rules, or special treatment. We have to hold ourselves to the same standards. Never pat yourself on the back because you’re doing okay for a non-native speaker. That’s stupid. That it’s acceptable for you to just barely scratch average because you’re below that level. You’re not below that level. You can do better than that. You’re not better or worse than everyone else. This is both good and bad. It’s bad because it means you’ll still compete with everyone else. But it’s good because it means you’re not as far behind as you think.
One of the major issues that I keep finding myself wondering about, and I may be wrong in my assumption that other non-native folks wonder about this, is our perception of the language. Since we’re not native speakers of the language, we don’t have the same connections with certain words the way that native speakers do. It might sound silly, but it’s really not. Words mean different things to people. Some words and thought are eternally linked for some people. Some words bring back memories, thoughts, feelings that for other people would seem like an alien and awkward combination. You might have noticed I’ve gone to a broader sense using the word everyone. It’s because, yes, everyone does link words differently. So how much different are people who learned English as their second language?
It depends, really. If you don’t get to use a language frequently, then naturally you’re not going to be as familiar with it as others would be. If English is just the language you read and write in, but never really communicate with, you’re going to fall behind. And you’re going to fall behind fast. If you put yourself in a position where you constantly need it. You speak, think, write, and read in English, you’re going to improve fast.
Is that all? Just immersion in the language? Well, yes and no. Immersion is going to add a lot of background and a deeper understanding (flavor if you will, I won’t) to your tongue. You’ll have to keep it up consistently to keep it at that level, of course. But that isn’t all there is to it. That’s just the basis of it all, the part you have to walk past before you get to the problems regular writers struggle with.
There’s this point where you start to question if you can make it as a writer. If you can make it by writing articles, stories, blog posts, tweets, whatever. There’s always that point where you stop and wonder if this is something you can do. Except we, and again this could just be me, start to question our abilities. Perfectly normal thing to happen with writers, except it seems to hit us not once, but twice. You’re not just asking yourself if you’re capable of getting your words out there and if they’re good enough. You’re asking yourself the same question twice. Once because you’re questioning your skill with the words themselves. Once more because you’re questioning your understanding of what isn’t your language.
Maybe those people are right. Maybe there is some deeper understanding of the language that you are missing because you weren’t speaking it during the first decade of your time on this planet. Maybe even if you did grow up speaking the language natively, you just don’t have what it takes. You don’t have the talent for it. The knack. The certain magical power that lets you look deep inside and find some hidden strength.
This is bullshit.
Sure you can.
Not speaking a language natively isn’t a handicap. It doesn’t make you a special little snowflake. It just give you a different angle, a different approach, and a different background. If you speak more than one language, and you don’t have to translate everything to your native tongue in the back of your head, then chances are you’ll do just fine.
In fact, that means that you have more than one language that you can draw from. If you know how to apply that, you’ve got an entire treasure-house to draw from both in terms of writing AND reading material.
What it comes down to is that writing as a foreigner doesn’t make you any less or more special than anyone else out there. A different set of problems comes along with it, but every writer has their own problems. On the plus side, you have your own strengths to draw from by being a foreign writer, and it’s completely up to you how to use these.