Back when I started my conlanging project (six weeks ago!) I wrote a little bit about how creating a language can help your writing. I stand by that advice: constructing a language forces you to think of your entire world in a new light. I didn’t really go into how learning a real-life, naturally-evolved language can help your writing.
Short answer: it does. Immensely. Here’s why.
Broadening your horizons…
A major problem faced by a lot of beginning writers: they focus in on one massive difference between the world of their book and the real world, and they leave it at that. Or they give their characters one defining characteristic and besides that, leave them clones of the writer. Or all involved places are really the writer’s home town.
This is a problem that is solved with experience. Most writing problems are. So why would learning a new language help?
With language comes culture. While some of us (myself included) are fortunate enough to have traveled the world, not everyone has that experience. Learning a language is a way to experience the culture of a place you’ve never been, connect with people you’ve never met. It becomes a lot harder to keep things homogeneous when you yourself are exposed to diversity.
Rethinking your words…
It may not seem like much, but when you learn a language you’re exposed to more than just a new culture. You’re forced to re-write your own understanding of language. Suddenly ‘you’ and ‘I’ aren’t as innate: they could be “tu” or “vous” or “je” or “я”. Suddenly you don’t have the words for what you want to say, which is something writers may not have faced before.
Until you have to search for your words, it’s hard to truly understand the agency that language gives you. And sometimes, it’s hard to understand what they fully mean. When you have to think about your words in a new language, you find yourself thinking about them in your native language too. When you say “just”, do you mean “only” or “fair”? Does that meaning cross the language barrier? When you say “dictate”, is that as in “ruling” or “speaking with the intent of having it transcribed”? We all know about homonyms, but where and when do they translate to another language?
In short: you have to think about your native language as well as the new one.
And a new appreciation of your language.
Here’s why this matters. All that exposure to new cultures, new ideas, and the sudden lack of articulation, all of it: it can be turned around and put into your novel. Every bit of it. It shapes you as an author, and therefore shapes the words you write. You gain a greater understanding of the full meaning of your words, rather than just repeating cliches. Even the good ones. Your vocabulary gets a lot better. You think about the cultural influence of what you say: does it apply? does it make sense?
The more you learn, the greater an effect that language has. But even learning just a little– one semester, one lesson– can help. And today it’s easier than ever: I’ve listed several free language-learning resources below.
I never learned Spanish. I know passable French, passable Latin, and a decent amount of Classical Greek. I can muddle my way through Esperanto thanks to a week of illness my Senior year of college. I’m literate in Russian but know about three words of the actual language. Back in high school I was a nightmare for my language teachers, but once I got to college I started learning whatever I could get my hands on. The evolution of my writing was tangible: suddenly phrases and words I’d used all my life took on an entirely different meaning.
What other skills have shaped the way you write? Or even just the way you think?
Memrise (vocabulary building)
Duolingo (beginner lessons in tons of languages, grammar-focused)
Bliu Bliu (reading)
Italki (tutoring and conversation)