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Why Learning Another Language Makes You a Better Writer

LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE MAKES YOU A BETTER WRITER

Most of the time, language is effortless. Despite the labyrinth separating the thoughts in my prefrontal cortex from the words in my mouth, I can ramble all day without thinking twice about the process.

Language is effortless, that is, until we encounter a new one. In a foreign language, finding the right words suddenly takes work, and we’re forced to dissect sentences, rethink our message and consult the dictionary.

This exercise of searching and editing mirrors the process of writing. Skilled writers attempt to construct language in particular ways — clearer, richer, more visual, funnier, shorter, longer — that may not immediately flow to our fingers. Language learning is like interval training for writers; in fact, learning another language makes you a better writer and may be one of the best ways to enhance writing skills.

Descriptions get more creative

When we first learn a language, our vocabulary is limited. At times, we have to be creative to get our message across. For example, imagine that I want to tell someone that I bought a vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately, I don’t know the word for “vacuum cleaner.” How can I say vacuum cleaner without saying vacuum cleaner?

  • A thing that cleans the floor that is not a broom
  • A broom that sucks dirt
  • A broom that breathes
  • An electric broom
  • A carpet cleaner without water
  • A floor sucker
  • A mop for the rug
  • Something that washes the ground with air

 

It’s like a particularly painful game of Taboo in which I can only use the words I don’t need. Yet by going through this awkward process — saying the words “floor sucker” while making a whirring noise — I’m stretching my mind to build new, concise definitions and clever descriptions.

There’s a whole new world of idioms and metaphors

Metaphors and idioms add spice to language and help readers grasp abstract or complex concepts. They’re also often unique to languages and cultures. Learning another language makes you a better writer because it gives you a whole new reservoir of metaphors.

Russians use the phrase “spitting at the ceiling,” to describe sitting around and doing nothing. The closest parallel in English might be “twiddling your thumbs,” but that phrase doesn’t deliver quite the same punch that the Russian does. Used in English, “spitting at the ceiling” could add an interesting if icky visual to any prose.


LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE MAKES YOU A BETTER WRITER

Foreign languages give new insight into familiar words

Learning another language makes you a better writer by forcing you to examine your native vocabulary in new ways. In English, the word “know” is simple: It has one core definition, and even small children recognize and use it. However, Italian dictionaries offer two different translations of “know”:

  • The first is sapere, which means “to know” something that can be learned or memorized, like a fact or a skill.
  • The other is “conoscere,” which expresses familiarity, personal insight and recognition in the way you might know a song, a person or a place.

 

I took “know” for granted my entire life. A single language lesson led me to reconsider it and has changed the way I use this simple English word. Rather than using “know,” I now seek out terms that add more clarity to the narrative.

It’s English Grammar 101

Even people who sneer at the “AP Stylebook” and “Strunk & White” depend on the English grammar systems. When we use our native tongue, however, we have little appreciation for its complexities.

For example, in English, the word “the” is always placed before a noun, and it always looks the same:

German grammar (6)

Foreign languages learners learn a new grammar system from scratch. In German, the shape of “the” depends on the role it (and its noun) plays in the sentence. For example,

Why Learning Another Language Makes You a Better Writer

In these German sentences, “the” takes multiple forms (der and den) depending on who is doing the biting. The main subject (the biter) takes “der; the object (the bitten) takes “den.” This kind of differentiation between subject and object actually exists in English, but its usage is limited to pronouns:

LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE MAKES YOU A BETTER WRITER

To speak German, I have to learn to recognize the role that “the” (and the noun it modifies) plays in the sentence, and doing so forces me to reflect on a facet of English grammar that most of us never consider.

Learning another language makes you a better writer

There’s some irony in the fact that a new tongue is the best way to understand your own, and that learning another language makes you a better writer. Yet for those of us who spend our days surrounded by words, it’s a powerful way to expand and grow as  writers, messengers and thinkers.

Which Words Made the Cut?

definitions recently added to the dictionary

The influence of technology and social networking in our world couldn’t be more obvious with these  150 new definitions recently added to the dictionary by Merriam Webster, including “hashtag,” “selfie” and “tweep.”

hashtag n (2008): a word or phrase preceded by the symbol # that classifies or categorizes the accompanying text, such as a tweet

selfie n (2002): an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera, especially for posting on social networks

tweep n (2008): a person who uses the Twitter online message service to send and receive tweets

The popular television show Catfish gained more recognition with the addition of the word and definition to the dictionary. Now, Catfish doesn’t just refer to a type of fish, but also includes the reference to a person who sets up a false social networking profile to deceive others.

The update of the Collegiate’s 11th edition also included social networking, “the creation and maintenance of personal and business relationships, especially online,” and unfriend “to remove (someone) from a list of designated friends on a person’s social networking web site.”

Food terminology was also added to the dictionary with words like pho, “a soup made of beef or chicken broth and rice noodles,” and turducken, “a boneless chicken stuffed into a boneless duck stuffed into a boneless turkey.”

“These are words our editors have decided to put in based on usage in the English language,” said Merriam-Webster spokeswoman Meghan Lunghi. “They look for widespread, sustained usage and when they think the usage merits it, they include it.”

The definitions recently added to the dictionary

Auto-Tune (v., 2003): to adjust or alter (a recording of a voice) with Auto-Tune software or other audio-editing software esp. to correct sung notes that are out of tune

baby bump (n., 2003): the enlarged abdomen of a pregnant woman

big data (n., 1980): an accumulation of data that is too large and complex for processing by traditional database management tools

brilliant (adj., new sense): British: very good, excellent

crowdfunding (n., 2006): the practice of soliciting financial contributions from a large number of people esp. from the online community

digital divide (n., 1996): the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not

dubstep (n., 2002): a type of electronic dance music having prominent bass lines and syncopated drum patterns

e-waste (n., 2004): waste consisting of discarded electronic products (as computers, televisions, and cell phones)

ewaste

fangirl (n., 1934): a girl or woman who is an extremely or overly enthusiastic fan of someone or something

fracking (n., 1953): the injection of fluid into shale beds at high pressure in order to free up petroleum resources (such as oil or natural gas)

freegan (n., 2006): an activist who scavenges for free food (as in waste receptacles at stores and restaurants) as a means of reducing consumption of resources

gamification (n., 2010): the process of adding game or gamelike elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation

hot spot (n., new sense): a place where a wireless Internet connection is available

insource (v., 1983): to procure (as some goods or services needed by a business or organization) under contract with a domestic or in-house supplier

motion capture (n., 1992): a technology for digitally recording specific movements of a person (as an actor) and translating them into computer-animated images

paywall (n., 2004): a system that prevents Internet users from accessing certain Web content without a paid subscription

pepita (n., 1942): the edible seed of a pumpkin or squash often dried or toasted

pumpkin with pepitas

poutine (n., 1982): chiefly Canada: a dish of French fries covered with brown gravy and cheese curds

spoiler alert (n., 1994): a reviewer’s warning that a plot spoiler is about to be revealed

steampunk (n., 1987): science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology

Yooper (n., 1977): a native or resident of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — used as a nickname