Two tongues, Two Minds – Writing Bilingually

Have you ever tried writing from scratch in your second language? A letter, a post-card, an essay? What was your result? Too hard to think of the words? Frustration with the grammar? You wrote it in English and then tried to translate it to Spanish? Writing in a second language is challenging but so rewarding if you want to learn.

I treat all writing – in English or Spanish – as thinking on paper. It’s thought in a visual form. When I lay down the words where I can see them, it’s easier to watch what they do in the company with other words. Writing in Spanish, however imperfectly, also sharpens me for writing in English.

Good writers are also good readers and reading is a good place to start. Try reading a familiar English passage in another language. Chances are it will illuminate something you didn’t notice in English. For example, St. John’s Gospel starts with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” I always took this as a poetic but abstract statement about the Divinity. I understood the passage differently when I heard it in Spanish. “En el principio existía el Verbo y el Verbo estaba con Dios y el Verbo era Dios…” Verbo means verb, it denotes a word to express action. The English ‘word’ denotes a part of speech and can be a noun, adjective, preposition as well as a verb. In other words, ‘Word’ is rather generic, even passive.  God as verbo is a different image than God as ‘word; a God of actions rather than categories.

Try this:

Read in Spanish (or your second language) a book you already know well in English. Preferably, choose one with familiar passages as in the Bible, Winnie the Pooh, Goodnight Moon, or others. As you read, look for shades of meaning in Spanish language you missed in English. What new insights or meanings do you take from this?

I began writing in Spanish during immersion. The teacher asked only for random sentences to practice verb tenses, prepositional phrases, etc. As an inveterate writer, however, I turned the requisite sentences into a short, coherent story I might tell socially. I was tempted to write it in English and then translate it but I’m glad I didn’t. The point of immersion is learning to think the language. Writing Spanish from scratch wasn’t easy at first, but became easier with each essay and oh so satisfying!

Writing forced me to think the language, and my tutor identified the habitual mistakes. That became an agenda for practice and improvement. In short, writing Spanish showed me where to focus my efforts. Writing helped me acquire the rhythm of Spanish. I wrote about things that interested me, thereby building a useable, personal vocabulary connected to my life and interests. Ultimately, I developed a writing and speaking style natural to me.

I habitually wrote English in an emotionally restrained style sometimes bordered on terseness. When I wrote in Spanish, however, I was surprised to discover my natural style was more emotional and affective than in English. Part of this I ascribe to the transforming effects of languages and cultures. Second languages and cultures tend to draw on aspects of personality that may be subordinate or invisible in your native culture.

When I started writing Spanish, I focused on words and phrases I wanted to learn to use well. I began by writing them across the top of a page. Then I studied them for their possibilities until I had a story line. It was a process like arranging and rearranging the magnetic words and phrases on the refrigerator door until a sentence or paragraph emerged. In time, reading and writing moved me closer to thinking and speaking with the economy of a native speaker. You will find, as I did,  writing can embed in your memory useful words and phrases that will easily roll off your tongue when you need them.

After the immersions, I continued to write short stories for my own amusement and to practice Spanish. I created stories with dialogues between the characters because this is a good way (in my opinion) to learn the kinds of phrases most likely to come up in conversation. It is especially useful in learning the slang or modismos.

In the fragment below, I created an author with a case of writer’s block the night before a crucial deadline. He hears a voice in his garret and is confronted by a tiny man standing on his typewriter. It is the writer’s inner voice but he doesn’t yet recognize it as his own:

“¿Quién? ¿Quién eres,” le pregunté, frotando los ojos con mis puños con incredulidad.

“¿Tú no sabes?”

No. No idea. No conozco a cualquier hombrecitos. ¿Eres tú una invención? ¿Alguien que me imaginaba?“

Sabes ya mi nombre. Es el mismo de tuyo.”

“¡Ay-yi-yi! ¿De dónde vienes?”

“Aquí. Siempre aquí. Vivo dentro de ti.”

¡Aquí! ¡Siempre! ¡Dentro de yo mismo! Me sentí más y más confundido. Cuando traté poner un dedo en el hombrecito, mi dedo pasó por su cuerpo como sí él estaba el aire. ¡Carrumba! ¿Por qué estoy platicar con un hombrecito imaginario? Él es una alucinación. ¡Ay, estoy fatigado!

Now try writing a story on your own. Keep it simple, on the level of a story you would tell a child. Keep it short and manageable. Play with it. If you write on your computer with Microsoft Word, you can go to the “Review” tab on the menu bar and set the proofing language. When you right click on a word, there is a link to synonyms. It’s a great way to sharpen your writing and expand your vocabulary.

Try this:

Choose a dozen words – verbs, prepositions, phrases – and write them across the top of your page. Next, look at the words and phrases and note the words, thoughts, actions, or events they suggest. Use them as the basis for a story. Use them naturally, in your particular way of speaking. Watch what happens.

Try this:

Create several characters and put them into a conversation in your second language. Try to inhabit each character, and give each one a distinct way of speaking. You may find yourself writing short, punchy phrases – the kind we say all the time. The dialogue will suggest the vocabulary.

If you have a native-speaker friend, or one who is highly fluent in your second language, engage them as a critical reader to give you constructive criticism. Two things will happen: 1) Your use of the language will improve, and 2) you may detect a subtle but distinct aspect of your mind you hadn’t noticed before.

Buena suerte!



Spanish – getting it WRITE

OAXACA, Mexico

At the end of my first day of my first immersion at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, Claudia assigned “tarea” or homework: Write ten sentences in the “co-preterito” or past imperfect.  You know, the sentences that say “I used to do this,” or “I was doing this.”

Ten sentences in the imperfect!  That’s all?  Ten random sentences in the past perfect?  I can do that in twenty minutes! That’s not much of an assignment.  I expect something more for my fee!  So I set to make it something more and found a strategy that worked well for me – then and now.

The imperfect is ideal for narratives and description.  That evening, I hit on telling a story I might relate in a conversation.  Sitting at my small desk, I thought about a story of ten or a dozen lines.  It wasn’t anything serious, just an episode with a beginning, middle and end.   Then I picked the verbs I wanted for the imperfect and wrote them across the top of the page.

Then a decision:  Write the story in English and then translate or rewrite it in Spanish?  Or just plunge into Spanish and start writing?   Writing in English struck me as half-hearted – almost cheating – and self-defeating.  Writing in Spanish meant thinking in Spanish, and wasn’t that the point of immersion – to learn to think and speak in Spanish?

After two hours and a couple false starts, I finished a one-page story I was proud to hand in the next day.  Besides the ten sentences in the imperfect, the narrative needed a few in the present and future tenses.  I gave it to Claudia, she put on her glasses, and read it.   She said nothing, but looked at me with a question in her eyes, as if awaiting an explanation.

In halting Spanish, I said writing a story seemed like the best way to practice the imperfect in a context.  This seemed to me a good way to create a coherent relationship among the sentences was to write them the way I   would say them in a conversation.  This way I can get used to handling several verbs in shaping a story.

She smiled and nodded.  “Si,” she agreed.  Thereafter, I wrote essays, short stories, and opinion pieces every day during each of the five immersions.  As my Spanish improved over time, I  wrote longer stories, developed characters and plots, and gave them richer details and greater nuance.  My writings ranged over simple narratives, humor, short fiction, and political editorials.

The point of writing

But, you say, I don’t like to write.  All I want to do is learn to speak the language, not write it.  I understand.  Many of us find writing a chore, and sometimes it is.  None the less, we all know how to write – however poorly we do it.  Writing is a part of language; our capacity to write is integrally linked to our capacity to think, to feel, and to speak.   All of these functions work together in to create language.  Writing – however poorly done – can improve our fluency.

Don’t think you have to come up with the “Great Mexican Novel.”  Let’s be pragmatic.

Writing makes visible our speech, our thoughts or the fruits of our thought.  When we write, we can see our thoughts, we can save them, refine them, correct them, and return to them again and again.  If nothing else, our writing becomes a personal artifact of intellectual archaeology.  And as an artifact, your essay, opinion piece, letter, or short story in Spanish provides you and your teacher with a map of how our mind works with the language.  Don’t fret about the sophistication of what your write.  It’s not the story you tell that’s so important, it’s HOW you tell it.    

Writing saves our thoughts in a moment of time, a reference point in our development as Spanish speakers.  Why?  From essay to essay, our writings create benchmarks for measuring our progress toward fluency.  With our teacher, we can identify the chronic weak spots in our grammar, syntax, or conjugation (and we all have weak spots).  After a few essays, we can identify patterns: habitual errors, missed accents, failure to use the subjunctive in subordinate clauses, misplaced direct and indirect object pronouns, and more.  All of this information helps to set our priorities for improvement.  Through triage, if nothing else, we can tackle one problem at a time.  And a periodic comparison of essays will reveal the progress we are truly making. 

The method

Writing takes a little planning.  And planning makes our task easier.  Ah!  The question: What am I going to write about?

Pick something simple; maybe something simple you know how to do and describe that to an imaginary Spanish speaker.  Or write about an episode from childhood, or about your dog.  It doesn’t matter what the topic is as long as it’s something you like.  The more you like the topic, the easier it is to write about it.  But keep it simple so your mental energy goes into the language rather than the theme.

Think about how this story relates to and will be useful in working through the problem you have with a category of conjugation, a grammatical tense, or vocabulary.  It may be verbs in the conditional, indirect object pronouns, or “modismos” or colloquialisms.

Don’t try to cram two or three problem areas into one essay.  Use triage.  One problem area per essay.  As you review your work,

If you’re not a writer by nature, you may still feel stumped for a theme.  If you are, play this little game.  Select words from the category you are working with (let’s say it’s verbs) and write them across the top of the page.  Okay: Now you have verbs but they are unrelated.   Your task is to create a story line that puts these verbs into a logical relationship.  Think of them like the magnetic words on the refriderator door – words you can re-arrange to make different sentences.

Dollars to donuts, with a smidgen of imagination, the verbs will “suggest” the story line to you.  Words have friends, and as soon as you put down one word, that word invites another, and very soon they invite more words and you have a sentence.  Once that happens, the rest is easy.  Or easier.  The juxtaposition of verbs suggested possibilities I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

Try this

No matter where you are in your pusuit of Spanish, try writing as a way to confront problems with grammar and syntax.  Take an aspect of vocabulary or grammar that is particularly difficult and make an assignment.  Think of a story or a dialogue between characters that will cause you to use the part of the language that is most difficult in the moment.  Put the key words at the top of the page and start writing.

Like physical exercise, the effort will strengthen and expand your capacity to use the tenses (say, the subjunctive), the indirect object pronouns, etc. with ease.  I’ve read that this kind of effort creates new neural pathways.  Maybe so.  I do know, however, the effort smooths out rough places in my Spanish.  Who knows, you may enjoy it!