East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

That second language thing


So, it went like this… yesterday I posted the link to Sasha A. Palmer’s post on the e-Books India blog.
This morning my friend Claire1 did her take on Palmer’s post – you can find her thoughts here.
And I thought, why not?
Sort of like a pinball effect – ideas bouncing back and forth.


After all I’m doing my writing in English most of the time, nowadays, and Karavansara, that started out as an experiment, has now become my primary blog.
So, here’s my own take on writing in what is still my Second Language, and the benefits thereof.

Developing a unique style

My voice changes, writing in Italian or in English. This is in part due to the syntax of the two languages – English is more compact than Italian – but I think the biggest difference is in lexicon. My English owes more to the books I read than to school (but I had some excellent teachers, mind you – and some very bad ones).


Many years ago, when I lived in London, a young woman noted how my vocabulary was “very old fashioned and very polite” and that I sometimes sounded like a “Southern gentleman”2 – and I had to confess that it probably came from getting my vocabulary out of pulp and Victorian fiction, and my pronunciation out of old Tom Petty LPs.
Anyway, the end result is that my English is a hodge-podge of literature and hackwork, with the added “bonus” of being a mix of British English and American English.
If you want to call it style, please do.
But also, and I think this is interesting, my thinking changes shifting from a language to another, and indeed the reason why I started dabbling in different languages2 is, I considered foreign languages as a set of tools to think differently.

Rediscovering your mother tongue

This has yet to happen to me. While I can honestly say i like the English language, Italian is not a matter of liking or disliking.
There are times when I compare the two languages, realizing that there are concepts I could express more succinctly in one of the two, or that I can’t translate from one to the other.

Achieving a sense of connection

As I said, the sense of comparison and contrast is there – but to me “connection” means most of all connection to the reader, because without the reader, whatever I write is dormant like dead Cthulhu in R’lieh… the act of reading brings my writing to life. And clearly writing in English I can reach, and connect with, a far larger number of potential readers.
Also, yes, there is this weird sense of being suspended between two worlds, two cultures.
But in that sense, I fear I’ve already gone native…

Healing & Boosting your self-esteem

I am close to Claire’s take on this one – I don’t consider my writing a healing experience (yet?) but there is certainly a sense of empowerment, pride and self-assuredness in writing in a foreign language.
I do not have demons to fight – fighting hand pains and the tendency to procrastinate is a noble fight enough, as far as I’m concerned.
And yes, just like Miss C. I get a lot of weird stares when I say I write mostly in English – writing in itself is considered some kind of weird hobby (unless you’re a bestseller list author), doing it in another language is perceived as folly, or as a very complicated form of snobbery.
As for self-esteem – I agree with Sasha Palmer, there is a certain thrill in going from “I will do this, I will write in English” to “I’m doing it! Look, mum, no hands!”
We need a little triumph once in a while.

Why Learn a Language

Odds & Ends

I consider “Learn another language” one of the best suggestions I could give to anybody – both young and old. It’s like opening another channel of communication, yes, and it is also the sort of exercise that keeps the brain working.
“Learn another language and use it” would be more like it.
And one of the best bits of writing in English, to me, is the ability to play with the language – it requires practice, and reading the right books (Jack Vance comes to mind), but in the end it is a great source of fun.
And who knows, might become style, help us connect and heal, and boost our self-esteem.

  1. that, as you might have guessed, sort of lives in the bungalow on the other side of the street from my caravansary, web-wise. 
  2. I can hold my ground in French and Spanish, but not enough to write in those languages. And with a little effort I can manage some survival Japanese. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “That second language thing

  1. If you please, it’s in the Tudor cottage across the street, that I live… except in Kipling periods – because then yes, it’s a bungalow. 😉

    And I didn’t remark on it in my post because it didn’t seem relevant, but I know that even my voice changes (colour and timbre) when I speak in English. And my French voice is different again.


    • And to think I was this >< close to call it a yurt… 😛

      And yes, the voice too, yes… that too, probably.
      My English voice is better than the Italian … at least in my opinion.
      My French voice, on the other hand, is pure Clouseau 😀


  2. Hey, Davide,
    Palmer’s here 🙂
    Thank you for reading my article and spreading the word.
    Hooray for the pinball effect!
    Have fun writing in foreign languages, the more the merrier.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.