Writing in Your Second Language or why I’m tired of hearing “But your English is so good!” and “I love your accent!”
When I first started learning English in fifth grade I had no idea where this required language class would lead me. That by eighth grade I would doggedly inch my way through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, dictionary in hand. After all, it was either second guessing whether something was a real English word or one that only existed in the world of Harry, Ron, and Hermione or waiting for six months for the English version to be translated into German. I had always been terrible at waiting and being convinced that “portkey” and “pensieve” were real words was a risk I was willing to take. In the end, it probably took me just as long to make it through the entire book as waiting for the translation would have, but it didn’t matter. Because by that time I was hooked. Harry Potter not only became my gateway to reading fantasy and science fiction, Harry became my gateway to diving head-first into English, because why read translations if you can get adventures from the source?
Harry Potter not only became my gateway to reading fantasy and science fiction, Harry became my gateway to diving head-first into English
From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump away from connecting with native English speakers online (Thank you, Wheel of Time roleplaying forums!) and yes, even moving to the U.S. when I was barely twenty, because hey, adventure (paired with some seriously bad life decisions, but that’s another story and the important thing is I’m still here!).
But back to the topic at hand: a lot of people seem surprised when I tell them that I never wrote anything that wasn’t in English (discounting a terrible Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfic I banged out on my parents’ decrepit electric typewriter). But here’s the thing: everyone’s writing journey is different. Mine just happens to be very closely intertwined with learning English. In a way those two went hand in hand for me: as I was getting more fluent in English, I also became better versed in the craft of writing.
Maybe that’s also why I definitely have some hangups about things I get asked as someone who writes in a language that, while not my native language, I’ve by now pretty much adopted as “my” language. A friend asked me the other day if it feels odd to still have English referred to as my second language. I’m 30. I started learning English when I was 10, immigrated to the U.S. at 20. I’ve been writing since I was 16. Except for my weekly call with my mother and the occasional colleague or acquaintance who speaks German, all of my conversations are in English. I don’t think or dream in anything but English. By now, even my memory likes to trick me into recapping conversations that I know happened in German during my childhood and early teens in English, because it’s become just that natural to me.
So, yes, it’s weird to have people refer to me as an ESL speaker or worse, as an employer once wrote as someone “who has overcome the obstacle of not speaking English as her native language.” Let’s be clear, being bilingual/multilingual isn’t an obstacle to overcome. It’s who we are. It’s a huge asset. For me, being an immigrant and a non-native English speaker opened new perspectives I didn’t even know I was missing. It taught me writing in an organic way: by watching people and language function around me. It’s how I learned about voice. About character. About different backgrounds and code-switching. While immigrating definitely was far from smooth sailing, even for me as a white European woman, I wouldn’t trade in for anything because of who it made me. The answer to “How did your English get so good?” is because I worked at it, Harry Potter words and all.
Let’s be clear, being bilingual/multilingual isn’t an obstacle to overcome. It’s who we are. It’s a huge asset…It taught me writing in an organic way: by watching people and language function around me. It’s how I learned about voice. About character. About different backgrounds and code-switching.
That’s why when people ask me variations of “Isn’t it hard to write in English when it’s not your native language?” I generally clench my teeth and quietly explain that the reason I write in English is because I’ve never not written in English. At this point, having so immersed in English fiction and nonfiction about craft, it would honestly be much harder to write in German. And, no, please don’t ask me to translate my own stuff. Do you know how hard it is to convey voice across multiple languages?
And then of course there are the basic everyday questions, starting with, “What’s your accent?” That one is typically delivered with the kind of quizzical look as if the speaker is wondering if they can really trust you, because having an accent clearly marks you as different, not belonging. “Oh, I love your accent!” is another one in the well-meaning but ultimately othering category. Don’t get me wrong, I get the appeal of certain accents, but the foundational problem remains: even if well-meaning, if the first thing you point out to someone is their accent, whether questioningly or as a compliment, the implicit message is “You sound different. You don’t belong here.” While that might not be the original intention and quite frankly my reaction to it differs from day to day and from person to person, the implication sticks and it gets pretty damn irritating, pretty damn fast.
the foundational problem remains: even if well-meaning, if the first thing you point out to someone is their accent, whether questioningly or as a compliment, the implicit message is “You sound different. You don’t belong here.”
Then of course there’s the idea that there’s a proper way to speak English–and that proper way certainly doesn’t come with an accent. I usually take a deep breath whenever that one comes up. I’m a writer. I’m also an English teacher. Why? Because I’m good at it. Without a doubt, my accent is something that comes up every time I introduce myself at the beginning of a semester or in person to others in the writing community. And with it always comes this almost physical need to prove myself. That, yes, this woman with tattoos and purple hair and a German accent does in fact know what she’s talking about.
What’s worse, this need to constantly prove myself becomes ingrained, sometimes even associated with the work I do as a writer. I’ve become better at shrugging it off, but sometimes it’s still there, that sneaky voice that asks if I really know what I’m doing, because I’m “just” an ESL speaker.
Let’s shut that voice up, shall we? Let’s collectively ditch assumptions we have about writers whose native language may or may not be English due to their accent, their skin tone, or their country of origin. In the end, everyone speaks with an accent and how boring would our world, would our writing, be if we didn’t?
When she is not writing queer science fiction and fantasy with a chance of explosions, Alex Harrow is a high school English teacher, waging epic battles against comma splices and the misuse of apostrophes.
A German ex-pat, Alex began to write when she realized that the best guarantee to see more books with diverse characters on the shelves of bookstores was to write them. She cares deeply about social justice and wants to see diverse characters, including queer protagonists, in more than the stereotypical coming out story.
Alex is represented by Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency
Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexHarrowSFF