Guest Post: Writing in a Second Language

Post by Evelyne Holingue

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I am afraid that writing about my experience as a writer is egocentric since I’m not an established author. On the other hand, unlike the vast majority of writers, I write in a second language, acquired during adulthood. Over the last year, I’ve started to gather some nuggets related to this unexpected journey.

  • As soon as I land in San Francisco I’m aware of the sounds around me. New sounds that bear no resemblance to my native language arrive from everywhere. How will I ever be able to understand their meaning? I don’t ask myself how I will ever make them mine. A non-native speaker doesn’t consider the possibility for many years.
  • The only book I’ve packed in the blue container that leaves Paris for San Francisco is a French English dictionary. I will use it every day, for five years, as I read the newspaper and any free magazine I find in town. I check each word I don’t know and write it down in a notebook with its translation. Although I could simply check the dictionary once again in case I hadn’t memorized the new word, I need this tedious exercise. Handwriting each new word is the proof of my learning. It reassures me to assess the number of new words I learn. It frightens me too. The number of French words I know is endless.
  • Three years after my arrival in California, my in-laws offer me the French-English Unabridged Larousse Dictionary. Its promise: 350, 000 words and phrases, 530, 000 translations.
  • The self-teaching is hard because I’m alone most of the time, with two very young children, babies really. I need to find new ways to learn. Intuitively I know that what I’m missing is the conversation. One is unable to learn a foreign language without a dialogue. So whenever I meet someone I find myself mentally turning the pages of my notebook to select words that I could use in the conversation. I’m elated when I find one that I can place in the correct context.
  • I borrow books at the public library. I read each and every book from the first page to the last. Slowly. I read more slowly than I did when I was a child. Painfully. I record new words in my notebook. I understand what I read and I don’t. But the real sadness is that I’m acutely aware that I would not be able to write most of the sentences on my own.
  • A few years later, I can read entire books without checking my dictionary. Although some words are still unknown I don’t feel compelled to get their translation. My understanding of the language is good enough to guess the meaning. At some point I store my dictionary on a shelf, much less accessible than the ones where I stack my favorite novels. I’ve dreamed of the day where I would read like a native-speaker. But unlike my dream that was pure ecstasy I feel emptiness. So that was it?
  • This is why I’m overjoyed when I find an unknown word or an unusual turn of sentence. Along my solitary arduous journey there are moments of joy that I had forgotten when I read in French. Not knowing something can be scary but also exhilarating.
  • As I read I flag the pages with Post-It notes and highlights in yellow the sentences that strike me as beautiful. The thought of writing in English crosses my mind more and more often too. Soon I write my own sentences that turn into stories.
  • When I bring my first short story for critique I have no idea that such thing exists. It’s through a friend of mine who lives next to a writer that I am invited. I have no clue that these women are published authors. Later, I will soon find out that a few are very well known in their field of publication. Including in children’s literature. My story is read by one of them and I blush when I notice a couple of awkward sentences. Reading aloud, I discover, is necessary for a nonnative speaker. Despite my embarrassing mistakes the women are very encouraging and start to list the good things in my story. Then they encourage me to revise the plot to make it more appealing to an editor. None mentions the fact that my English is a work-in-progress, textbook-English really. I feel stupid and I wonder if this is why the women kept quiet about my mistakes. Years later, I will often meet other writers who will avoid telling me about my mistakes. I wish they had not. Writing in a foreign language is a humble task.
  • Living in the US where French is a foreign language has made me a permanent stranger in this land. Away from my mother language, I feel at the same time weightless and weighed down. This is a strange feeling to be always aware of this difference that separates me from native speakers. The result creates a distance within me.
  • In 2016, I read more in English than in French. Yet when I read in French I instantly immerse myself not only in familiar words but moreover in the familiarity of a culture I know inside and out. No dictionary translates a collective memory. This abandon is only possible with one’s mother tongue, I believe. French remains my dominant language. Especially noticeable whenever and wherever I meet a French speaker. The words I acquired in France until the age of thirty flow then effortlessly. I wonder where they reside when I don’t use them. A feeling of comfort fills me when I speak my mother language, quickly followed by a feeling of loneliness. I never feel as free when I express myself in English. I know I will always feel self-conscious when I speak English.
  • A new language remains almost impossible to master in adulthood. It’s a sad fact that I experience every day of my life. But there is also delight when I search for a word and work on a sentence. This delight could last until the end of your life, I realize and the thought makes me happy.Growing up shy and quiet Evelyne Holingue preferred books to people. Her life shifted when she and her husband left France from the US.

As a child Evelyne  loved escaping the familiar for the unknown through fiction. Being a foreigner is living the unknown day after day, not only for the time of a book, and this American life is pretty close to the adventures she enjoyed so much. She has published short stories and essays for both children and adults and two novels for children. Through her writing she shares her affection for her native and adoptive lands.

  • Website/blog: http://www.evelyneholingue.com
  • Facebook and Goodreads (both accessible from her website/blog
  • Contact e-mail: evelyne@holingue.com  

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One thought on “Guest Post: Writing in a Second Language

  1. Thank you so much, Judith. I missed this post, only because it was almost the holiday season and I had my family around. I’m so sorry for having missed it. I love what you’ve done with the illustrations. Thank you again for inviting me over.

    Like

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