The Art of Story: Improve Your Writing By Learning Another Language
Staff Writer By: Michael Haase
Want to improve your writing? Learn another language!
Writing, as with any intense activity, is best performed after a good warm up. Your brain is about to produce a story, poem, or anything else creative from scratch. Your fingers need to warm up, your mind needs to get into writing mode, and your body needs to get used to whatever position it will stay in over the next few minutes...or hours.
I find it best not to launch right into my story or main project immediately after sitting down to write. It feels heavier and more like a chore if I don't warm up with another activity first. Personally, I am focused on writing a novel, and I used to warm up with a quick poem or limerick...something to get the fingers moving across the keyboard...to get the mind in the mood.
But now I've found that studying a language before writing is a most excellent way to become a better writer, and here are nine reasons why:
1) It's free.
There is a remarkable program online called DuoLingo (www.duolingo.com). It is a completely free website for learning another language. Once you create an account, you can study anywhere at any time, as there is also a free mobile app. The languages offered include Spanish, German, French, Welsh, Russian, and eleven other completed courses. There are 27 courses in all, with some of them being under construction and in a beta phase. Users can contribute to the construction of these courses (they are even working on a Klingon course right now). And DuoLingo is quite extensive. Each language is packed with skills for individual practice, which includes writing, translating, and pronunciation (with your microphone on your computer or mobile device active). DuoLingo also offers comprehensive quizzes, immersion projects for translating articles on the internet, and an extremely user-friendly interface.
2) It will challenge your perspective on language.
What makes writing interesting and beautiful is how the individual author uses their language within their prose. Sometimes the rules of the English language can seem restrictive. But after playing around with the different verb tenses and sentence formations of another language, your mind begins to accept the fact that there are nearly endless ways to express yourself. Plus, while learning another language, you begin to find the words that are similar between tongues, giving your brain quicker access to synonyms and other descriptors you might not have thought about otherwise. In a similar vein, some words are so completely different in other languages that seeing and hearing a simple sentence become something 100% new will remove any previous boredom regarding that sentence. It is wonderful to still have an appreciation for simpler words and phrases.
3) It will demonstrate new rhythms of speaking.
Rhythm is important in writing. If the cadence is too dull or repetitive in your work, then the reader will become bored and lose focus. Making the words flow in a pattern that is pleasing to read is a talent that must be honed in order to become a quality writer. Each language has its own natural rhythm and tonal structure, and learning another language is similar to learning an old song on a brand new instrument. Everything is suddenly brand new.
4) It's not that difficult.
With DuoLingo, the lessons are already set out for you. You just open up the program and click on whatever skill you want to either learn or improve upon. The interface is extremely user friendly, and they have rewards and achievements to keep you motivated along the way.
5) It will force your fingers to operate the keyboard in a different way.
This seems silly to say if you are a proficient typist, however, all skills have room for improvement. Typing letters in different arrangements with new punctuation and capitalization is a good way to make typing in your native tongue seem effortless. Face it, once you've mastered putting um lauts and tildes in their proper places, then typing a simple English language story will become all the more simple to do.
6) You will gain new perspective on old idioms and proverbs.
DuoLingo has a neat way of introducing the perspective of the speakers of other languages by demonstrating their sentence structure and word choice. It's quite fun, actually. For example, in Spanish, "Let bygones be bygones" is said as "Borrón y cuenta nueva," which is closer to "new inkblot and check." Interesting, right?
7) It will improve your awareness of your own language.
The skills in DuoLingo are separated mostly into the the different existing parts of speech. Because of these divisions, the user gains an increased awareness of the different parts of speech of their own language. With skill divisions such as determiners, participles, future perfect, and verbs: modal, the user indirectly gets lessons regarding the many pieces and perspectives that make up the English language as well as a foreign language.
8) It opens up the world.
As a writer, keeping an awareness and an appreciation for multiple perspectives is imperative. Language is the basis for all communication, and communication is the basis of world interpretation. When creating characters for a story, each character must have their own voice, background, and perspective in order to seem genuine. Learning another language is an excellent exercise in perspective that is not offered any other way.
9) You will learn another language.
With time and dedicated study, you might actually find yourself being able to communicate with millions of other people around the world that were impossible to communicate with previously. Americans are particularly bad about expecting everyone else to know how to speak their own language, and American writers could benefit from the loss of a comfort zone that comes with speaking in another language altogether. As a writer, you feel comfortable with words, but replace your set of vocabulary with another completely different set, then what you have is a challenge that is worth accepting.
With its user friendly interface, high level of availability, constantly updated lessons, and lack of a price tag, I highly recommend using DuoLingo to augment your writing. The lessons are all very short, and the site allows for setting goals that are small in order to fit any timetable or lifestyle. The only recommendation they make is that you dedicate to practicing as often as you can, preferably daily. Specifically as a writer, forcing your mind to work in another language will only make your brain stronger and increase your vocabulary and ability to write. There are no drawbacks to learning a foreign language.
I got into the habit of spending 10-15 minutes prior to a writing session studying Spanish with DuoLingo. 81 days later, I feel the need to run a few lessons to get my brain loose before a writing session. Using the website has helped me tremendously, and I have even started reading my first Spanish-language book. Perhaps one day I'll feel confident enough to write in Spanish! You never know until you try.
Below is a video introducing DuoLingo and its benefits for those who are interested.