A Bilingual Challenge.

Earlier this year I posted about writers who publish in languages other than their own; John Cowan sent me a link to this piece by Francois Grosjean about writing a book in one of the two languages he’s fluent in:

The actual writing process was far harder than I had imagined even though I write French without any problem and have lectured in that language for the last twenty years. I quickly realized that my writing style, very much influenced by my years of writing in English, simply had to become more French. I usually write short sentences with few clauses but written French requires far longer sentences with many subordinate clauses. In addition, written French usually takes on an impersonal, rather formal, tone. For example, I simply didn’t feel I could give personal examples the way I do in English.

I also left out people’s testimonies which have their place in non-fiction prose in English. Thus, at the beginning of my book Bilingual: Life and Reality, I describe the many bilinguals I had met on a particular morning–the baker’s wife, my garage mechanic, even children in the local day-care across from where I live. I didn’t feel this would be appropriate for French-speaking readers, and so I opted to start with the bilingualism of famous French people such as Napoleon (his first language was Corsican and he only learned French at age six), the famous researcher and Nobel laureate, Marie Curie, who was originally Polish but had done all her work in France, as well as the bilingual writer Samuel Beckett, also a Nobel prize winner, who wrote his books in both English and French.

There’s plenty more good stuff in there (e.g., “On the level of vocabulary, written French has a tendency to use unfamiliar, rather specialized, terms which must not be repeated too soon after having been used. Writers have to find ways around this either by using pronouns or finding synonyms”); thanks, John!


  1. That is actually quite fascinating. These cross-cultural/linguistic differences in writing seem to be one of the most interesting but poorly explored areas of language use. Not subjective, stereotyped treatments (you find a lot of these in Japan), but specific observations from a person who actually wrote in two languages. His decision to take examples from history rather than his immediate environs was very telling. Such are the details on which whole cultures are built!

  2. I agree!

  3. I have been influenced by Arabic in my English writing. Good Arabic links sentences with various words like conjunctions, prepositions, adverbs, etc. such that punctuation is not required. In fact there is a book on just this subject for ASL learners (Aduwat arRabat ‘linking tools’). As a result, of striving to write coherent Arabic, I found myself more often beginning English sentences with conjunctions and the like.

  4. David Weman says

    This seems to have a lot to do with literary culture, and not a lot to do with language. And what he sees as the French approach seems like (generally speaking, of course) a change for the worse in any language.

  5. David Weman, why? How personal anecdotes as an illustration of some abstract concept are better than anecdotes about famous people? Or maybe it’s shorter sentences that are better than longer ones? Or some stylistic constrains on word repetition?

  6. The next post is up: it’s a guest post by Aneta Pavlenko about Nabokov’s three versions of his memoir (English, Russian, English), and mentions some more recent research about how memories are tagged with a specific language and hard to get back in another language.

    Mental operations are also tagged: my mother could never do arithmetic in anything but German despite coming here at age 12 and speaking perfect American English in all ways but the phonological, and there are bilingual mathematicians who do arithmetic in one language, higher math in another. I myself, qua oligoglot, find it almost impossible to read 23 as anything but “twenty-three” even when embedded in German or French.

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