I’m studying Dutch. It’s my father’s language but I never learned it as a child and now I’m trying to go back to my roots. I just got back from a four-day trip to Amsterdam and 16 hours of intensive one-to-one training. It made me think about how learning another language has helped me write English better.
Why learning another language helps
Remember simple words. When you start learning another language you have to focus on the basic words first. Everyday words, such as get, use, give and take, are the most important and easiest to understand. This means that they are also the easiest for people to read. Learning Dutch has taught me a new respect for these direct words.
Write for everyone. My teachers have to use the basic words and familiar sentence structures to talk to me but when I read the Dutch papers they are full of specialist words and complicated sentence structures. They are much harder for me to understand. Writing for everyone means writing in a way that everyone can understand; not clever talk for insiders. It doesn’t mean dumbing down but even people with degrees in English literature from Oxford University don’t have time to waste on over-complex writing.
Tell a story. In Dutch many of my sentences begin with ‘toen ik’ (‘When I…’) and they are the beginning of a story. Human beings are story-telling animals and, even in technical or business writing, stories are important. Writing needs development, progress and careful control of suspense. But all this easy to forget that so learning another is a helpful reminder.
Be a beginner. While I was in Amsterdam, my teacher took her first Russian lesson. I asked her why and she said that she hoped it would make her a better teacher. Remembering the experience of being a beginner - of coming to something new for the first time - is scary and humbling. But it is also exciting because of all the possibilities that exist. I think the best writing has this sense of excitement. It takes nothing for granted. It brings to mind Shunryu Suzuki’s observation that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Respect your teacher. When I learned to fly, I found it very hard to take lessons. I was then the boss of quite a big company and I was used to being the ‘big man’. But over time, I learned that having a teacher wasn’t humbling but ennobling. It’s the same with Dutch. I like my teachers (in the UK, Fen Dohmen and in Amsterdam teachers from the University of Amsterdam - UVA Talen) and I think that I learn more than Dutch from them. So when it comes to writing, perhaps I need to adopt the same attitude by reading what other people have said about writing. (I like Writing to Deadline a lot.) I learned a lot from Matthew Rock, my editor when I wrote for Real Business and from other editors at Wired, Popular Science and other magazines. I sort of miss that input now I’m on the marketing side.
Continuous improvement. Sometimes I’m depressed by the fact that I’m not fluent yet but I get a bit better with every lesson and with every visit to Holland. Doing is as important as learning. This is also true of writing. I’m a better writer today than I was five years ago and I hope I can keep improving.
Regular effort. The secret to continuous improvement is regular (daily) effort. I’m not sure you can really call yourself a writer if you don’t write every day, for example.
Get a new perspective. The Dutch languages plays around with my expectations of how sentences should fit together and how grammar works. For example, it’s much more common to use the present tense when you would use the future tense in English. I have to stop myself writing that way but the new perspective forces me to think harder about forms and structures that I take for granted. This thinking is the antidote to clichés.
Recognise roadblocks for what they are. When I don’t know a word in Dutch I have to try to talk my way around it. It’s the same with writing. If there isn’t an obvious way to say something, I have to find some other way to make the point. The problem is that getting around a roadblock this way often makes me write lazy prose. I use the passive voice or write clunky things like ‘that means…’. Learning another language makes it easier to think about these roadblocks and that is the first step finding new ways to get around them without clichés.
Don’t be shy. Just open the door. It’s difficult sometimes to write. Perhaps you feel a bit shy or nervous. Sometimes, my self-censor stops saying anything. It’s just the same with speaking another language. Just open the door and go through. Open de deur en ga door!