Learning languages is one of my not-so-secret passions. I speak Spanish and Catalan (a little known language in certain regions of Spain), as well as a little French, and I’m currently learning Korean (plus planning on learning Chinese in the future). As intimidating as learning a language can sometimes be, the investment is well worth it in the end. Apart from being able to understand another part of the world and way of being, it can actually make you a better writer! It’s already well known to ward off Alzheimer’s and being good for the brain, but let’s talk about how we can use it to help us out as writers.
It helps you with planning, prioritizing, and decision-making
Studies actually show that learning a language helps you make better decisions, approach things more logically, and problem-solve better.
These kinds of skills are essential for a any writer planning or plotting for their story. Anyone that spends the better hour of their day trying to figure out how to dance around plot holes can attest to this (I’m looking at you, fantasy/sci-fi writers). And if you think about it, it makes sense. When you’re learning a language, you learn how to translate what you’re thinking into another language. A lot of times, the words in your head won’t be translatable into the language you’re trying to speak, and you have to find the closest thing in that language. Problem solving like that on the spot is a valuable practice. You’ll be used to thinking around your problem quickly, and flow on to the next one much smoother.
You get a new perspective in constructing sentences
When you learn another language, you learn another way of formulating sentences. That’s a given, no matter what language you learn. Every language has their own nuances.
Spanish and English are similar in that they have Latin roots, but something new learners will find intimidating is the concept of conjugating verbs. What does that mean? In English we only change verbs very slightly, so slightly you barely notice you do it. You don’t say “I runs” you say “I run”. You only use “runs” if you have “he/she” behind it. “He runs.” However, in Spanish, you have to change the verb depending on if the pronoun just before it is “he/she”, “they/them”, “I”, or “we”. Not to mention the fact that the past tense version of the verb depends on if you just did it a minute ago, if you did it yesterday, or if you used to do it years ago (yes, it’s that complicated.) Don’t even get me started on the gendered words.
If you’re learning Chinese, sure, you have to memorize thousands of different characters to be able to read, but there’s no conjugation for verbs at all (not even for past tense), and the grammar structure isn’t that different from English, neither are there gendered words to worry about. However, you know how a bunch of crows is a murder? And a group of geese is a gaggle? Well, you have “quantifying words” for everything in Chinese, in classes of paper, people, objects than can be held, grains, and many, many more (same goes for Korean. Weep for me.)
Why am I telling you all of this? Because once you’ve accepted the concept of an orange being “feminine” and the fact that you have a spread sheet several pages long for quantifying words in Chinese, you’re already thinking in terms you’ve never thought in before. It expands your perspective on your mother tongue. You’ll be able to be more creative in your descriptions, because the way you describe things in that second language will be totally different. You now have a mirrored view of your way to think, at least two ways to solve problems to have at your disposal. It’s an invaluable skill to have in prose as well.
So get cracking trying to figure out how to say “two servings of soup” in Chinese or whether when you ran was just now, yesterday, or if you used to run and now no longer do in Spanish.
You’ll multitask better
Multitasking is a huge asset for me in writing. Being able to hop between editing, writing, and brainstorming for different projects helps me keep a fresh perspective in my works. Even if you don’t work on multiple projects, life happens, and being able to switch between cooking, cleaning, studies, work, or whatever in order to get back to writing can be essential to just keeping up the habit of doing it.
Well guess what? Learning a new language makes you a better multitasker.
Essentially, someone that speaks two languages will speak one language to someone who understands that language, and another to someone else. But they hardly ever make mistakes between the two. If someone that is bilingual is speaking to someone that has those languages in common, they may switch for a word or two that expresses their thought better, but they rarely do it in the presence of someone that wouldn’t understand.
In the United States, if you’re not raised multilingual, you’re never confronted with having to learn another language until a lot later in life than in other first world countries. So when I came to Europe was the first time I realized how people that grew up learning English so easily switch to English for terms that don’t exist in their language. It’s just such common practice, sometimes they use it more than the equivalent word in their own native tongue.
Learning a new language will give you exercise in mental juggling. Adjusting to the situation you’re in and switching languages gives you ground training on boot-camp multi-tasking. Ever had trouble switching from math homework to English? Try switching from “I ran” to “yo corro”, “tu corres”, “El corre”, “ellos corren”, and “nosotros corremos”. And don’t even get me started on if anyone did any running yesterday.
You’ll be better at grammar
You know, when you’re writing up a spreadsheet full of quantifying words and different ways to run, it makes you all of a sudden more attentive to the word structure of your own language. Grammar mistakes happen a lot less often because you’re used to constantly correcting yourself in another language. And if you ever confused “they’re”, “there”, and “their”, believe me, you’ll never do it again when you realize that all of them are “ellos son”, “allí”, and “(de) ellos” in Spanish.
You’ll look at contracted words (like I just used, “you’ll”, any word with an apostrophe in it) differently when you realize that the French regularly chop off vowels in all words short enough with vowels back to back (You know my pain if you understand the difference between saying “a l’hotel” and “au restaurant”).
Trust me, figuring out the nuances of other languages makes you sigh in relief whenever you get to go back to reading, writing, and speaking in your own. All of a sudden “they’re”, “there”, and “their” don’t seem so bad.
You have a bunch of new books to read
When I reached the point of being able to read books in Spanish, it was like receiving some kind of achievement award. It was the apex of me learning another language.
And let me tell you, I thought reading a book in another language was just like reading it in English, but no. Not at all. Word choice, prose, even writing rules like passive and active wording, or “show, don’t tell”, all of those things apply completely differently when it’s another language. It’s amazing to see how good writing is accomplished in a language you don’t speak, and it’s very, very inspiring.
Not to mention that you unlock a slew of books that aren’t translated in English to read. Things that are classics and common knowledge to native speakers is brand new to you, and it’s worth looking into.
So, where do you start in learning a language?
Heard about the great benefits of learning a language and want to know how to start?
Well, this post is already getting long enough, but I can recommend the sources I’ve used to learn, and I’ve been complimented several times by natives that my speaking skills are pretty good, so 😆
- Duolingo (This one is pretty well known already, and if you’re learning common European languages like Spanish, French, or German, they’ve had a lot of time to perfect the program. Other, more recently added languages like Korean, Japanese, and Chinese are still in their beta stages, and are a little fast, at least to me. But I usually use more than one program to help me learn languages. However, one of the biggest advantages to Duolingo is a community you can ask for anything you’re stuck on)
- LingoDeer (This is my favorite language learning app for Asian languages. They have a wonderful way of teaching you how to read and write, and their pronunciation is accurate because they use native speakers to actually speak the words. This is an app, so it isn’t available on the web, unfortunately. But they recently released app games that also help you learn, and they are FUN)
- Drops (This is an app that’s better for vocabulary than for actually learning how to hold a conversation, but it’s great for memorizing things quickly, and it only takes five minutes to use. Literally)
I might go more into how I learned the languages I speak in another post, but for now this should give you a good enough start.