Monday, August 1, 2016

Writing is a foreign language

Henriette Browne, The Pet Goldfinch (1870)

In ten years’ time, barring another big move, I will have spent more time in an English-speaking country than in the one where my native language is spoken. This is already the case for the majority of my adult life. Yet English isn’t now, nor will be then, or ever, the language in which I’m most fluent in. I know for instance that I will never lose my accent, or learn to consistently pronounce correctly everyday words like home and phone. More importantly, even as I think in English when I speak the language – it starts happening quite early in a learner’s life – this thinking will never stop being affected by the deeper structures I learned in my childhood, and around which my very idea of what a language is was moulded. Those are and will always be the structures of the Italian language.

There is a slightly bitter corollary to this rule: while my second language will stop getting better, if it hasn’t already, I have to work hard to ensure that my first one doesn’t get worse. Aside from personal and cultural considerations, writing in good Italian is how I make a large portion of my living, and so I can’t afford for it to become rusty, or for English idioms to seep into it. I had to pay less attention to this problem before my mother passed away, as regular phone conversations with a retired intermediate school teacher disinclined to overlook the slightest misuse of the subjunctive tense is exactly the kind of exercise I needed. Over the last two years, however, I’ve had to replace that practice with others, and set aside specific times for a somewhat artificial immersion in the way my language is spoken now, back in the home country.

Writing, though. Writing is a different business.

Learning to speak a foreign language as a young adult or beyond is a humbling experience, forcing us to speak in short sentences, either in the present or the infinitive, like colonists trying to talk to the natives in an old, racist cartoon. But this is also how we learn to write in our first language. We practice forming letters instead of sounds. Then they ask us to write down simple sentences, over and over again. And to read those strange signs, and to convert them back into syllable and words. Aloud, first, then silently in our heads.

I remember what it was like to learn to write at school, and I’ve seen the same laborious process during my children’s education. The superficial similarities of a piece of writing when it is read out loud with speech may fool us into thinking they’re the same language. They are not. We learn to speak by being around other speakers, and barring certain disabilities and conditions most people are highly fluent speakers. Some individuals are more articulate than others, or have a larger vocabulary or a clearer speaking voice: but the language is there, perfectly formed. My formal education lasted two decades but I don’t speak my native tongue any better than my grandmother did hers (the Mantuan dialect) after leaving school at the age of 8 or 9. However, while she was able to read, she could barely write. And not just because ‘writing’ meant writing in Italian as opposed to the dialect. She wouldn’t have known where to begin writing in Mantuan.

What this means in practice is that even as English will never be my first language, neither is my written Italian, and so my written English some day might catch up, because after all they’re both foreign seeing as there is nothing ‘natural’ about writing, whereas a spoken language – what did Darwin call it? An art that we learn by instinct. That’s the distinction.

All of this is very obvious, I know, probably too obvious to bother blogging about. But I was reminded of the distinction as I was reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a flawed but intriguing book in which the author tried to reinvent herself not as an American writer writing in Italian, but as an Italian writer. Of course there is a long tradition of major writers writing in a language other than their own. Beckett – who wrote in France, in French – claimed that it enabled him to ‘write without style’. I don’t know that one could look at Beckett’s plays and say that they have no style, but perhaps it’s more of a question of estrangement, of shedding the poetic, literary influences and habits that reverberated through his language, and replace them with others over which he could exercise a different sort of control.

Lahiri goes further: she wants to write not just in the Italian language but through Italian culture, for Italian publishers and an Italian audience. As I wrote in a review for The Spinoff, there is an evident if somewhat perplexing desire to undo her past and rewrite her future career. But then maybe sometimes that is why we travel, or move halfway across the world: to shed our past and rewrite our future, with or without the mediation of another language. To the extent that Lahiri ultimately failed, it may be because her desire was too urgent, and she went ahead before her new skin was quite ready. Perhaps next time she’ll fail better.

I think of my own writing, and how it was my high school teacher of Italian who really taught me to write in English, by teaching me rhetoric: that is to say how to structure an argument, and above all that prose, too, has its melody and rhythms, like poetry and music. That kind of training is good for any language. And now sometimes I find that it helps, too, to write about my childhood or my family or my culture in a language other than my own, to reorder the words in which I remember things, and find new terms to come to terms with all of that.