What it is like to write when you are ESL (English as a Second Language)

The idea of writing a book is exciting and daunting at the same time. But writing a book in a language that is not your mother tongue can add even more stress to the already overwhelming task. I’ve been in the US pretty much since Senior Year in High School, so by now, I think, count and dream in English (though I still check the temperature in Celsius vs. Fahrenheit). So, it felt very natural for me to write Justification for Murder in English.

One of the most frustrating situations I come across while writing in English is when I know the word in Spanish, but I can’t think of it in English. Checking Google Translate only works sometimes. Normally, if I can’t find the right translation, I keep the word in Spanish (in caps and red font), so I can easily find it later when I finally remember the word in English. Sometimes I just change the sentence, so I can use a different word altogehter.

Some other times, and this is worse, there’s no word for what I have in mind. This happens rarely, but it almost makes me want to keep the word in Spanish because the sentiment, what I’m trying to say, is so perfectly expressed by that word that I don’t want to miss it. Of course, I can’t do that.

Then, there is grammar. There are many things I just don’t seem to be able to get it right. For example, I can never figure out when to use “in” or “on.” I really don’t understand why you are “in” a car, but “on” the bus. Uh?? Or other rules that I already forgot from my college days. For example, in Spanish, we put the period outside the quotes, in English, it’s placed inside. In Spanish, a sentence can go on and on forever, in English you create run-on sentences.

The one thing that I used to have a huge problem with when I was learning English (not so much now, or in my writing, though) are made up expressions. Each culture has their own. Some translate almost literally (better a bird in the hand than two in the bush, or in Spanish you say Mejor un pajaro en mano que cientos volando (better a bird in the hand than hundreds flying). Others have the same meaning, but the saying is completely different (The Spanish expression for ”the straw that broke the camel’s back” is La gota que colmo el vaso (the drop that caused the glass of water to overflow). And finally, others don’t have any equivalents (or at least none that I’ve found yet, like a caballo regalado no le mires el dentado (literally not to look a gift horse in the teeth). Or another one like no te hagas el sueco, which comes to mean something like don’t act dumb.)

As an ESL writer, you have to be more diligent, maybe not while you write, but certainly while you edit. I strongly recommend getting professional help (paid or otherwise) if at all possible. It will help you learn and it will make your work more solid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *