writing when English is not your mother tongue

I experienced nirvana Wednesday evening with my small writing class. When I called time for the five-minute freewriting prompt, they protested. They wanted more time. Is there any more celestial music to a writing teacher’s ears than her students’ clamor to keep writing? I think not.

Several of these students talked about the challenges they face writing in English when Spanish is their mother tongue. They talked about not being able to find the right word. When they wrote in Spanish, they found the words they wanted. Those words were richer, more evocative–righter. I know “righter” is not a word, but it seems to fit here.

And “righter” reminds me of a story my dad told just a few years ago. His mother, a Palestinian who spoke English with a rich Arabic accent and who taught her granddaughters songs in French, a language she knew better than English, used to say when they were in traffic: “Let that car go ahead. They have the righter way.” In a world of perfect Oxford-dictionary English, my grandmother would have said, “They have the right of way.”

But you know what? Her phrase makes more sense. She uses a non-word, a neologism, and it’s more economic than “right of way,” sounds better, is logical, and a bit poetic.

And that’s the gift that non-native speakers of English own–a built-in, ready-made, linguistic transformer that creates new words, sounds, content, syntax. Don’t misunderstand: I do not belittle the challenges of writing in another language. I’ve done it. It ain’t easy. I don’t belittle the challenges of living in a culture whose language you don’t know well. And I don’t belittle the pain that linguistic chauvinism visits on too many Americans who speak with accents or limited fluency in English: How do you navigate a  culture that denigrates or represses your mother tongue?

I grew up in a time when learning another language marked someone as educated. These days, we’re lucky if the public school has an art program, let alone a few years of Spanish or French, Latin or German, or even Arabic or Japanese.

So let me name some writers who have written in a language other than their native language. Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, a novel considered by a number of scholars as one of the top ten written in English, knew English as his third language; Polish was his mother tongue and French came second. Another Polish-born writer, Anzia Yezierska, wrote her novels in American English and incorporated Yiddish into her stories of life in New York’s Lower East Side. A more contemporary author, Judith Ortiz Cofer was born in Puerto Rico and publishes in her second language, English. A novelist, poet, and young adult writer, Ortiz Cofer’s collection of essays called Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer is an inspiring read.

And Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist who just died last March and wrote a central piece of criticism on Conrad’s novel (“An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), wrote not in his mother tongue, Igbo, but in the language of the colonizers, English. And he reveled in the transformations his Igbo-shaped writing would contribute to literature written in English.

Let me end with some wisdom on language from the great Jamaican poet, Louise Bennett, in her poem, “Bans O’ Killing” (“Lots of Killing”), which responds to a threat to kill Jamaican English by detailing what would happen to the English language if dialect were killed off:

Yuh wi haffe kill de Lancashire

De Yorkshire, de Cockney

De broad Scotch an de Irish brogue

Before yuh start kill me!


Yuh wi haffe get de Oxford book

O’ English verse, an tear

Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle

An plenty o’ Shakespeare!


When yuh done kill “wit” an “humour”

When yuh kill “Variety”

Yuh wi haffe fine a way fe kill





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