It can be difficult enough to find ample time to write between work, chores, exercise, and a million other little things that take up my day. Studying a second language on top of all these things only makes it more difficult.
For a little background, I moved from the U.K. to Finland in 2014 so my husband could study for a master’s degree in his home country. Since then, I have been studying the Finnish language on a near-daily basis in hopes of eventually gaining citizenship.
My only previous experience with foreign languages is obligatory French classes in school over 10 years ago, so it has been a real challenge to take on one of the more difficult European languages. I once heard somebody describe Finnish as “drunken elvish,” which is an accurate description. For instance, the Finnish phrase for “goodnight” is “hyvää yö,” which is pronounced as “hoover ooh-oh,” and difficult for me to get out.
Being a professional writer has only made it harder, since the English language is such an important part of my job. It can be incredibly jarring to go from writing in English to learning how an entirely different language works.
Although my studies have reduced the amount of time I would ideally like to spend writing each day, and it is a challenge to try and perfect two entirely different languages at the same time, in some ways it has been a surprising benefit to my writing. I’ve also noticed that many of the rules of language learning can also be applied to writing.
I think every foreign language student has experienced this situation at some point. You enter into a conversation with a native speaker of your target language and spin off the phrases that you have spent hours practicing in your lessons—only for the native speaker to look at you strangely and wonder why you are speaking so formally.
Textbooks and course materials tend to teach the formal version of the language, even though there is a stark difference between written language and spoken language, and between different regional dialects. For example, to order two beers in formal Finnish, you’d say “Haluaisin kaksi olut, pyydän?” while in informal Finnish, which the barman would expect you to speak, is only “kaks olut.”
The same is true in writing. Written dialogue would sound stilted and awkward spoken out loud, while regular speech would be full of “ums,” “ahs,” and redundancy if it were written down as it is spoken. So, it is important to find the right balance between natural-sounding dialogue and dialogue that is easy to read.
Learning this reminded me how important it is to remember the difference when writing character dialogue. A rich English gentleman is going to speak very differently than a poor Welsh farmer, for instance.
But keep in mind the character’s colloquial dialect, local phrases, and the formality of their speech as you write them and they will sound much more authentic.
When I first began my studies, I was a little disheartened when I would spend ages learning a new word or phrase only to have completely forgotten it the next day. I worried that there was something wrong with me and that I was never going to learn any Finnish if I couldn’t memorize even the simplest of words.
I felt better once I found out a little more about how long- and short-term memory works. As World Language Classroom explains, new vocabulary is initially stored in the short-term memory, then transferred to the long-term memory after consistent study and practice. This is why I can easily name all the items from the grocery store that I buy regularly, yet I can’t recall the new vocabulary words I learned yesterday.
Writing skills work in a similar way. A few years ago, I was so caught up in my job that I completely neglected my writing. So, when I did finally come back to it, I found it was severely lacking, even though I had earned high grades for my creative writing degree.
The problem wasn’t that I had suddenly become a bad writer. I had simply neglected my writing for so long that my skills had become rusty. Once I started writing daily, my skills quickly began to improve again, to the point that I am now able to write as a career. It is similar to how I seem to forget all of my Finnish whenever I visit my family in the U.K. But once I’ve spent a few days back in Finland, it all comes flooding back.
So, whether studying a foreign language or writing a novel, consistent practice over a long-term period is essential for keeping up your skills.
I’ve mentioned already what a difficult language Finnish is to learn, especially for a newbie. The sheer amount of different word types, tenses, and participles makes me want to cry sometimes. For instance, there are 15 different types of tenses and 10 different ways to make a word plural. You can understand why it can make me so frustrated.
It was no surprise that my initial attempts to learn Finnish on my own didn’t go well. It was only once I had the money to hire an online tutor and began regular lessons that my Finnish begin to really improve. I had an experienced teacher who could explain all the complex grammar rules to me and help me to actually be understood by Finnish speakers.
The same applies to writing. I doubt I would’ve reached my current level of writing skill if I didn’t have a creative writing degree and a circle of tutors and fellow students to provide feedback for my writing and help me to improve it. Today, I still have a supportive community of writers on Reddit threads like r/writing and writing forums who can answer my questions and provide feedback whenever I need it. It is a much better approach than going it alone.
Studying a language goes far beyond the classroom. Since the ultimate goal of my studies is to be understood by people in the country I live in, interacting with native Finns is just as important to my studies as reviewing the material in my textbook.
It is a little more difficult for me, since I work from home and because I am always so nervous about my Finnish being terrible that I avoid using it, even when I should. Sometimes, even buying a bus ticket to “Joensuu keskusta” (Joensuu town center) can be an ordeal, as is understanding the thick local accents. Yet overcoming this fear and practicing my Finnish, as awful as it may be at the moment, has done more for my studies than anything else.
Once again, the same is true for writing. Perhaps I am a bit of a hypocrite for saying this as a work-from-home introvert who spends far too much time online, but staying inside writing all day isn’t all there is to being a writer. If you want to write about real people and real situations, then you need to get away from the desk sometimes.
Whether it’s through travel, a day job, volunteer work, hobbies, or simply daily socializing, interacting with others can benefit your writing and provide you with inspiration for new stories and characters.
An understated benefit of studying a foreign language is the glimpse it gives you into an unfamiliar way of life and its culture and language. Obviously, you don’t need to study a language to learn about and appreciate another culture, but constant exposure to it gives you a wholly different insight and even a free education in a different way of life.
Writing can be a lonely occupation and it is easy to become stuck in a bubble and only gain exposure to your own surroundings. Moving abroad and learning about Finland has not only given me new ideas for fiction, but it has also provided me with many new opportunities in my freelance writing career. If it hadn’t been for my move, I never would have found an 18-month writing job with The Culture Trip, writing articles about Finland and learning even more about the fascinating country.
For instance, if I had never studied the Finnish language, I probably would never have found out about the Kalevala, a book of poetry based upon Finnish oral folk tales. If I hadn’t read it, I probably would have never found out about the famous Finnish monster Iku-Turso, a giant kraken-like creature. This gave me the idea to use Iku-Turso in my current work-in-progress pirate adventure story, as a unique alternative to a kraken or giant squid.
I know how difficult it can be to find time to write with so many other things going on in our daily lives. So, I am not saying that you absolutely have to study a new language to become a better writer, especially considering the years of study and practice it takes to become even semi-fluent.
However, if you are in a situation where you have to study a language, or if you simply enjoy it as a hobby, it can benefit your writing. Looking at the way your target language is constructed and the way that native speakers talk can help you gain a deeper understanding of your native language. Paying attention to the culture, customs, and literature of your target language gives you a unique insight that will help to make your writing more original.
Studying a language and writing are both a hard grind that requires years of constant practice and, at times, it can be tempting to give it all up. Yet if you keep at them with daily practice, you can master them both. Onnea (good luck)!
Jessica is a British freelance arts and culture writer with a degree in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and now living and working in Finland with her husband, who is also a writer. She has previously had work published in The Bath Chronicle, Re:Fiction, Blueink Review, and The Culture Trip. You can see more of her work at woodthewriter.com and doorwayintootherworlds.tumblr.com.