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Writing in a language that is not your mother tongue

Updated on August 18, 2011

A Challenge


English is not my native language. I started writing in English after having ordered pork chops and steak at a local Flemish butcher. A few hours earlier, I had passed my practical English grammar exam at the local university. Luckily, the man possessed a sense of humour … After that glorious day I have written most of my poetry and short stories in my favourite language, English. I was 19 at the time.

Though Dutch is my native language, I still write in English. I am very much aware that it is not my native language and that there are a few elements to consider while writing in English.

First off all, when writing in English, I think in English. In my viewpoint, this is a very important element. Whenever I am thinking in Dutch and try writing in English, I either find myself searching for words or making literal translations of Dutch words that make no so sense whatever when used in English.

Since I left university in 1984, I have not stopped studying or using English. I dare say, in some ways, I am more proficient in English now than I was at university. Practice makes perfect. Not only your diploma or qualifications are important but also what you do with them after your graduation. E.g. graduating with distinction has no purpose, if you do not make the effort to keep up with the evolution a language goes through over the years.

Languages are very much alive, just as alive as the people that use them as a means of communication. Words that were fashionable 20 years ago may be obsolete today. As for spelling: over the years, I discovered that the spelling of the English language is very consistent. Other languages have undergone spelling reforms during the 1st decade of the 21st century: Dutch (twice) and German (once).

Also, always check on spelling and grammar and when you do take this effort, do not rely on the built in spell checkers of your word processor or browser. They can be useful, but they do not contain all the words and spelling rules there are. Very often, a text without any green or red lines may still be full of little errors. When in doubt, use an up to date explanatory dictionary or a grammar manual. The times I only relied on the spell checkers, I ended up with a text full of beginner’s mistakes and matching red cheeks. Sometimes you will find that the words underlined in green or red are not spelled wrong. At times, your vocabulary is bigger than the computer’s!

These are my ground rules. I try to abide by those rules, sometimes I try to rush things and when I do sin against my own rules, I later on find out that I have made some avoidable mistakes.

Do I ever write in Dutch? Yes I do. When I do write in Dutch, I abide by the same rules I just have listed. When it comes to spelling, I have to be more attentive in Dutch than I am in English (remember the spelling reforms).

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