Literary Works Written In a Second Language

When consulting various examples of French literature through the ages, an interesting phenomenon reveals itself: many of the novels, plays and other literary works we consider as belonging to the French national canon are actually written by foreign authors, and by this I do not only mean Francophone authors. Romanian, Russians, Britons and Czechs, for example, have all chosen to write literary works in French than in their native tongue. For example, Ionesco, a Romanian playwright, wrote his absurdist works such as La Canatrice chauve (1950), La Leçon (1951) and Rhinocéros (1959) in French rather than his native Romanian. What motivates an author’s choice of literary language? Why did Ionesco, and so many others, choose to write in a language that was not their own? Beckett, an Irish playwright wrote Waiting for Godot (1952) in both English and French, translating his work himself. Both Ionesco’s and Beckett’s plays are generally considered as belonging to the literary genre the theatre of the absurd. Therefore, might the choice to write in a foreign language in these two cases be a linked to the content of these authors’ work, one thread of which is the futility of language as a tool of human communication? Their texts often a treatise on the ability of language to lead only to misunderstanding rather than unambiguous conversation, and it is possible that their choice to write in a language which is not their first is a symbolic nod to the problems they saw as inherent in human language.

Are we wrong to assume that choosing not to write a literary work in one’s native tongue is out of the ordinary, or something unnatural? We assume that because writing a literary work is such a personal thing the most natural choice is to write it in one’s native tongue, the language with which one is most at ease, with which one feels most oneself. But maybe this is not so. Perhaps writing literary works in a foreign tongue is actually more fitting. When writing a literary work it can be difficult to gain a sense of perspective about what one is writing, so perhaps writing in a language which is one’s second or even third foreign tongue is actually an apt choice to make when penning a novel or play. I recently attended a conference in Paris, a round-table debate entitled « Que racontent nos langues ? » organised by Café Bilingue about the role of languages in the lives of various intellectuals. A British-born author on the panel, Alex Taylor, discussed the fact that he wrote his book (Bouche bée, tout ouïe : Comment tomber amoureux des langues ?) in French rather than English. He had grown up speaking English, and only acquired French ‘artificially’ as it were; it was not the case, as might be suspected due to his choice of language for his text, that he was bilingual almost from birth, and he only learnt French as a teenager. Taylor later told his publisher that he could not translate his work himself for the English market, as he felt such an endeavour would bring him uncomfortably close to his own text. This need for distance, for escape through the use of a second language also calls to mind Kundera, Czech author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being who wrote his novel L’Ignorance (2000) in French. Kundera’s novels focus on questions of identity, nationality and belonging, the experience of exil and the return to one’s native land. The distance gained by writing in a language which is not one’s mother tongue perhaps helped Kundera in his musings on what it means to belong to a nation, to be exiled from one’s homeland, to be in search of an identity.

Some authors write in French for a personal love of the language, because they grew up strongly influenced by French culture and language even though they count another language as their mother tongue. Such is the case of Makine’s Le Testament français (1995), written in French rather than his native Russian. The book testifies to his love of all things French, and the language in which he chooses to write therefore seems fitting.

   Many authors from former French colonies, such as Senegalese poet Senghor, choose to write in French rather than their native tongue. Why write in the language of the colonisers? Some Francophone African authors believe their work is likely to meet a wider readership written in French, while others cite what they see as the precision, clarity and literary spirit of the French language as their reason for choosing it when writing their works.

Such a reason, the idea that French is a literary language, is a reason often cited by various foreign authors who choose to write in French instead of their native tongue and is presumably why such a phenomenon is found particularly in French literature, far more so in comparison with other national canons.



The Bilingual Brain 

A lot has been written about the idea that languages may change the brains of bilinguals, in the sense of changing they way they think and the way we see the world, an idea sparked by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of the nineteenth century. (There will be more about this conceptions of language and bilingualism in a future blog.) But more recently much research has been published about the possibility of language to change not only the kinds of thoughts we have but also the physical way in which we think, that is the theory that the physical nature of the brain of a bilingual is different to that of a monolingual person. It may seem incredible that the (mere) acquisition of a language can have a real effect on somebody’s brain, but the research supports such a theory. Scientists have often theorised that strenuous mental activity, such as that required in order to become fluent in a foreign language, can prevent degeneration of the physical tissue of the brain, thus staving off conditions such as Alzheimer’s, one of the scourges of modern society. Yet bilinguals benefit not only from increased protection against Alzheimer’s, but also from improvements in their everyday cognitive processes.

An illuminating article on this, and the idea that learning a foreign language alters the composition of the brain, was published last month in the Huffington Post. In ‘Your Mind on Language: How Bilingualism Boosts Your Brain’, the article cites numerous ways in which bilinguals theoretically process thoughts or think in a different way to those who speak only one language. For example, the article notes that bilingual people are better able to concentrate on two things at once, are able to plan better and to think more critically and have greater powers of reasoning and recal. These conclusions are not merely derived from the fact that bilingual people must necessarily possess a different or more developed set of skills which allowed them to learn languages in the first place, or resulted in their becoming bilingual; it is a consequence of the fact that the grey matter of the brain of a bilingual is denser than that of a monolingual, and that the parts of the bilingual people’s brains devoted to tasks such as memorising and reasoning are larger in comparison with their monolingual counterparts.

The Huffington Post article neatly breaks down the reception of language by the brain into layman’s terms, showing that language is received, processed, understood and produced by four different areas of the brain: The auditory cortex, Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, and the motor cortex.

The process of language comprehension is obviously more complex in the brains of bilinguals because, as the article in the Huffington Post points out, the brain has to work to identify the sounds of the word in whichever language is it received. This strengthens the brain’s ability to make decisions, which thus makes bilingual people better at multi-tasking or conflict-managing than their monolingual counterparts. An article in the New York Times (‘Why Bilinguals Are Smarter, March 2012) which also looks at the benefits of bilingualism to the brain notes that being bilingual was long considered to have a negative impact on cognition and intellectual development. Throughout much of the last century, the conflict between the two languages in the brain of a bilingual was seen as a hindrance rather than, as scientists now believe it to be, something which actually strengthens the decision-making abilities and other cognitive processes of the bilingual.

Is the effect of change on the composition of the brain as profound in those who acquired a second foreign language in later childhood or in adulthood as compared with those were bilingual from birth? According to the Huffington Post article, the language is received in a different way by the brain depending on whether it is a language acquired in early childhood or in relatively later life. The article states that ‘if you learn a language after adolescence, a separate area develops for the second language near the area used for your native tongue.’ Those who became bilingual in adolescence or later in life do however still benefit from the protective properties of language-learning.

However, for both native speakers of two languages and ‘artificial’ bilinguals alike, the same rule applies to the retention of the second language (or even in some cases the native language). If you don’t use it, you lose it and like a muscle, language is something that has to be exercised and used in order to be fully retained. Language-learning is an ongoing task, and one that is never entirely complete.