Learning a second language is a difficult undertaking, regardless of who you are. In many places in the United States, the dominance of English has ensured that many Americans never even opt to try it. That being said, the benefits of doing so can be substantial. As cognitive psychologists Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook point out, knowing a second language can, among many other things, improve “cognitive and sensory processing” to better absorb new information, and thus, learn better (13). That’s why it’s no surprise that bilingual adults tend to learn a third language more quickly and proficiently than monolingual adults learn a second language.
For this reason, I’ve always wanted to learn French. I’ve been studying it for roughly four years now (although I took a lengthy break in the middle in which I learned Italian instead, so speak slowly to me, native speakers). I believe, though, that I have a unique advantage many others may not have while trying to learn a new language: I’m a writer. Sure, I’m not a prolific writer (yet), but I’ve spent plenty of time crafting stories, essays, and academic papers. And there are many ways this helps me as I attempt to learn French.
Chief among these is simply familiarity with grammar and syntax. French can be a hard language for native English speakers to get used to, as many factors about it are challenging – it contains plenty of vowels, not to mention oh-so-many diphthongs, each with their own sound. Altogether, it contains 19 vowel sounds (Fougeron and Smith, 73). For reference, Italian is home to only seven, and Spanish a meager five. And while learning the many confusing, complicated concepts a language such as French may present can be a difficult undertaking (participles and tenses and genders and conjugations, to name a few), a writer effortlessly factors these things into their craft regularly, in their native language.
In his book, Foundations of French Syntax, linguist Michael Allan Jones talks about how in our native language, we generally don’t know each tedious rule of grammar and syntax (2). We simply speak. English itself is a pretty complex language, but most English native speakers pay little attention to its many rules and complications, instead just knowing it from years of immersion. Unless, of course, you are a writer, in which these factors become plenty more important. Having a feel for grammar and an extended knowledge of syntax, as most writers do in their native language, is tremendously translatable to acquiring a new language.
As a simple example, knowing what a reflexive pronoun is in English, and how it is used, helped me conceptualize French reflexive pronouns and how they work more easily. And that works both ways – learning French has forced me to familiarize myself more with English grammar as well, strengthening my ability to write in it. That is to say, writers: learn another language, it can be beneficial, and you may find that it will come naturally! And language learners: look for a more intimate knowledge of your own native tongue. Write in it, get a feel for it, and get to know it better. It can only help you on your language learning journey.
Marian, Viorica, and Anthony Shook. “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual.” Cerebrum: the Dana Forum on Brain Science, vol. 2012, Dana Foundation, 2012, pp. 13.
Fougeron, Cécile and Caroline L. Smith. “French.” Journal of the International Phonetic Association, vol. 23, no. 2, 1993, pp. 73-76.
Jones, Michael Allan. Foundations of French Syntax. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.