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Even though English is not my first language, I have completed writing a fiction book in English.

I have been in the US for over 40 years and I believe that I have a good command of the language. (Vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation.)

A friend of mine, who is fluent in both English and in my native language, read my book. One of the points in her feedback was that she could tell, while reading it, that I think like a non native. There is NO Grammar error or language errors. She is just saying that she can tell that I, as the writer, am building the sentences in my mind, as a non-native would.

Non of my American friends that had read the book gave me a similar feedback, but my friend may be right, because after all - I am probably thinking as the immigrant that I am.

My question: If the book is readable, flows well, and gets the point across, but you can tell that the writer is non native - will it be considered a flaw?

Thanks

  • Hi Gilly. I edited the title of your question to try to better summarize your question. Feel free to Edit further! – a CVn Jul 2 '18 at 12:00
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I sometimes notice that a work of literature has been written by an immigrant. It's not just the sentences - it's something in the underlying world-view, the imagery, the way different things are given attention.

I love this effect, and go looking for it. Why? Because I find the different POV of the writer interesting. You bring a different experience, which allows you to tell a different story. What you have is a unique advantage. Don't fear it - use it!

There are multiple examples of very successful writers who were not born in the country where they wrote, and who wrote in a language other than their mother's tongue. Consider Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian-American writer. Or, if you're looking for a more modern example, consider Ken Liu - a Chinese-American writer of f/sf, who has received Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards for his short stories.

  • Thanks, Galastel. I actually made point to read immigrant writers and so far - I've enjoyed all that I've read. (Conrad is one of them...). Thanks for your feedback... – Gilly Jul 1 '18 at 16:39
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Most bilinguals experience some kind of linguistic interference. It may be L1>L2 or L2>L1. Some element in the other language they know gets leaked into the language that they are currently speaking. One easy way to resolve this issue is to use several search engines, such as Google, and do a quick search on the specific word choice that you are not completely sure of.

For example, I am an English native speaker and have spoken English since kindergarten. My immersive exposure to English has given me a native-like grasp of the English language. I also speak Chinese (Mandarin); it's actually my first language and home language since infancy. I can remember a few instances in which Chinese actually influences my English. The first instance occurred when I was in elementary school, playing with another child. I said, "I am going to eat your piece." And that child and surrounding spectators commented that I shouldn't say "eat"; I should say "get". Somehow, I said it again, "I am going to eat your piece." For some reason, it didn't occur to me that I was intentionally saying anything wrong. To me, it felt obvious that the piece was eaten. Plus, when I played checkers or chess or other board games with my father, he would say, "吃棋", which I interpreted literally as "eat the piece".

A more recent example occurred to me when I used the expression, "return the knowledge to the teacher". Sometimes, my father would say, "还给老师" in a sentence, which I interpreted to mean "return [the knowledge] to the teacher". If I had returned it to the teacher, then that would explain why I don't remember it at the moment. If I hadn't, then I had kept the knowledge. It seemed pretty obvious what it meant, but for the life of me, I couldn't find any English examples on the Internet. But it's a common Chinese expression.

The reason why I suggest using search engines is that search engines can give you an insight on popular expressions. Some expressions may seem obvious to you, but they may seem a bit weird to monolinguals. Some expressions can be transferred cross-culturally, but other expressions cannot. So, I think it is important to be able to identify cultural elements in your culture that are different from American culture. If you don't, then your reader(s) may misunderstand your story. You may want to mention the setting or cultural background of the characters, because the reader will keep that into account instead of getting stuck on some kind of weird phrasing here and there.

  • 1
    So true. Expressions are sort of images. You internalise the image, so it becomes obvious. Since it's obvious, it becomes natural to use it in any language - you no longer give any thought to the fact that this image is only "obvious" in one language. I'm quadrilingual, I struggle with this quite a bit, especially since most people I talk to are at least bilingual and have the same problem themselves. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 2 '18 at 12:28
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    When there is prolonged contact between cultures, expressions drift quite a bit - the image becomes "obvious" in the target language too. But the process is: first it's considered a mistake, then it's dialect peculiarity of the location where such contact is common, and only after some time does the expression become sufficiently accepted to be used in literature. So it's something to be aware of, and something beta readers can help filter out. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 2 '18 at 12:30
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    @DoubleU Hebrew, English, Russian and French. I've also learnt Arabic at school, but since I never became proficient in the language, and let it go rusty since, I'm not counting it. :) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 2 '18 at 21:56
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If the book is readable, flows well, and gets the point across, but you can tell that the writer is non native, and the reader is interested in the authentic experience and story of such a writer, then no there is nothing there that you can call a flaw.

In these cases, the 'flaw' is perceived as being the same as the authentic experience and is welcomed by the reader.

When I speak to my neighbours (who are Italian) then I do not expect them to talk to me, act or appear as an English person would. I would instead be charmed by their accents, their tendency to wave their arms about as they speak, their flawless olive-coloured skin and their habit of making pizza for me when my wife is away.

My advice to you is to be who you are and let that be reflected freely in your writing.

Well done on finishing your first book and good luck with your future writing.

2

Whether or not this is a problem or an advantage likely depends on the book and the intended audience. If your main character and/or your narrator shares your immigrant background, then writing like an immigrant is a good thing.

Even if you're writing about "middle America," if you're bringing an outsider's perspective to your subject, having a different voice can be an advantage. You're really only in trouble in the case that you're trying to sound like a native-born American and failing. In that case, I would say your best bet is to capitalize on your differences, rather than try to eliminate them. After all, one of the biggest challenges for any writer is standing out from the crowd.

This doesn't need to entail large differences in your book. For example, Nabakov's classic Lolita is set entirely in America. But the narrator, like Nabakov, is an immigrant. Therefore, we don't expect him to think or sound exactly like a native-born American.

  • Thanks, Chris. I think I'll read Lolita again, now, and try to identify the immigrant nuances in it... – Gilly Jul 2 '18 at 15:43
  • @Gilly If you find any of the answers useful --not just mine, but any of the other answers --please vote them up. You can vote up as many answers as you want, and it helps other querents locate and identify useful answers (in theory). – Chris Sunami Jul 2 '18 at 17:27

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