Against myself. Writing in a second language.

Paolo Ruta
Sep 16, 2019 · 4 min read

It is proven by recent studies that the language we speak shapes the way we think. It means that every language has specific cultural characteristics which affect the way we understand and describe reality. For instance, as Lera Boroditsky has argued in recent research at Standford and MIT, some Aboriginal communities replace the words “left”, “right”, “forward” and “back” with cardinal-direction terms like “south”, “north”, “east” and “west”. This is the reason why they are used to saying sentences like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” It is not just a formal issue, but a completely different way to think, more focused on orientation. We might go on citing many examples of how different languages lead to different ways to think about abstract concepts like space, time, number, emotions, morality, etc.

Italian is my mother tongue and I have loved it so much that I became an Italian Linguist. But just for the record; indeed I ended up to be an office worker rather than an enthusiastic scholar. A few years ago, as a professional writer, I discovered the pleasure of writing in a second language, English. I just wanted to understand if my thoughts could be reshaped by this activity and how. But it was not just a scientific curiosity nor an attempt to increase my audience, from me to the world. I was not so cocky. It was more the beginning of an intellectual exercise which today sounds like from the world to me. So, even now, I am creating such a channel, while typing these words.

What happens when I do it? My cheeky Italian writing gets shy in English. This is the core of my exercise. Turning off the ego. Being reborn. This is how I can dismiss the Latin mannerism of my historical person, a graduated-young-Italian-white-man from the middle class with his bourgeois background and so many pleasant and useless cultural frills.

According to a friend of mine writing in a second language is a masochistic activity. And he might be right. Indeed, I am trying to fight against myself and my cultural roots. In English, my writing lacks the sound of my inner voice which had always been shaped by Italian: so decorative and complex, always available to rhetorical stunts. It is like my whole personality changes in English, by showing an “I” utterly unknown to me, a plainer “I” far away from the histrionic former scholar I am used to being.

It mostly happens for two reasons. First, because English is a beautiful plain language in itself, then because I am not a native English speaker. This means that I need to use my best narrow linguistic resources to express the most complex thoughts as well as the simplest ones. By doing that I finally see how simplicity and clarity replace complexity by increasing the value of speech and its pleasantness. A well-known concept for good writing which I would like to extend whatever I do.

Indeed, it is not just a writing exercise. It is something that concerns my whole life. A kind of redemption from a behaviour, both cultural and linguistic, which feels redundant.

For obvious historical reasons, Italian culture and language are a typical example of complexity: Italy — in its current geopolitical structure — is a young country, speaking a Latin-roots language based on Literature. Indeed, until the end of the nineteenth century, when Italy still did not exist as a united country, most of the Italians just spoke regional dialects. Italian was the language of the literate people only and it has been just a literary written language for a long time since the Middle Age to the first Unity in 1865.

During the last century, thanks to public school, political parties, newspapers and television, Italians finally learned to speak their official language which has been changing under the influence of either history, dialects, foreign languages or speakers. But a lot of its literary original characteristics remain stuck in the Italian language, at least as a mental habit.

For instance, we Italians despise writing as we speak. And even while speaking formally, we love highfalutin words and reckless syntactic structures, always uselessly trying to enhance the speech. This is why the language of academics, politicians and institutions is often unclear. Everyone is more concerned about how to say rather than what to say. It is our own caprice. A literary memory which often has consequences more serious than a ridiculous style.

Even though while speaking and writing in Italian I have always been trying to fight against the excess of my innate cultural mannerisms, I find that I can easily do it with both spoken and written English. I can talk about everything with no personal style but with faster cognitive reactions and more linear communication. I am focused on the meaning of my thoughts and on the best way to express them clearly using just a few words. I prevent ambiguity by using shorter logical sentences and decreasing the number of metaphors and other rhetorical devices.

Somehow it is like to be another person. Such a psychological switch. It means that this exercise — writing in English — clears my mind and helps me to not only be less of a narcissist, old-fashioned writer but also a more pragmatic and open-minded human being.

If a language switch can imply a different approach to reality and a different way to see the world, in my story it might be connected to a bigger breakthrough that started two years ago when I moved abroad. When I decided to change my life. Not only language.

If you are looking for language partners to improve your foreign language skills you can find it on swaplanguage.com.

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Paolo Ruta

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A curious Italian guy living in Berlin.

Swap Language

We write about breaking down cultural and language barriers between people.

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