Choice Words – How Studying another Language Helps Improve English Writing

Image result for final fantasy crisis core

When most people today decide to learn another language, they usually choose one that is not considered dead. This author is not most people. Rather than take courses in the expected Spanish or French, this writer opted to learn Latin. Besides a few phrases of Spanish, French, German, and Japanese, after my native English the language I know best is Latin.

Why do I bring up my knowledge of Latin and Japanese? Studying another tongue has several benefits, one of which are a renewed respect and love for one’s own language. Another aid a writer acquires when learning a foreign tongue is how to better express him or herself in their native language. Through viewing various media from the Land of the Rising Sun as it was originally presented to its home audience, and with my background in Latin, this author has come to understand that sometimes, there are better ways to say things in English.

Our way of speaking and writing in this current era is lax and very informal. This is not necessarily a bad thing; local color, dialects, and so on can be quite charming and pleasant to the ear, whether they are written or spoken. Part of what makes them so much fun to hear and to write is the variety they bring to life and the depth they add to one’s protagonists.

As mentioned here at Song, dialects and accents are the spice of life and vary throughout every nation in the world. They also add a musical or poetic quality to one’s speech. Texas’ twanging accent, the New Orleans’ Cajun dialect, and the old New York inflection all add to the patchwork beauty that makes the United States unique. The same goes for other areas of the world, from Tokyo and Timbuktu to London and Cologne. Each country has a plethora of patois and local color that makes the way they speak or write beautiful in its own manner.

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Yet despite the variety of English accents, there is one thing every English speaker on the planet has in common. They are all direct and to the point. At no time does English require its speakers to reverse or rearrange the subject, the verb, and the object of a sentence to make it complete or sensible. When an English speaker, reader, and writer must convey an idea he can do so without difficulty. For instance, he can say, “Hand me that wrench over there” without engaging in any kind of linguistic gymnastics.

No other language is so direct. If one wants to speak or write the same sentence in Latin, the words will be placed somewhat like this: “[You] That wrench over there, to me, hand.” The sentence structure – spoken or written – is more convoluted and indirect than the English of today or even of three centuries in the past.

If you have not studied a foreign language and are only seeing this for the first time, you are probably thinking that translating anything into English and vice versa can be as difficult as wrestling with a bear. You would be correct. Speaking, writing, and thinking (yes, thinking – I used to dream about and in Latin sentences) in a tongue that is not your own is very, very difficult at first. Even when one acquires facility with a different language there can be minor complications in translating from one tongue into another.

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This is also why the subtitles used to translate a movie or animated show’s dialogue are often more formal than the English many speak today. Words that make sense in one language have to be rearranged to fit into the direct pattern English speakers use daily. Despite accomplishing this task, the rearrangement remains correct instead of relaxed and casual. Too, it does not become completely straightforward unless certain intonations or understandings in the primary language are sacrificed to make the English flow better.

As an illustration, click on the video below to see the Japanese dub of the last scenes from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII:

 

Finished? All right, now watch the English dub of the same finale:

Do you see the differences, future writers? While the story remains substantially the same in both translations, the English subtitles in the Japanese dub are soemwhat stiffer and more poetic than those used in the English dub. Some of the context is also lost in translation, which is why I prefer watching the Japanese dub of Crisis Core and a couple of anime series rather than relying entirely on the English version. In the case of Crisis, I especially prefer watching Zack tell Cloud that the latter “…is the proof that [Zack] existed.”

While “living legacy” is more direct, it lacks the poetry and force of the Japanese statement. In the original Final Fantasy VII game, Zack is largely forgotten until the middle of the story, shown by his fading from Cloud’s view earlier in Crisis Core. Subjected to mind-shattering experiments and multiple emotional traumas (including his friend’s death), Cloud buries his memories of Zack Fair in order to function. Thus for the first half of the game Cloud’s life and actions are, in fact, the only proof that Zack actually existed. Even when his mind is repaired and his memories restored, the rest of the world knows of Zack’s existence only because Cloud Strife refuses to overlook him again.

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Writers are often confronted with word choices like the above, and it is tempting to go with the less flowery option. I well remember wincing over the more poetic expressions of Western shows like Bonanza as a little girl primarily because I felt that, since no one spoke in this manner anymore, whoever tried it in the present day would be mocked for imitating these more precise and profound speeches. The admonition to avoid using too much “purple prose” was a handicap as well.

Thankfully, I have grown up since that time. I am well aware now that an author can utilize an ornate style without going to extravagance. There are also times where the story and characters demand to say something in a philosophical, “fancy” manner because that is the best way to make their point. For that reason, I am no longer afraid of using exact and “pretty” language.

Whatever may be holding you back from your full potential in this area, future writers, try to look past it. Look up films and animated features from other countries with English subtitles, even if you already speak the tongue or translate it regularly. It just might improve your English – written, heard, and spoken. I can honestly tell you that it is a gift that will keep on giving for the rest of your life. 😉

One thought on “Choice Words – How Studying another Language Helps Improve English Writing

  1. It’s true. If you take just one year of Latin in school you’ll understand English grammar and diction better than you would without. At the very least you’ll understand the terms they use in English to greater extent (participle, past-participle, accusative, demonstrative, etc).

    Liked by 2 people

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