I'm pretty early in my French studies, but already I've noticed how much the knowledge of a foreign language can improve a writers sense of the possible. This happens in the weirdest of ways. I try to read an article a day from Le Monde. I don't understand 80 percent of what I'm reading, but if I select a topic I have some knowledge of, I can pull out some interesting tid-bits.
You actually get some interesting moments of poetry if you just consider French with the most leaden of English ears. The other day I was reading about the Republican primary and just marveled at the descriptions of Rick Santorum (le ultraconservateur) and Mitt Romney (l'ancien gouverneur.) The actual translations of this phrases are fairly normal, but there is something about Romney that makes l'ancien gouverneur sound just about right.
And then there's something deeper--having a range of words available to you that simply weren't before. The other day I wrote the following sentence:
Now I am old and much difficulted. My remembering is shallowed and my words fall upon themselves, like rebels, ere lusty, now routed in war.
Or rather that was the sentence I finally arrived at. I had the image and kept tripping over the "lusty" part mostly because it was originally conceived as "yesterday lusty." The word "yesterday" is too long and bulky for what I wanted. I kept thinking "Man, I wish this were French and then I could say 'hier' instead of yesterday." And then I thought, "Oh wow! I can say hier!" Of course I had to say it as "ere."
The point is not that this was an especially great bit of writing. Right now its all just materiel, some of which will come to use, but most of which will either be disregard or remain as subtext--the iceberg under the water. The point is that I had access to new highways.
I've had this happen a few times over the past couple of months. It's not even just in vocabulary, but in sentence structure. And I have to believe that if I explored languages with more distance from English, I'd see even more interesting things and I would see, not simply highways, but entire flight-paths.
I'm not one for pronouncements. But it really seems like all writers should learn a second language.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power