Writing in Second Language: Trials and Tribulations

By Jenny Hor

“Why would you write in English when you could write in your mother tongue?”

It is hard for most to imagine how someone who has received her education in a Chinese school for almost eleven years, conversed in Mandarin Chinese with her family, and took Chinese Literature in her finals would end up writing short stories in English. An unorthodox change of events. 

The decision does not happen overnight. It is a long-term process, like a fashion designer sampling out different textures before choosing the right fabric. Writing, too, takes many trials and errors to decide their medium, genre, and language. As a Creative Writing student who just began her second semester at the University of Surrey, I would like to share my sentiment and experience writing in English .

What’s the Other Word for ‘Eat’?

For second-language writers, finding the right word can be challenging. The simple verb ‘to eat’ can be branched out into different ways of eating. If one performs the act of devouring, it shows the fastened pace of finishing a meal; if one chews, the process is slower . When one does not know how to differentiate between them, the meaning alters. Readers may not know the character is in a hurry if they decide to ‘chew’ on a piece of toast.  However, not all languages have as rich of a vocabulary as English does.

Thesauruses and dictionaries are helpful tools when searching for near-synonyms to express an idea with the right word. I often rely on them when I want a more diverse vocabulary in my work or when looking for stronger verbs other than ‘eat’. 

Grammar Police, Open Up!  

Like many other commonwealth countries, English is one of the compulsory language courses in the Malaysian formal education system. Despite adopting British English rules, many are still confused about complex grammatical rules and phrasal verbs. With the colloquial Malaysian English dominating in daily speeches, the incorrect syntax and lexis would sound awkward to native speakers. 

Many second-language writers are afraid of their colloquial English getting in the way when delivering their beautiful expressions or emotional scenes. Most times, they would feel ashamed or overly critical of their own work. I have a fair share of this common dilemma to the point that I would pause my writing process to check if my writing is grammatically correct. As a result, the constant need for amendment would lag my progress. 

An English Creative Piece or A Creative Piece in English?

When I first started writing, there was a reluctance to include foreign words or phrases in my work. I once believed that writing purely in English would ensure the reader could understand everything in the story without disrupting the flow. I once shared this concern in a creative writing workshop, with Anglophones as the majority of participants. What if the reader does not get the references and cannot relate to my story? What if the reader dislikes my story because of foreign words? 

The module leader replied: “It’s their problem.”

Everyone burst into laughter. This cumbersome problem was miniscule. Eventually, I wrote short stories that include local phrases and slang. When I compare my pieces from different timelines, I know what was lacking in my earlier works: an original voice. This voice sets up the story’s setting and the tone of the characters to become more believable and distinct. 

A friend of mine also suggested including a glossary list of non-English or localised terminologies at the end of a creative piece. This supplies more in-depth context without interrupting the narrative. 

Am I Betraying My Race and Culture by Writing in Another Language?

As much as English is the lingua franca and an official language in many countries, it also bears negative connotations as the language of the coloniser or the language of western forces. Anti-western sentiment in Asia segregates those who cannot prove themselves to be a ‘proper’ Asian, or in my case ‘Chinese’, identify. A relative of mine once asked me if I had been whitewashed when I finished my undergrad in English with Creative Writing.

A dilemma faced by many English-educated Malaysian Chinese is the constant prejudice by the dominant Chinese-speaking community. Malaysian fantasy writer Zen Cho recalled her experience of being doubted by her Chinese school teachers because of her poor command of Chinese. The inability to communicate in Mandarin Chinese causes the majority to discriminate and reinforces harmful stereotypes of the English-speaking Chinese community. Even bilinguals were highly discouraged from conversing in English rather than their mother tongue. 

Regardless, these so-called ‘traitors’ delivered interesting stories that were set in their home country. Two of Cho’s published works prove how fantasy could work in a Southeast Asia setting. There are multilingual Malaysian authors who have made a name for themselves internationally. We have big names like Tash Aw, who spoke Chinese and Hokkien at home, and has written Malaysian-centric novels. 

How could we have betrayed our race and culture when we wish to describe the beauty of their home country and cultural experiences to the world? 

Is It a Lonely Journey?

Many writers agree that writing is a lonely journey. There is a multiverse that exists in our brain which can be only manifested through written mode, but we cannot not precisely narrate them in a linear, oral format. Second-language writers walk on a path with more obstacles than their native-speaking peers, yearning to deliver a flawless line in English.

I am not alone on this arduous journey. 

There are other people whose first language could be Bengali or Cyprus Greek, who weave the most engaging stories or powerful poetries. There are established examples like Jhumpa Lahiri, an American author who wrote a novel in Italian. Even native speakers could provide aid in proofreading or helpful suggestions. I am grateful for my English-speaking friends who would help me point out the mistakes during my undergraduate years. 

Final Thoughts  

“Why would you write in English when you could write in your mother tongue?”

My answer is simple: I would like my stories to reach a wider audience . Although I could write stories in Mandarin Chinese, English is a lingua franca that connects everyone around the globe. Regardless of our origins and first language, English is a language we come across in everyday life. Bilingual or multilingual writers have the upper hand in introducing their local culture to foreign countries. We have the best of both worlds.

If you are a second-language writer, do share your experience in the comment section below. You might find companions who share your struggles.



Hailing from Malaysia, Jenny Hor is currently studying MA in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. Her works reflect on her knowledge, observations, and reflections, especially when it comes to society’s flaws and human experiences. ‘Laksa Uncle’ marked her debut as a published writer in Asian Anthology: New Writings Vol. 1. She also runs the travel blog Jenny’s Binoculars, trying her best to update it as frequently as possible. 

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