In praise of writing in English as a ‘foreign’ language, by Kim Devereux

I’m often told that it is ‘impressive’ that I have written a novel in a language that is not my mother tongue. Is it really more difficult? I first started to learn English at the age of twelve, at school in Germany. We were taught using quite a new method at the time. Not a single word of German was spoken. Each new snippet of English was explained with a picture or gestures and once we had acquired a basic vocabulary, definitions were given in English.

However I was living in Germany, so I did not absorb English by some kind
of linguistic osmosis – I consciously fell in love with it.  I enjoyed the feeling of the words and sounds in my mouth. French on the other hand was like an alien critter which my vocal apparatus refused to accommodate. The external circumstances did not help either; my French teacher had a habit of leaning forward AND producing showers of spittle when over-pronouncing the words ‘avec les levres.’

My English teacher on the other hand had a number of unfair advantages. The most important one was his sporty physique, followed by the fact that he was a native speaker and hailed from Kingston-Upon-Thames. He also had an accent to die for.

As you can see, my relationship with English got off to a good start. It was based on the sound foundation of my fanatical zeal to be noticed by Mr Oldfield.

My relationship with German was far more boring. It was that of a fish in murky waters. I must have been a toddler in a sea of grunts, hisses and sounds that sooner or later morphed into handy tools for making my opinions known about the taste of sauerkraut and brussels sprouts.

I have this theory that I was looking at English from within my German habitat. English seemed as beautiful as it was exotic. A little later it became clear to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was vastly superior to German. For starters there were far fewer commas, a good feature when you don’t know where to put them. It basically had dispensed with a lot of dross; no ‘der, die, das’ just ‘the’, no messing around with formal and informal forms of address and no crazy words like ‘Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän’.

To see if I am telling the truth just pick any operating instructions and compare the English to the German entry. You will find the German one goes on and on and on. English gets the job done without much ado.

The only downside I have found over the years is that there is no English word for ‘Ausgeschlafen’. It describes the state when you have had a really good night’s sleep and you feel thoroughly refreshed. Perhaps, I thought, there is no need in England to communicate economically that you feel ausgeschlafen? Perhaps this was the one thing the English enjoy making a meal of: ‘Oh you know, last night I went to bed early. It was raining ever so gently and I felt into the most wonderful slumber. I must have slept for 12 hours straight. Maybe it was the rain? It’s still cloudy now, isn’t it?…etc.’

So I have a degree of separation from English, which gives me a sense of perspective. It is also a language that lends itself both to clarity and to imagery. The latter is useful when you want to employ ambiguity to allow the reader to participate in the creation of meaning. Rembrandt sometimes used translucent glazes to create a sense of depth and at other times he would use pigments that were very opaque. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve, and English has it all!

Kim Devereux’s Rembrandt’s Mirror is published by Atlantic and is out now. We have five copies to give away on Twitter

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