WRITING... in a non-native language


Writing for children in itself can sometimes be a similar experience to learning a new language. Writing for children in a foreign language can present numerous added challenges. Brigita Orel shares her personal experience.


When you are writing for children as an adult, that in itself may seem as though you need to employ a different language to the one you are used to. However, when you are already writing in a language that is not your mother tongue, the task is twice as difficult. But not undoable.


I started learning English in school (my mother tongue is Slovenian) when I was 11 years old. The language enchanted me, and in my twenties, I started writing in English. First, it was mostly academic papers, and later on, some short fiction for adults. But my true love has always been children’s literature, so it is no wonder I slowly, organically migrated to texts for that age group. And right from the start, I encountered obstacles.


Goo goo gaga in another language


You may be fluent in a language but when you write for children, you soon discover that there is a plethora of expressions that you do not know. How do very young children mispronounce difficult words? What affectionate expressions do they use for their favourite toys and cuddly bears? What words are too difficult for them to understand? When you do not grow up in a language, all these things are a mystery. The only way to uncover all these secrets is to read extensively and preferably in the age group that you wish to write for. This can also help determine what reading level children of a particular age are.


Another problem is access to the publishers when you do not live in the same country as your readers. Attending conferences may be too expensive and some publishers and agents only take submissions from citizens and residents. Your networking opportunities are very limited and mostly only available online. When you are not a social media whizz, that may prove to be problematic. Even if you are an active and successful user of social media, you still miss out on personal connections.


The benefits of being an "outsider"


However, there are also advantages to writing from the standpoint of an “outsider”. When you come from a culture your readers are not familiar with, you have plenty of interesting things to offer. You can introduce your readers to your culture, tradition, interesting facts and history, you may even introduce them to foreign words and expressions. Great examples of this are Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay, or Jummy at the River School by Sabine Adeyinka. Perhaps such a compelling introduction to a new cultural experience will tempt children to learn a new language too.


Win-win for the writers and the children


By showing children a different view of life and the world around them, you help them broaden their horizons, see things from a new perspective and maybe make them curious. Research shows that multilingual and multicultural environments help children develop cognitive and social skills, such as problem-solving, multitasking, and critical thinking skills that they need to succeed in today's increasingly interconnected and globalized world. They are also better equipped to communicate and collaborate with people from different cultures. This results in fewer misunderstandings in their interactions, higher self-esteem and thus, better opportunities in life.


But the process of discovery does not only happen on the side of the readers. When writing in a language that is not your mother tongue, you, as the writer, learn a lot about both (or all) of your languages and cultures, about the writing process and your target audience, but also about yourself as a person. You may, for example, discover that you detest grammar but absolutely adore whimsical and odd expressions that you learn along the way. You may find that expressing certain things is easier in your second language compared to your mother tongue. Or you may just feel that you can be more creative in a language that you acquired later in life because it is not as ingrained in you as your mother tongue, and so it is easier to play with words and meanings.


The most important thing, however, is to persist. You have to keep learning your languages, keep getting to know your target readers and above all, keep writing.


*Header image by Ell Rose 


Brigita Orel
[Picture credit: Brigita Orel]

Brigita Orel
studied creative writing at Swansea University. Her picture book, The Pirate Tree, was published by Lantana Publishing, and her novel for adults, The Landscape of Loneliness, is forthcoming from Cinnamon Press. She also writes stories for kamishibai performances and the occasional poem. She lives in Slovenia where she works as a translator.

You can find Brigita on Instagram, Twitter/X and via her website www.brigitaorel.com


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact them at: illustrators@britishscbwi.org

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