Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Does Bilingualism Make You a Bad Writer?

Dear Korean,

One of my friends mentioned to me recently that children who grow up bilingual (like me and many other Asian-Americans) usually aren't strong writers. I'm not talking about 1.5 generation kids who had their childhood all in one language, or the ones who completely didn't learn their parents' language at all, but kids like me who were born in America and went to school which was taught in English, but came home and spoke only Korean in the house. And this happened ever since I was born. I wonder if its true... that something about not fully grasping one language before learning another actually makes both language a bit mediocre. I'm not sure if its true or not, but I kind of hope its true because that would be a great excuse for me.

Lara B.

Dear Lara,

Your question jumped the line because a recent New York Times article on bilingualism research was particularly relevant for the answer. Here is a sample:
As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language.

But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.


We wondered, “Are bilinguals better at multitasking?” So we put monolinguals and bilinguals into a driving simulator. Through headphones, we gave them extra tasks to do — as if they were driving and talking on cellphones. We then measured how much worse their driving got. Now, everybody’s driving got worse. But the bilinguals, their driving didn’t drop as much.


People e-mail me and say, “I’m getting married to someone from another culture, what should we do with the children?” I always say, “You’re sitting on a potential gift.”

There are two major reasons people should pass their heritage language onto children. First, it connects children to their ancestors. The second is my research: Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise.
The Bilingual Advantage [New York Times]

So yeah, the Korean would say your friend is totally off base. Bilingualism is a gift, and it makes you better at everything that requires brain power.

As for the Korean himself, being a bilingual helps tremendously toward being a good writer. In the Korean's humble opinion, a lot of beginning writers struggle with perceiving how their writing comes across. They intend to write something, but what they actually put down on the paper ends up not quite sounding like what they intended -- could be too soft, too harsh, too dry, too emotional, etc. (It really does not help that the Internet allows people to write without any sort of training or reflection.) It requires a great deal of self-awareness in order to "hear" your own writing and precisely calibrate the tone and strength of your writing.

In that sense, it is really great to have one language become the meta-language for the other. Because the Korean is constantly shifting back and forth between two languages, he can evaluate, say, the emotional content of what he wrote by trying to phrase what he wrote in the other language. In fact, if you are a budding bilingual, the Korean would highly recommend this exercise that he used to do as a teenager: write a short poem in one of the languages, and write the exact same poem in the other language -- matching not simply the meaning of the words, but imagery, symbolism, emotional evocation, meter and rhyme.

This game is unbelievably difficult, and you will likely not succeed. (The Korean himself has never succeeded, although he thought he came close in one or two tries.) But doing the process itself will force you to assess your strengths and weaknesses in the two languages, peer into the meta-conversation behind the messages and appreciate the different cultures surrounding the two languages. The Korean can hardly think of a more beneficial brain exercise than this.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Write a short poem in one of the languages, and write the exact same poem in the other language -- matching not simply the meaning of the words, but imagery, symbolism, emotional evocation, meter and rhyme.

    This game is unbelievably difficult, and you will likely not succeed.

    Maybe I am confused, but this "game" sounds exactly like the act and practice of translation (or localization, depending on what you prefer). As a bilingual person who translates various things regularly, I agree that it's difficult, and also that it has made me a much better writer. But translation is only as "unbelievably difficult" as any other art or craft, and I am not sure what distinguishes what you described from translation.

  2. I disagree with Lara B's friend too. While I can't really claim to be bilingual (my Korean is far more limited than my English), I know a few bilingual writers who are perfectly competent at writing in one or both of their languages. I actually think that learning other languages actually improves English speakers understanding of their own language. Learning both Spanish and Korean have improved my own understanding of English by helping me to "look at the language" from an alternate perspective and also perceive language on a more conceptual level, giving me a stronger intuitive and learned grasp of grammar and syntax than I think I would have gained were I either a monolingual Korean or English speaker.

    I think everybody (that doesn't suffer from language-affecting mental illness) should be at least bilingual. Preferably bilingual with at least a splash of a third language.

  3. I am bilingual and participate in subbing dramas and translating manga. Not because I like the series/drama so much as, like you say, it's a good brain exercise. I'd say that it helps with my writing.
    Plus it's easier to learn other languages when I'm already bilingual. I am on my 5th right now, with my 3rd & 4th pretty solid.

  4. Being a 34 year old, marking the 20th year mark in the States, I can say that being bilingual (or multilingual for that matter with a tiny bit of Japanese..) definitely has its advantages as mentioned by the Korean. The poem exercise and any other translation -- not just the word-by-word direct translation -- exercises will greatly help with learning and improving any languages. In my personal opinion, being a good writer, as well as being a good speaker, is more of a gift that a person's born with, regardless of what linguisitics background you have. Sure, you can improve tremendously with practice, but the truly good ones are "born with it." We've all seen/met Koreans who have been in the States a long time and have mingled with the native speakers, who still cannot speak in right grammar or have decent pronunciation. Then there are those who get it right away.

    Bottom line is, being bilingual/multilingual has nothing to do with being a bad writer, in my opinion.

  5. Someone didn't read that Times article very carefully--it is not at all relevant to the question posed here. It was very specific about what type of tasks were helped by bilingualism, and neither stated nor implied that bilingualism helped with "all" cognitive functions. The question was specifically about writing, which was not addressed in the Times article at all.
    And, as a professional editor who has worked with many people of Korean descent from all points on the language spectrum, I can tell you unequivocally that the truly bilingual people all had problems with writing, in both languages. Every single one of them that I've met over the course of twelve years in the biz.

    Bilingualism, once reviled and now praised, is actually neither 'good' nor 'bad'--its relative merit depends entirely on individuals and their uniquely complicated variables. There is no reason to overstate its benefits, or to pretend it has no downsides. (Unless of course you are motivated by insecurity...)

  6. "Write a short poem in one of the languages, and write the exact same poem in the other language -- matching not simply the meaning of the words, but imagery, symbolism, emotional evocation, meter and rhyme."

    I used to do (still does, actually) a very similar thing. Whenever I'd hear songs or watch movies/tv, I try to translate them to the other language w/o losing their tone, humor, imagery, etc. Never even came close to getting 100%, but it really made me "aware" of what I was writing in either languages.

  7. I myself had almost all my schooling in English, but only spoke Korean at home. I have heard throughout school that my writing is good in English, and have heard more than once that my Korean writing is good enough as well (although it probably lacks some sophistication compared to English).

    However, I can see where the asker is coming from; while I am essentially fluent in both languages, sometimes my brain shuts down and I can't remember really simple words in one or both languages, like 'peacock'.

    It's not that I forget them, but my brain goes through 'glitches' sometimes from trying to think in both languages at once. I've also been told that when I'm under extreme stress, my English writing doesn't seem to make sense. This is coming from someone who usually gets A's and B's on her English essays.

    I'm in no way a neuroscientist or a linguist, so I don't know how these things work, but I don't think being bilungual stops you from being a good writer (that just sounds like a lazy excuse). You might fumble sometimes because your brain can think in more than one language, but that's as trivial as people occasionally messing up their words. If you're bad at writing, it just means you're bad at writing, period, and not necessarily related to your language abilities.

  8. Nabokov, one of the greatest writers was trilingual from an early age as he spoke Russian, French and English at home. He translated his works by himself and they are great in every language.

  9. Anecdotally speaking, I've come across several people who should be "bilingual", raised and schooled in one culture but speaking another language in the home, and most of those people that I've known have had some trouble with one or both languages. While I've never seen the Korean speak, his writing is flawless, but that doesn't mean that everyone is so gifted.

    While I hope to raise any of my future children in a bilingual environment, I will try to focus extra hard on writing (at least for my native tongue) because it seems to come more difficult than speaking or listening. It is certainly not an impossible task, but if only one language is spoken in the home, perhaps it could be hard for some (especially those who may not be linguistically inclined) to pick up on nuances between different words and grammatical tenses.

    But I think that the benefits of being bilingual largely outweigh any potential downsides to bilingualism.

  10. I think a distinction should be made among those who are bilingual from birth or early childhood, because of their family's ethnicity and those who learned other languages at school at a later age, as the learning process is very different. If a child speaks one language at home and is schooled in a second language, that will probably make her a better writer in the school's language, with regard especially to spelling, but also in the use of all literary devices, unless her parents take care to make her read books in her native language at home.

    Those who learn their second language at school (from books) will have no problems with the spelling, but their writing in their second language will reflect their first-language culture (their way of thinking, logic, arguments, expressions etc.) and thus will probably make them a weaker writer in their second language, imho.

    I know someone whose parents came from two different cultures, and she attended school in a third language from age 6. She is fluent in all three languages (plus English), but her writing is best in the third, the language of her schooling.

  11. emblem,

    You might be better than most, but most translations the Korean has seen (especially those of poetry) don't bother with things like meter and rhyme.


    Agreed. Bilingualism is a gift, but one must capitalize on it.


    Someone didn't read the OP very carefully. NYT article clearly states that the benefit of bilingualism is mostly about having a meta-language. That feeds directly into the Korean's exposition of why bilingualism makes one a good writer.


    It is a mysterious process, for sure. The Korean has found that it is impossible to translate while listening to radio.

  12. The title of this post could pose the question, “Does Bilingualism Make You a Good Writer?” I agree with ‘refresh_daemon’ that learning a second language can improve your native language skill. Unfortunately though, I have yet to meet a good bilingual writer. They surely exist though. The Korean, among others, has exceptional English writing ability. But I work with many Koreans (here in Korea on a military post) who have spent plenty of years living and working in the States, using English presumably for day-to-day living, or some who have an English-speaking spouse, but their English writing is substandard for even a high-school level. I learn a great deal of Korean from my bilingual colleagues but I would dare not ever let some of them draft a memo or an e-mail for me in English. Claiming bilingualism doesn’t mean anything without a qualifier. Rudimentary competency and a working fluency are distinct qualifiers. Bilingualism in no way makes you a bad writer. Being a good writer in any language, however, requires a great deal of practice and dedication. In my opinion, becoming a masterful writer requires more practice and skill than bilingual speaking and listening. Lara’s friend may have a similar observation to mine in that bilinguals may forsake mastery of one language (in this case the native language of the beholder) over a competency in both; a competency which would qualify as producing good writing.

  13. I learned English in later childhood, as a ten year old and it is now very much my dominant language. I have hard time convincing other Finns that Finnish is actually my native language as it has relinguished its position as my dominant, or best, language.

    Still the more I have to write in school my Finnish improves and becomes easier to use. I am not sure I will ever gain the same amount of proficiency in writing it as in English but it helps me be a better writer over all to write in both.

  14. I think this also depends on if the bilingual person grows up with parents that are fluent in both languages or immigrant parents that are fluent in only one language and struggle in the second.

    The person with parents fluent in both obviously has the advantage in this situation, but I still believe you have the potential for an advantage either way.

    Not directly related, but a VERY interesting article with how language shapes thought that addresses some bilingual issues too:


  15. Other people have made much better points than I could on bilingual writers (that it could improve meta-writing, but that it is hard to learn to write well in any language, so doing it in two is twice as hard).

    However, if you are a parent and speak one language fluently and perfect and the other language imperfectly, please please use the language you speak perfectly with your kid. Having a bilingual kid is far better than having a kid who picks up incorrect grammar from a well-intentioned parent. My mom speaks English well enough to live and work at a high level in the United States, but sometimes her sentences use a structure that would be grammatically correct in her native language but is not in English. I've read enough and am motivated enough so that this isn't a major problem for me (at least in my writing), but my brother is lower-functioning, and he definitely parrots incorrect grammatical structures that he learned from my mom.

  16. Comment received over email:

    Any assertion that having more than one language makes you a poorer writer is ridiculous on the face of it. First, find me a 'great' Continental European writer who didn't speak more than one language-Goethe? Kafka? Tom Stoppard? Joseph Conrad? (and Shakespeare probably had quite a bit of Latin and some Greek, though since that was so long ago nobody actually knows now)

    I'm not very familiar with Asian novelists but I bet most of them have more than their mother tongue.

    As a monolingual English speaker, I listen to quite a bit of international radio, and I delight in the phrases, which I would never have come up with, that people of other dialects and languages say.

    No, being a poorer writer makes you a poorer writer. Other languages can only help.

    - Jenny

  17. It's not the fact they can use more than one language it's HOW they use it. There's different techniques for learning and when learning 2 languages at once you're also learning 2 grammatical styles. Also, take into account they were kindergarten age so they're SUPPOSED to think that's silly.

    There are literally billions around the world that know only one language since birth and are experts at it and yet there are those who know more than one language and are bad at all of them.

  18. I was born and grown up in a whole bilingual area, using both Croatian and Italian contemporarily, both outside and at home. Made me bilingual from the start. And with my mother being a language and literature teacher, I've grown up in a linguistic environment. Later I've learned English at school and from multimedia (loved Birtish and American punk/rock songs, still love them) and used it as the media of conversation with tourists from non-Croatian/Italian speaking languages. At about the age of 20, I've learned Korean too and now I speak it daily both at home and outside because I'm living in Seoul. Of course I need improvement, learning never stops, but I'm being quite fluent in it. At school I speak a lot of English, because it's my majour and there's lessons held in English where we students are obbligated to use English only. So I'm speaking four languages, could have spoken five, but unfortunately I've forgotten German, which I was studying at high school and was quite good at too.

    So I'm not a professional writer, I prefer writing and drawing comics, I do it as a hobby, actually, but when I do get myself working on a writing, either for homework or just because I got some inspiration, be it a short story, be it a poem, usually people tend to like my stuff. Not wanting to sound self-praising, but I've been told I'm really tallented, that my thoughts are interesting and my choice of words to express these thought and feelings are interesting as well. I've been told my writing is very beautiful, artistic, original and entertaining. And, dunno how much it matters, but since high school to nowadays, I've been getting the highest grades for my writing projects, homeworks, exams ect. at school. Of course, I am not perfect, sometimes I fail too. In fact, I bet this comment itself is not linguistically perfect either. But the majority of my work gets well praised by my audience, which recently includes mostly people who don not know me personally, or who do know me, but we're not close friends.

    So, the conclusion is ----> being a good writer is not really a matter of being mono- or multi-lingual, it's about your devotion to your work. About how much you care about sharing your ideas and the way you want to rappresent them to the potential readers.


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