K. J. Bagnall

Writer. Editor. Illustrator. Mental Health Activist. Christian.

How Foreign Language Improved My Creative Writing

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Learning a second language gives a new understanding of culture and the concept of language and symbolism. As a writer, learning Japanese inspired me to push the boundaries of English, and opened my eyes to the diversity of human thought.

A second language is a huge aid to two significant foundations of creative writing: characters and setting. Let me give you a taste of what is possible.

Inspired by “Arrival”

I wanted to write this article years ago, before Three Bags Full Blog existed, but didn’t have the opportunity. The idea was recently re-sparked when I watched the 2016 movie Arrival.

It was late, and my family had just started a movie when I arrived, longing for bed. When I heard the name was Arrival, I thought “great, another aliens-invade-earth-oh-what-will-we-do sci-fi”.

But I decided to sit for five minutes before heading to bed. Turned out I totally misjudged the movie, and was hooked until the end.

Image owned by Paramount Pictures/YouTube, via Adam Epstein, Quatz


The story is centred around characters trying to interpret the alien language — which is visually stunning. Being somewhat bilingual allowed me to really understand some of the issues the characters faced.

“We need to make sure that they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool. Language is messy and sometimes one can be both.” — Dr. Louise Banks, Arrival

This line about the tiny yet huge difference between “weapon” and “tool” really resonated with me. That’s the thing with language, it is very difficult to understand outside its cultural context.

A New Experience

Learning a language is more than just acquiring another skill. It’s even more than becoming a better communicator. Tied in with studying a language is discovering a whole new cultural world-view.

When you learn to describe the world and even yourself with different sounds, and unfamiliar idioms, you start to see different things. Start to have different experiences with ordinary things.

Image by Subbu Noir

Different languages have different ways of thanking people, or offering sympathy for a lost loved one. Some words in one language don’t exist in another. This opens up so many new possibilities for understanding and interacting with the world.

Building Unique Worlds

Language and culture go hand-in-hand. And learning a language opens up such a layer of culture you would otherwise miss out on.

Even if you are not creating a language or using multiple languages in a story, being familiar with how language is constructed is a great asset.

For example, in a story I am working on now, characters greet each other with the phrase “fair health”. My mind opened up to this possibility when I learnt that, in Japanese, they say “it’s early” instead of “good morning”.

Using Unique Phrases

Studying another language helped me break through cliché patterns and find new ways to see objects. This is especially useful when trying to come up with effective yet new descriptive phrases.

It is easy to write dull, predictable description. And it’s hard to keep digging into new ways to describe something that has, no doubt, been described countless times across the ages.

But, as well as helping create rich cultures, studying a foreign language helps describe those cultures. Helps describe setting.

Image via Max Pixel

Deepening Characters

To create deep characters, you don’t stop at what they look like and what they do. You delve into what the think, how they think. Language is a huge contributor to how people think, and being bilingual opened up new thoughts to me.

“I want an apple” sounds awkward when translated, word for word, into Korean. A Korean person is much more likely to say … “It would be nice to have an apple.” — Ha-yun Jung

Asian languages such as Korean and Japanese are full of variations of “politeness”. This is new for English speakers, who convey respect and politeness with tone of voice rather than words.

This makes word choice very important in these cultures, and brings the concept of hierarchy into continual conscious thought. Which makes a huge impact on a person’s concept of self.

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The benefits of learning another language are countess. And one less-discussed benefit is to creative writing.

I won’t say it’s for every writer, but if you write and have an interest in linguistics or a hidden desire to learn another language, I encourage you to pursue it. It will add a richness to your writing you can’t achieve any other way.

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