Our Lingua Franca: The Importance of Learning a New Language as a Tool for Writing

Globes of various sizes sit on a desk.
“Globe Collection” by João Silas

In an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, it is more important now than ever that we learn to develop a common tongue. There is no greater area for this than in literature. However, many writers tend to speak only in their own language when weaving their stories. I believe that this is limiting and ultimately detrimental. If you truly want to grow as a writer and have your work reach the widest number of people, I strongly recommend that you study at least one other language.

As any student of language knows, it is an extremely intimidating endeavor to step outside of one’s linguistic comfort zone. A new mode of grammar, a cryptic alphabet, and a challenging writing system—all of these are formidable obstacles. However, the greatest reward for a writer can be found in the phrases and stories that are specific to certain cultures.

For example, let us delve into the Russian language. Many Russian idioms are visually descriptive and oftentimes have an entertaining meaning. Here are two particularly interesting ones: Вешать лапшу на уши (which literally means ‘to hang noodles on one’s ears’) and Очки втирать (‘to smear eyeglasses’). Both of these phrases deal with lying or speaking nonsense, in a way that is new and unfamiliar to a non-native speaker. In exploring and learning different languages, we come across many phrases such as these that can add some spice and variety to our writing by simply changing our perspective.

In addition to idioms, many languages also bring with them a rich bounty of stories usually related to a cultural heritage. Russia, in particular, is a country that is well known for the unique figures of its folklore and mythology: the fearsome Baba Yaga, the devilish Chernabog, the bright and shining Zorya sisters, and the merry Father Frost are only a handful. When it comes to creating the setting (backbone) of a story, some of the best writers draw their inspiration from a variety of cultures. If you dedicate yourself to learning a language, you will be able to draw from and contribute to their stories in an ethical and enjoyable way for all parties.

As writers, our primary goal is not only to tell a good story but to do so in a ‘lingua franca’—a language that is commonly used as common ground between two speakers with different native tongues. Your books, poetry, poems, and music may reach further across the world than you think and, if that is the case, you want it to be in a language and voice that is accessible and enjoyable for everyone. To that end, I encourage you to write a piece that reaches out to someone in their own language and culture. Who knows? Perhaps they’ll reach out and do the same.

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