Why a Second Language Will Make You a Better Writer

Those of you who’ve taken a cursory glance over my LinkedIn profile may have noticed I hold a Spanish Language and Linguistics degree.

Truth be told, it’s not something I shout about too loudly, and usually only comes up after a few…shall we say…sangrias. I keep tranquila about it because:

  • I’m so terrified of getting something wrong in any language, it’s better to keep schtum.
  • My sister has the same degree, only she went the whole hog and now lives in Spain.
  • If you speak Spanish to a native, they will reply. Ayúdame.

It’s been eight years since I graduated. The degree was four years long, so the rest of my university chums were unleashed upon the world one year earlier. Despite this passage of time, the old lingo still rears its trilling head.

One such occasion was a couple of weeks ago when I headed out to Spain.

“They’re not wearing their mascara.”

See Exhibit A for how things can get lost in translation. A chance email exchange with one of my clients, Muzo, revealed that they had an interview opportunity with a stakeholder in Barcelona. As fate would have it, my bilingual sister’s birthday was coming up, so I volunteered to head out there and conduct a socially distanced interview.

Having a loose command of a second language occasionally gives one a sense of hubris, particularly when surrounded by hordes of drunk students on a Ryanair flight. Said students had got their hands on a duty free, industrial sized bottle of vodka and were having a gay old time, drinking and flagrantly shunning the mask rule.

Well, call me a Karen, but I was having none of it. “No llevan las máscaras,” I told the air stewards, smug at my delivery of justice. The air stewards continued to reprimand the group throughout the flight, until they finally gave in.

It wasn’t until I’d arrived at my sister’s house that I realised I’d told the stewards these kids weren’t wearing their mascara.

máscara [noun] = a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or terrify other people, mascara.

mascarilla [noun] = face mask.

Language-learning in children

That was pretty mortifying. But it was comforting to see my seven-year-old genius and polyglot nephew making the same mistake. “He’s got that wrong,” my sister told me. “It’s mascarilla. He must have picked that up somewhere.”

When we are children, we’re taught the fundamentals of grammar in our native language, but most of it we pick up with experience. “I runned away,” said my four-year-old nephew. No, Santi, you ran away.

Linguists called this the “critical period”. Noam Chomsky’s theory suggests that children must be exposed to a language before the age of six to 13 to fully acquire it.

The theory carries over into second language acquisition, but it’s not as widely accepted. Rather, adults are capable of learning a second language, but they may still show signs of mispronunciation, because they’re falling back on the phonetic frameworks of their native tongue.

What we learn about our own language

If even bilingual children can get it wrong, that gives adult learners hope. It is our environment that teaches us to say “ran” instead of “runned”, rather than prescribed classroom teaching.

The beauty of learning a second language in a pedagogical setting is that we begin to appreciate the norms of grammar. If I were to ask a layman how to explain the subjunctive (see what I did there) in English, he or she might struggle. The same goes for the perfect tense, the pluperfect, the conditional…

Getting to grips with grammar in a second language helps us to communicate better in our own. For example, “I had had the chance to win the race” looks a bit odd in English. It’s not wrong, but it’s an example of the ‘perfect’ verb construction: to have done something, or haber in Spanish.

Sympathising with second language learners

Another benefit of having a second language in your arsenal is empathy. Once you understand why non-natives make certain mistakes, you’re less likely to judge.

In Spanish, the word “ya” is thrown around with gay abandon. Often used in colloquial expressions, the term literally translates as “already”. However, we see it in phrases such as “I’m on my way”. Ya adds a sense of urgency that’s redundant in English, and it might explain why you hear many European people casually dropping “already” into conversation.

The same goes for pronunciation. I cannot tell you the relief I felt when I heard my sister’s husband once pronounce “chemicals” with a ch sound. Of course he did – Spanish doesn’t have this ridiculous silent h. Well, it does, only it’s not with the ch – otherwise known as “che” as a letter in itself. “Ah yes, The Chemical Brothers,” he said, correcting himself.  Whatever works!

Exposure to other cultures

By taking on a second language, we also learn more about other cultures. Language opens up doors to all sorts of cognitive biases, and helps us to understand why some communities feel a certain way.

One eye-opening study showed gender bias in different cultures, purely based on masculine and feminine nouns. In German, the word “key” is masculine, while in Spanish, it is feminine. This may explain why Spaniards described keys as “golden”, “intricate” and “lovely”, while Germans called keys “hard”, “heavy” and “jagged”.

What might appear as sexist in one culture might be perfectly acceptable in another…and it all comes down to articles!

The same goes for branding. In the 70s, nappy brand Pampers tried to conquer the Japanese market. The only problem was that their famous stork mascot meant nothing in Japan. Had they immersed themselves in Japanese culture, they’d have realised that the Japanese equivalent was a peach. Whoops.

In pursuit of perfection

The prescriptive, stubborn writer in me tells me that everything must be perfect. But that’s not real life now, is it? When I made my little mascara faux pas, the air steward didn’t look at me with disdain. He understood and responded in Spanish.

Sometimes, we might not always get it right, but it’s enough for us to be understood. And that’s a key lesson for marketers. As long as our message is clear, we will resonate with customers – though a little research never hurt anybody. Take heed, Pampers.

Are you taking on a second language?

As evidence from the 2020 ProCopywriters Report shows, secondary languages are common skills among writers. Eleven per cent of us have a background in a modern language.

Meanwhile, lockdown has given us a fresh perspective. In July, the language-learning app Duolingo reported 300 per cent growth, with European languages proving most popular.

If you are going to take on a second language, please heed this advice from somebody who’s overwhelmingly anxious about her linguistic skills.

  • Respect the fact that English is not the standard – German, for example, has three genders.
  • Don’t run before you can walk. Start with the basic frameworks before you go taking on whole conversations (this will help you learn more about English, too).
  • Shrug it off if you do get something wrong. More often than not, people appreciate you trying – especially if you’re English.
  • Immerse yourself however you can (corona-permitting!). Go beyond the app. Watch films. Look up foreign language writers. Chat to natives.
  • Stick to it. Even if it’s just an hour a week, it’s like riding a bike. Except riding a bike doesn’t improve when you’re drunk…

Do you speak a second language? Let me know. Until then, it’s hasta luego for now.


katie barcelona
Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
30th October 2020