How to Write Better by Learning a New Language

During quarantine (which is still going on, despite, y’know, people acting like it isn’t), I decided to take up three hobbies to keep myself healthy and sane: one for the body, one for the soul, and one for the mind. 

For the body, I started working out. A lot. As in, I became kind of an at-home gym rat. I bought a rower and became addicted to it. Then I alternated between that and weights/core. Then I did big hikes on the weekend. Now I’m doing a video fitness routine. I’m also eating healthier. But this post is not about that and quite frankly, no one wants to hear about yet another person’s “fitness journey.” (I sure don’t and I went on one!)

What I do want to talk about are the hobbies I did for the soul and mind. For the soul, I decided to earnestly finish my third book. I see a finished book as a completed part of myself that I’m sharing with the world; ergo it’s part of my “soul.” 

For the mind, I chose to learn a new language – German. 

Why a new language? First, a new language will give you a better understanding of your own Muttersprache — mother’s tongue. You will gain clarity around subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, cases, articles, and even the simple stuff like adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, and clauses. Second, you will appreciate a new language for the complexity, simplicity, and nuance it has over your own. You’ll find ways that your own language feels one step up from other languages (gendered nouns anyone?) and several steps behind others (why do we have so many spellings for “their” for Christ’s sake?).

Last but not least — learning a new language is fun and will improve your writing.

But why German? 

I took four years of French in high school. I got pretty good at it. I even studied on my own when I wasn’t at school. See, in high school I was a bit of a hopeless romantic (still am, but far more cynical) and thought one day I’d learn French and go to Paris and write poetry and fall in love while accordions serenaded us down the Seine. That didn’t happen. In fact, it was a good thing I studied on my own because my French class felt we were behind compared to the Spanish and German classes — the Spanish-speakers were nearly fluent by year II and the German-speakers had an actual German woman teaching them. French III and French IV had us conjugating irregular verbs all the time with no change in vocabulary. 

By the time I left high school, I was burned out and hated French. 

My interest in German came around when I started listening to a certain industrial German band and wanted to know what they were singing about. My favorite song, “Engel,” was one of the first I heard and I started paying attention whenever they released a new album. Here and there, I’d pick up a few words and be proud of myself whenever I’d hear those same words in another song or in a movie.

In 2013, I almost went to Berlin with some friends. Not wanting to be a dumb American that didn’t know the language even a little bit, I did a Pimsleur crash course for several months. It helped a lot — I got pretty conversational with German and even got pretty confident that I could at least ask for directions or order food when I was out. But that all came crashing down when work conflicts came up and I couldn’t go. I stopped the Pimsleur training and all my German training flew right out of my head.

So here I am, tucked away in my house writing a book and looking for something else to do with my time. I thought to myself, “You know what I want to do in the evenings? I want to pick German back up again.”

And that’s what I did. Nothing formal right now, just Duo Lingo and the occasional Google Translate. I’d like to find that Pimsleur program again to supplement Duo Lingo because it’s not a comprehensive program (it is, after all, just an iPhone app). But it’s fun and educational, and something that helps me. 

What have I learned?

German is an interesting language. If you don’t speak it, you might be mildly familiar with jokes about super long nouns or adjectives and umlauts and sentences so complex it’s no wonder everyone sounds like they’re yelling all the time. None of that is…far off. It’s not accurate, but it’s not a lie, either. But it doesn’t mean it’s not fun to study, either. After all, English has a slew of weird rules and exceptions and bizarre spellings and pronunciations. Glass houses and stones, right?

Yes, some letters are harder to pronounce than others unless you practice. The hardest so far for me is ö – as in möchten. I have to train my lips to curl around that ö so I pronounce it correctly and it’s not easy. But others are much easier than they look: ä is pretty easy when I remember Bär is pronounced like its English translation: “bear.” Now I know whenever ä comes up, I think about Bär/bear and I’m all set.

Here’s where I get mad at English and wish we had a bit of a more simplified approach to our verbs like German. Did you know there is a German word to eat breakfast? Yep, frühstücken means “eat breakfast” and if I wanted to say “I am eating breakfast” in German, I would just say, ich frühstücke. HOW SIMPLE IS THAT? Why do I have to say SO MANY WORDS just to convey that I am eating breakfast in English? I mean, sure I can say “I’m breakfasting” (which sounds dodgy and might get some MS Word red-lines) or “I am breaking fast.” But that’s just not the same!

Yet, English is easier in at least one respect to German, French, Spanish, and quite a bevvy of other languages in one aspect — and you knew this was coming: gendering nouns. I’ve had a hell of a time sorting nouns into die, der, and das columns of my German notebook. It’s hard to keep track of what is what because just when I think there is a discernable pattern, I get thrown off. Are “traditionally feminine things” all die and “traditionally masculine things” all der? Where does that leave neuter nouns? Why do I feel gross typing that? Why can’t everything just be das? Who am I to tell an entire language they need to change when the English language needs to work out its own problems (we do, after all, gender boats, cars, and other vehicles to be female)? Uh-oh, did I just throw my phone across the room again?

But one thing to take from all my German learning is sentence structure. For now, I’m still learning slightly more complex sentences that include two verbs. If I want to say, I need to buy new clothes, the translation is:

Ich brauche neue Kleidung kaufen.

Literally: “I need new clothes to buy”. The second verb goes at the end.

Another harder example is with days of the week. If I wanted to say, I have a job interview on Tuesday, the German translation is:

Ich habe am Dienstag ein Jobinterview.

Literally, “I have on Tuesday a job interview.”

The hardest example of all (so far) is with time. Das museum is von acht bis fünf geöffnet translates literally to, “the museum is from eight to five open” — the museum is open from five to eight.

This is a great way to improve my writing in English, however. Not only am I paying attention to how long my sentences go on (and I’m bad at long sentences — the more information, the better, right? No.), but I’m also cognizant of my objects, subjects, and verbs themselves in the sentences. Are they strong? Can I improve them? Are they the right fit? Do they make sense for the emotion I’m trying to convey? Do I want to replace them with something stronger/better/simpler? I try to put myself in the position of someone who is possibly translating my work into German — how would they feel translating a sentence that is 1. Too long, 2. Too complex and 3. Too heavy. 

I encourage every native English speaker to learn a new language, regardless of your age. Learning a new language is fun and challenging, plus it’s a good way to improve your own English writing skills. You’ll appreciate the effort non-native speakers put in to learn our ridiculous sentence structure and the nuances you never realized English had.