The fears, problems, and solutions of being a non-native writer.
"I'm a writer, teacher and narrative designer[.] I write in both English and French."
This sentence is terrifying and took me a while to write. It's much easier to call myself a teacher after barely two years of practice than to claim I can write in English, despite being taught this language since my early childhood.
I'm French. I grew up in a very French family that loved its speaking clichés like it loved its baguettes and its wine: we swore to punctuate, used slang in polite phrasings, and lived for word puns. My mother shared her English with the infant me while my dad wasn't around to crusade against the foreign language (or so she told me). Problem is, her English, her accent, her vocabulary, were all superbly French. That's how I learned it.
A bit later I went to boarding school and lived a couple years surrounded by native speakers but this was a French school, and in French schools English people prefer to practice their French. I also spent half a year in college in a state-of-the-art language learning laboratory, with headphones screwed on my head and repetitive academic phrasings hammered in my brain all day long, until I decided that, yeah, no, I didn't want to become a teacher or translator. I'd be a game dev instead. Better: I'd be a game writer! (This is a romanticized version of five years of struggle to find what I wanted to do with my life.)
Here I am today, an actual writer with novellas and games and tv things with my name in their credits. A couple of each. Most of them in French. And I'm crippled by an imposter syndrome so massive and omnipresent I can hear it breathing down my neck for every single word I type in English. It's here right now. It whispers that even the most below-average native writer has a better, wider, and more natural range of writing than I do.
My first writing gig was to create backstory novellas for game characters. It was a fun exercise in creativity. It was a nightmare in writing. I had to put a leash on my words and drag them across the text to try and build something cohesive. They were reluctant, didn't come to me, hid in the corners of my brain while only monosyllabic vocabulary answered the call. My client called me to ask what the fuck I was doing.
I had no idea.
With the help of native editors, eventually, my texts came together and produced a decent result - although I'm still ashamed of some of the subpar versions which made it into the game. This moment, if it kickstarted my writing career, also deeply scarred my relationship with English. What I guessed were fears based on my lack of practice and newness to the job soon turned into tangible, regular problems.
The problems of being a non-native speaker are a list which can vary from writer to writer, but its contents are recurring: - Lack of spoken practice - Artificial knowledge of colloquialisms - Reduced vocabulary and reduced writing fluidity - Native grammar influence on non-native sentences - Imposter syndrome
Lack of spoken practice is self-explanatory. If you do not live in an English speaking country, it is pretty difficult to get the hang of natural conversation flow. And not every English-speaking country can do: I lived in Singapore for a short while, and my English became riddled with weird sentence finishers that made no sense anywhere else-la.
Artificial knowledge of colloquialisms is a problem streaming from the previous one. In media, the spoken language is a better, faster, stronger version of itself which gets rid of all the fluff and fat of normal conversations. You can learn from them, and you don't really have a choice if you want to improve, but what you will learn is a perfected and fantasized version of the truth. Abbreviations, slang, metaphors: you must live them to know them. Even for my French writing, I coerce myself into long hours of eavesdropping on so, so many people - because otherwise I could only write in one voice: mine. You need to listen to businesspeople to understand their diplomatic subtleties, to teenagers to pick up the latest slang and insults, to old persons to get how and why they're loathing that peculiar novelty. It's not something you can get from movies or books. Media refine this raw material into a shining, perfect result. And you can't learn from perfection.
Reduced vocabulary, on the other hand, is an issue that's more complex than it sounds. Aside from the obvious problem of not knowing the translation for that specific word you need, a reduced vocabulary will make it less natural for you to come up with the sentence that matches that word. Writing is made of clichés and archetypes and your reader will expect them: building your writing to bypass and overturn these expectations will surprise and captivate. Being unfamiliar with these habits makes it way harder to simulate them. And let's not even mention the differences between British and American English, which have their own preferences and expectations and even their own vocabularies. If in addition to this lack of knowledge, you have to spend three minutes of thesaurus-digging for every word you can't find in your mind, your writing flow will definitely suffer. Productivity-wise, you will always be slower than native writers aiming for the same job.
Even more vicious is the influence of your mother tongue. I might have pushed the limits of masochism by choosing to write in two languages. French grammar and English grammar hate each other, and sometimes the order of words just doesn't make sense to me in either language. After a week of writing in French, I will find myself creating monsters like "said she" or "headphones screwed on my head." It also goes the other way around and close friends and family know how I can't speak French without slipping into Englishish-sounding chimeras of words and structures which were never meant for the human ear. Because freelance work is unstable and uncertain by nature, I need to cultivate both languages and cannot abandon one or the other - or I'd get half the jobs.
Finally and most importantly is the imposter syndrome. When I read portfolios of native writers, when I hear criticisms of the English in French games, when job offers put in bold font their requirement for a native speaker, I'm overwhelmed by a sense of defeat and shame. Of impossibility. How can I pretend to compete? How can I make people pay for what I can barely do? How can I dare to write in English? How?
Still, I couldn't just give up writing, could I? English is the main writing language for video games, even for French developers, and giving it up meant giving up the industry itself. (Okay that's a bit of an overstatement. Let's correct it to "would restrict me to specific, and often small and not narrative-oriented, studios." Which also means working for meager prices: France cultivates a deep hatred for the valuation of so-called passion jobs, but that's another subject.)
So, bit by bit, I gathered and built solutions to these problems.
Spoken practice: Go into bars and chatrooms What's better than meeting new people around a beer? Meeting new people around a beer while improving your skill. Speaking in English with your locally-raised friends is cool, but what you need are people who were born and raised in English. So meet them! In most countries, if not all, travelers tend to gather with fellow immigrants from their country and share a taste of home through speaking. Associations, bars, gathering places, learn where to find them and put your shyness on the side for a couple hours. Of course, do not parasite places where you're not meant to be. The Polyglot Club is a great place to start, they're everywhere. If moving is a problem or talking face to face with strangers makes you way too uncomfortable, there are several online chatrooms you can join to practice your English skills. A piece of advice: avoid chatrooms made to learn English. They are filled with people like you, and the native speakers are here to teach you - which means they will censor the way they speak, consciously or not. Favor chatrooms for things that interest you: for instance, I like to lurk in the Discord chats of the games I play and sometimes jump to political or news chats. Vary your chatrooms to vary the population, profiles, and ways of speaking you will encounter.
If you have the money, you can also travel to English-speaking countries. Travel alone if possible (or with people who will let you practice) and speak often. Renting a private bedroom is an excellent way to connect with local inhabitants and practice, and will also get you insider tips for your trip. Win-win.
Colloquialisms: Interviews, podcasts, and tv shows The previous method completely applies to this problem. In addition to English-speaking offline places and online chats, you can also learn a lot by listening to recordings. Street interviews, podcasts, tv shows: any situation where the speakers do not read from a prompter and simply improvise their answers is excellent material. Any host reading from small-print cards is someone you will not want to listen to, and you will also need to be careful with podcasts and radio shows which are often scripted.
Vocabulary and writing fluidity: Training and practice and exercise There's no other way. Craft yourself a custom routine, and do it as often as possible. In my case, synonyms training is way more efficient than trying to integrate new words. The essential thing is to learn how to make the best out of what you know. So spend your life reading and writing and reading and reading some more, then, instead of forcing yourself to study new words, study words you already know. This is a book, but it's also a volume, a novel, a fiction, a title, a tome. Teach yourself to look at everyday things and come up with as many synonyms as you can. You will grow new reflexes and words will come much faster when you are looking for them, because you trained yourself to bring them out. It will be more swift, more fluid, more rapid, accelerated, and quicker.
Native grammar influence: Language spaces This one is purely subjective. To rewire my brain into French or English mode, I use defined spaces to write. My pc/ Grammarly/ Inky/ Gmail? English only. My laptop/ Word/ Google docs/ Outlook? French only. Creating spaces for specific languages has allowed me to alleviate the impact each one had on the other - I built a switch for my habits. This method is not optimal, but it's the only thing that helps me make a clean distinction between the two languages without having to think about it. The rest is nothing more but practice and careful editing.
Imposter syndrome: Live with it My diligence in writing has developed to the point where I can't send a text after at least five to ten editing passes. I consider investing thousands in a professional editor for texts shorter than a page - for fear that someone will find out how terrible I am. So far, they haven't noticed. I'm still uncaught.
I've been lucky: I sent my resume to the right companies at the right times, knew people who knew people who needed people, learned selling skills passively while attending game events and promoting projects. I've done some recruitment, which taught me how to present myself to a recruiter. I even gained the opportunity to write when I wasn't looking for it, supporting our writing team when I was nothing more than a producer. I've been lucky, and nobody found out. Am I a fraud? Neil Gaiman wrote a short post earlier this year which greatly helped me fight this assumption.
Now, I like to think that I spent so much time training to overcome my weaknesses that I gained superpowers others don't have. I'm still below native level, and I will forever be, but what does writing level even mean? I can create stories just fine, can't I?
Writing is telepathy. It's sending your thoughts to the mind of someone else. The language, by itself, matters not: it's just a tool to help you do the magic, the hat from which comes the bunny. So, just forget about the problem. Write. Study. Essays, books, movies, scripts, train, train, train, and never stop. Groom the rabbit with your knowledge, don't focus on your non-native sins - they are a part of you, and may even bring you strengths you have yet to notice. My swearing and my slang and my word puns might be weird in English, but they give my writing its flavor and its personality.
And people like what I do.
I wrote this article without any translator or thesaurus. This was hard but fun, and a good attempt at proving that you can get the point across using your own words and mistakes.
Thank you for reading and have a great day.