Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

English Not Your Native Tongue? One Writer's Tips.

We here at the Visual Thesaurus receive a lot of emails from subscribers around the world. Not long ago we got a nice note from Sandra Dolores Becker of Porto Alegre, Brazil. She wrote:

"The Visual Thesaurus has become a friend, a colleague, and my companion when I'm trying to find the specific word that will fit perfectly in a verse of my early period poetry or when I'm writing another chapter of my book. It's wondrous! I spend my time researching, finding and reflecting on the meaning of words. Simple words? No, words are never simple. They can move mountains, change a nation, make a friend or cause pain. Words can make us dream, see what isn't there at the moment? Accept my gratitude for showing me how to increase my vocabulary with ease!"

Thank you, Sandra! Her note got us curious about her work and the challenges she faces writing in both Portuguese and English. We wanted to ask Sandra for her advice to writers whose native tongue isn't English. So we contacted Sandra in Brazil. We were surprised to learn she had lived the first half of her life in Indiana and works for an American multi-national company, in addition to writing poetry and fiction in both languages. With this unique perspective, here's what Sandra shared with us:

VT: What are some challenges to writing in English if it's not your mother tongue?

Sandra: English often starts by telling you about the subject before you speak it. For example, consider this sentence: "Get the cup on the red table." I say "table" at the end of the sentence, of course; that's English. In the Latin family of languages, however, you speak the subject first and only afterwards everything that describes it, like adjectives. So you say: "Get the cup that is on the table red." It took me a while to work this out. I'd translate something in one of the languages and people would look at me and say, "what are you talking about?"

VT: What other obstacles do you see?

Sandra: Possessive nouns are very difficult and can mess you up. Also, capital letters and idiomatic expressions. When I say I've got "ants in my pants" in Portuguese, nobody here in Brazil understands what I mean! You can't translate between languages exactly, you have to see how it's spoken in each tongue, which can be totally different. These are just a few examples.

VT: What do you do to overcome these challenges?

Sandra: The most important thing you can do is read. It's been a long time since I lived in America, so I make sure to order books from the USA that are written by American authors. I want to learn how they use idioms, slang and contractions -- how they speak "American."

I also suggest keeping the grammar rules you learned in school in mind. Here in Brazil we have these rules on the tips of our tongues when we write English. Another thing I find important is learning the sounds of vowels, their placement in a word and how they're pronounced. For example there's the rule: "The first vowel does the talking, the second vowel does the walking." So in the case of "cake," the "a" does the talking and the "e" shuts up to give the "a" the sound. This is totally different from Portuguese.

These small rules are of utmost importance because if you write a word in English with more letters than are actually spoken, you have to memorize its spelling. Think of the word "whistle." In Portuguese, on the other hand, every letter of a word is pronounced so you only need to know the sound of the alphabet to spell correctly. I've noticed that people here who learned to speak English better improved how they read -- and write -- the language. So please keep practicing!

Sandra graciously submitted one of her poems for our reading pleasure. Please click here.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 9th 2006, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Donnie S.
I really enjoyed that poem. I am an American who had the pleasure of living in Colombia, South America for 5 years. I understand the challenges of communicating in another language. There is so much more to communicating and connecting with people in a non-native language that just "translating." You have to spend a considerable amount of time studying and learning about their everday communication style to really connect with them in your writing. I commend you on your mastery of the english language!
Thursday August 10th 2006, 2:56 PM
Comment by: Renee K.
What a thought provoking poem. Is this about somebody you know who throws their time on Earth away?
We all know somebody like this, I suppose.

Donnie, I think Sandra grew up the first half of her life in the U.S. midwest. While any mastery of a language is be appreciated, I'm not sure it was English that would have been the challenge in Indiana ;)

Or am I wrong Sandra? Did you learn to speak Portuguese as your first language? Either way, congratulations on your publications!
I wish I could WRITE fluently in my 2nd language (French)let alone publish poetry in both!
Friday August 11th 2006, 12:33 PM
Comment by: Sandra B.
Hi Donnie and Renee! Thank you both for your comments. Donnie, I´m glad you liked the poem and that you know the difficulty it is when it comes to the challenges of communication. You hit the bull´s eye, it´s all got to do with "everyday communication style" - perfectly stated! Thank you! :)

As for "mastery" in English - I´m not sure I´ve mastered it but it needs to be practiced constantly like any other language -once not spoken, for sure it will be lost. My first language was Portuguese - more heard than spoken. Then I heard German and spoke Portuguese. Afterwards, I went to school and there, in Indiana, finally, English was spoken.
Other challenges living in Indiana, Renee? Nope! The same as anywhere else in the world and then, it will depend on your own self! ;)
Hugs! Sandra

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