My desire to be a novelist started when I took my first Spanish language class in high school. Prior to this class, I wrote poetry as an outlet for my emotions (#bullyingvictim) and didn’t think I could be a serious writer. I have vivid memories at age 8, when a teacher gave me one of those brightly coloured certificates for a story I wrote; and at age 10, when a story project took hold of me and my artistic ability and I went above-and-beyond the rubric. I don’t remember many good things of my past. But these flashes are important and filled with joy.
At the young age of 14, when I took that first Spanish language class, I wasn’t even thinking about careers, or life-long goals and dreams, or even what classes I would take the next year. I was thinking of my boyfriend at the time, romanticising his first language and everything about him.
Before studying Spanish, I had studied French since I was 10, as is the requirement in my school district. But since this studying was required and not voluntary, I felt it was a chore. Plus, after 4 years of studying it in elementary school, you just get bored of it.
But that Spanish class.
Oh, that Spanish class.
I felt like JRR Tolkien, the linguistic and literature nerd that he was. I was on fire. Grammar! Phonetics! More grammar! Etymology due to the Iberian Peninsula’s strategic placement between three different language families! (Okay, this I didn’t learn specifically in that class, but I did learn some tips about spelling that came directly from words coming from Arabic or Greek.)
Language opened up to me. Here I was, bright-eyed and getting straight A’s in all my Spanish courses, and all I thought about was the potential that language had.
I learned all of my English grammar when I studied French and Spanish. The two Romance languages have verb tenses, verb moods, and aspects that English doesn’t. But even now, as I enter my final year of study where Spanish Language is half of my major, I think back to French grammar rules. If you ask me to state the verb tense in “John had walked to school,” I would say “plus-que-parfait” because that’s what it is—in French, anyway. I have to remind myself of the English translation.
In the English classes I took during high school, we didn’t learn grammar. We analysed literature and media. I think in one Grade 9 class, we had a week of grammar worksheets, but nothing more. Now, my literature profs, the generation above me, question why the heck their students don’t know grammar. Because not all of us were taught it formally in school.
In my creative writing class in 2015, my professor asked me why I used a specific verb tense in contrast with the rest of the verbs in my poem. In my head, it made sense; I had the simple present and the present perfect (or present past) together, and to me (and in Spanish), those fit in the same world of past/present/future. My professor and I debated it for a bit, and, ultimately, he let me decide what I would do with the present perfect. Of course I kept it. It felt correct—and, grammatically, there was nothing wrong with it.
I wouldn’t have even known about different verb tenses if I hadn’t studied foreign languages. Where would I be in my writing journey if I hadn’t studied French for 9 years and Spanish for 5 years? Would I feel like a stranger in my own language? Would I have been inspired to start writing novels?
I don’t really know what prompted me to consider Novelist as a career in that Spanish course. I originally took the class to know more about my abusive boyfriend’s first language.
I suppose it was only a moment of inspiration. The language presented itself to me, deconstructed, and I was given the opportunity to put it back together. There, in the rebuilding, in the dissecting, in the analysing and reconstruction of the language, I think I found bliss—and power. I could create something. I could do things and hope to make other people feel what I felt—bliss, curiosity, awe, intrigue—if I could show them language used differently.
Sometimes my Spanish and French knowledge invade my English knowledge. I find myself pausing, seeking an English equivalent, but eventually settling for a near-translation. How do I translate a second person plural from Spanish to English without using slang? Y’all? You guys? Pronouns alone are troublesome in English, especially since English is so resistant to a singular “they” (which, I will state firmly now, is grammatically correct and even if it weren’t, who gives a damn? Seriously. Don’t be an ass about language “purity”).
If I had grown up bilingual, I don’t think I would have the same appreciation for language. I think I needed to study the languages and take them apart. I needed that linguistic awareness to really see the beauty behind writing.