Pepper has been teaching me French. Clearly she decided I wasn’t using my time productively enough: I’ve been memorising vocab all week and there are grammatical constructions coming out of my ears.
But I’m glad of it because it’s made me realise that the one piece of advice I’d give to writers is this:
Learn a language
Learn a language you were forced to sit through in high school without taking in a single word. Learn a language you’ve never even heard before in your life. Learn a language that uses an entirely different alphabet. Learn a language that’s an older form of your own language.
Learn a language.
In French, ‘moth’ is ‘papillon de nuit’: the butterfly of night. It’s not defined as a different creature. It’s the inverse form of the butterfly, its dark sibling that rules the darkness with its shadowed wings. It’s infinitely more threatening and possibly also doubles as an assassin’s nickname.
And you don’t learn to run before you can walk, either. You ‘want to fly before you have wings’. It’s a feeling I can sympathise with it, but it’s an infinitely more magical image. It’s couple with the idea of ‘flying with your own wings’, in place of our own idiom of standing on one’s one two feet.
Something that’s not overly difficult is ‘not the ocean to drink’. An idea that I imagine Thor can understand, given the story I’ve read of him trying to do just that, but I like it because it suggests French people think everything is easy compared to drinking the ocean, therefore suggesting they’ve tried it.
When you learn a language, you have to step outside your own head. See, I can say, “This is Hulk’s apartment.” The French say, “This is the apartment of Hulk.” Subtle difference, right? But it’s a reinterpretation of ownership. It’s a different way of looking at the world.
Language shapes how we view everything. We perceive gender, in our society, as a binary – and we struggle when people try and dismantle that idea. Because we’ve built up a linguistic basis for that idea, and dude, it’s even worse in French because they give genders to objects.
When we’re describing historical societies who might’ve worked on a one-sex gender system (a fascinating concept, by the way: go and look it up), we start saying, “Well, this was a masculine role, and this was a feminine role, but they weren’t defined by biology…”
What we mean is, “Well, we would perceive this as masculine, but…” It’s only masculine because that’s the word we assigned to it. Those people wouldn’t have had those words. Their language would have enabled them to understand that concept.
Learning a different language forces you to re-examine how you understand the world, especially when you come face to face with their idioms and proverbs.
Even the process of it will help: all the words you associate with characters and things they do, all the ideas that get triggered by the unexpected juxtaposition of vocabulary, all the brainwaves you get because you’re so reluctant to learn grammar that your brain is running on an entirely different track. It will help.
Learn something like Esperanto and see how people create linguistic structures. Learn Anglo-Saxon to see where English came from. Learn Hebrew, Chinese, Russian, Icelandic. Learn languages that push you so far out of your comfort zone you forget that you ever only spoke English.
Learn a language and see the world anew.
Trust me, it sucks at first. Conjugations and tenses and all that. But it’s so worth it.
-- Iron Man