Should you write in your first language? (video)

Viewing time: 3 mins. 16 seconds

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #10, about whether it makes sense to write in your first language, which first ran on March 24/17.


Welcome to The Write Question, the video-podcast designed to answer your questions about writing. I’m Daphne Gray-Grant.

Today I have a question from Chen Wei, who is a PhD student at an American Ivy League university. Here is what she asked me: “I have a question about writing bilingually. I was trying to follow your advice that I should write as fast as possible and leave more time for editing. English is my second language and I found this has played a big role in slowing down my writing process.  I feel it takes much longer for me to think or write things down than if I use my native language. A few years ago, I tried to write the first draft in Chinese and then translate/edit it into English. I found I could write faster and also think more deeply and clearly than if I write in English. I wonder what you think of this method of writing in my native language first and then translating. Thank you.

Thanks, Chen. That’s a really interesting question. Aside from my own time learning French, I haven’t personally accomplished the incredibly difficult task of a PhD in a second language. So I spoke to my English-speaking friend Greg who went through a very similar experience to yours.

He did his PhD in Italy. When he arrived in Rome, he says, “I only spoke Italian at parties and in restaurants.” But he does have a bit of a flair for languages so — after a six-week intensive course — he took his classes in Italian but had permission to write his essays in English. For his dissertation, however, he was required to submit it in Italian. So, he wrote the all-important text in English and had it translated by an Italian graduate student familiar with his topic.

Of course writing is easier in your native language, that makes perfect sense to me. And of course writing in a second language will help improve your fluency in that language. Both of those statements are true, so I guess it comes down to a question of priority:

Which is more important to you? Getting your thesis finished? Or improving your fluency in English. Both are laudable goals but you need to choose one of them. Having gone through the hell of a thesis myself, I would choose that option, just to get the thing finished.

You’ve done something amazing by learning a second language. Now you’re finishing the equally amazing task of earning a PhD from a prestigious school. Cut yourself a break! Don’t try to accomplish too much at once.

And just in case you’re interested, I’ve linked down below to a New Yorker piece by an author — Jhumpa Lahiri — who already spoke two languages and who took on the task of writing a third.

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from psycholinguist Frank Smith. He said: “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”

Good luck with your writing, Chen…or your translating, whichever you choose.

Thanks so much for watching. If YOU have a question, you can email, tweet, or skype me. You can find the details in the description below along with any resources I’ve mentioned. And don’t forget to like and subscribe to the video.


New Yorker story by Jhumpa Lahiri

7 ways non-native English speakers can improve their writing

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