Have you ever had a hard time coming up with the exact right word?
Or any word for that matter?
Or have you ever been in a large crowd of people who are talking all around you, but you cannot understand a single word being said?
I’ve been living these scenarios and feeling these feelings daily for most of the last two years. At the end of July 2017, my family and I moved to Zug, Switzerland and for the first time in my life, I have felt completely at a loss for words. We live in a German speaking Canton (state) and we arrived knowing exactly two words in German: ja and nein.
Since graduating from the Hamline MFAC program in January 2009 and up until this life changing, across-the-world move, my writing life had been filled with fits and starts caused primarily by the several years I spent guiding our eldest daughter through a tumultuous adolescence into a thriving young adulthood. But now, almost two years in our new home, I am proud to say that I am speaking and reading German almost as well as a preschooler! Weekly classes, daily Duolingo app lessons, and time spent pouring over German children’s books has helped me embark on my journey of German language acquisition.
An unexpected side benefit of my language learning journey has been my reignited love for English. Reading it. Speaking it. And once again, writing it. The old adage, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is true. Because I am surrounded by German (many times Swiss German – there is a BIG difference – think Cajun English as a dialect), I have become more cognizant and appreciative of any English exposure. And my writing life has blossomed as a result.
Being a foreigner in a foreign land has, of course, many challenges and hardships not the least of which is language. Building a life away from one of your children. Achingly missing said child and family and friends. Learning the mores and customs of a new culture. But being a foreigner also comes with many unexpected blessings and opportunities for skill building especially as a writer. I notice so much more now. I can’t rely on language or signage to know what is going on in any given situation, I have ‘read’ the room using keen observation and inference, skills that help me when I build a scene for my characters. And I have to take risks on a daily basis just to get through life – navigating transactions at the grocery store so my family can eat, learning the public transportation system so I can get from point A to point B—and finding medical care for myself, my youngest daughter, and our dog— things I took for granted when I lived in the US. But these repeated risk-taking experiences have served me well in my rejuvenated writing life, for example:
When a family member asked me to blog about our Swiss experience, I said, “Sure!” And I include a poem in every post.
After joining SCBWI-Switzerland and being offered a spot in a local Swiss critique group made up of writers from all over the world, I said, “Bring it on!”
I’ve even taken on the risk of writing an alumni blog post for the best MFAC program in the world. “Here I am!”
Now I am not advocating you move halfway around the world, to a country where you don’t know the language just to kickstart your writing life, but if the opportunity does arise, go for it! Language deprivation can bring forth a world of benefits.
Bridget Magee graduated from the Hamline MFAC program A. Long. Time. Ago. A lot has gone on in her life since graduation, but she likes to focus on the here and now. Her here and now involves writing, teaching, and living in Switzerland where she is continually trying to find her voice, both in English and rudimentary German.