Finding a voice

How many years of study does it take, I wonder, for one to develop a “voice” in a foreign language?

When I wrote literature or history essays in college, I never sat down and thought about how I should “sound” in my paper.  I wrote the way I thought my paper should be written to address the specified topic.  Depending on the topic, my choice of words would vary, but in the end, if you compared a paper I wrote for my Jane Austen literature class to my honors thesis about host-microbe interactions, I think you’d be able to tell that it was by the same author.  Clearly there are qualities in my writing that are different from others’ writing and vice versa.  My written voice – that is, the style, the choice of vocabulary, the cadence of my writing, general sentence structure, and tone – is unique to myself.

I’ve been told (somewhat generously) that my Korean writing is good, but by that I’m assuming people mean that it’s “good for a foreigner” (i.e. “understandable with minor mistakes”).  But mistakes aside, I’m always curious as to how my writing “sounds” to a native speaker.  For example, sometimes when I’m browsing English entries on Lang-8, I read impressive entries in nearly perfect English but… it’s bland.  Don’t get me wrong!  I wouldn’t consider lack of voice as a valid criticism ( native English-speakers themselves have this problem, hello) – obviously, proficiency should come first before anything else.  Only when you’re proficient in a language can you even think about developing other qualities expected of a writer.

Can a language-learner ever truly develop a voice in a foreign language?  It seems a formidable task to me.  Obviously, you have to know grammar.  That’s a given.  But personally I think voice is developed mostly through words.  In that case, one must have a vast vocabulary as well as an acute understanding of  the nuances of words.  One must also be able to use figurative language to some degree (adds flavor to the writing) but stray away from cliched language.  But the most important thing – the hardest thing – is finding the ability to uniquely express words in a language that is not your native tongue.  That’s the challenge of finding a voice.

Heh, well, I was just randomly thinking about this stuff.

For now, I’ll focus on how to handle my problem of knowing a lot of useless words but having a sadly limited knowledge of basic vocabulary (e.g. I know how to say “acute appendicitis” but not “brush my teeth”).

One day, I hope I’ll be good enough in Korean to actually start worrying about developing a voice in my writing.  For now, I’ll just focus on spelling my words right and getting my meaning across.  Haha.


  1. Jeanne says:

    Interesting article!
    Much to my delight, French language has a lot of great non-native authors (and I’m sure that other languages do too), so I do think it’s absolutely possible to be a good writer in a foreign language.
    Coincidentally, I learned “brush teeth” just a few days ago! (It’s “이를 닦다”.)


    1. Archana says:

      Hehe thanks! It’s good to know that it’s possible to be a great writer in French. Maybe there’s hope for me yet? ^^


  2. hangukdrama says:

    wow interesting question! I know what you mean about bland writing. The grammar’s perfect but the whole structure is so boring and formal and sometimes a huge contrast to the topic being talked about (a vacation for example).

    I wonder about my voice in korean too. I think it’s important to read widely to feel the voices of other writers before it’s possible to develop your own unique one. Thanks for bringing this up ^^


    1. Archana says:

      Yeah, I totally agree with you. It’s critical that one reads, regardless of the language one is learning. In fact, I think one reason that a lot of students are poor writers (even in their native language) is because they don’t read as much. I’m glad you found my post interesting hehe. Thanks!


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