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.