Language Aesthetics

The aesthetic appeal of the written language emerged as a major theme across the board. Our informants used the following adjectives to describe their native languages: romantic, rich, metaphorical, flowery, complex, attractive, sweet, classical. Rather than seeing language as a conduit for their ideas, they were focused on the aesthetic appeal of their native language, a trait that they felt was missing from the American English language. As Malak from Saudi Arabia put it, “It’s using the words to draw a picture; it’s not like using the wording in its simple meaning.” In the writers’ native countries, a great deal of attention was given to the wayone expresses their ideas, rather than the depthof the ideas themselves. This could result from the emphasis on soundinglike the scholar, rather than engagingwith him per se.

Many of the informants felt confused when they first began writing in the American academy because they were translating the “richness” of their language into English, thinking that the American academy, like their native countries, held language itself to a high esteem.”  Hanyan from China said, “In English, I try to use big words, but I don’t use them correctly, so it makes my paper look weird.” Most of them talked about how they used long, involved sentences when they first arrived, but were then surprised when their professors told them to “keep it simple”; Ayesha echoed her professors’ words by emphasizing the importance of the three Cs: be complete, be concise, be clear. Most of the informants seem to recognize that something special is lost when they translate into English and simplify the language.

~Here it is more informal.  In like an academic setting, it is always informal.  I mean you can make it formal, but generally you don’t.  In Russia, it is really strict, for instance, like “you;” in Russian, they have a way of addressing their teachers; there is an informal “you” in English and there is not really a formal term. Russian is formal.  English is very informal language, and I think that is why it is easier to learn.  And that changes a lot of things; that is just the one thing that I noticed from the beginning and that was a culture shock.  Because I didn’t think you could ever talk to your teachers like that.

~In Russian, if you take a Russian newspaper or article and you try to translate that into English, you will notice that is very formal.  Yesterday, we were reading an article and our professor asked me to translate some of the words and that was difficult because it was really formal and that is how they talk.  They expect you to know that.  So when you try to read the newspaper you should understand that.

~It was an article about cinematography and they use a lot of metaphors and that was okay. But, [in English] you would use one or two, only to really place an emphasis on a certain topic.  You wouldn’t be using it like an extended metaphor.  In the newspaper,  the article that I was reading yesterday, they would use extended metaphors and it’s not common in English.  I mean it depends on which newspaper you are reading, but at the same time, I don’t think that a general reader would sit there and try to make it so it’s still a part of literature; it is still creative. Also, it depends on which newspaper I guess; if it is more political it’s different; it would be loaded with political theme.

~Here, in English, to emphasize that certain essay or a book is well written you’d use like a big vocab word, something you don’t use in regular speech, like I don’t know “discombobulated” or something like that.  You’d see these weird words.  In Russian, I think most of the words that are written in books you use them in regular language, so it’s not considered as something big or at least that is what I think.

~Native English speakers would use the first person; it is just the way they say it in the head and then they just put it on the paper.  That is okay right, but at the same time, you write so your writing should be different than your speaking.  Cleaner, more refined.  Work on it in your head before you put it on the paper.  Or write it down and then work on it.

~At first, [in U.S. academy], I considered the paper as a chance to kind of show my knowledge of the language and how I mastered it.  Now I see it as a way of making sure someone understands what you are saying. Tell me what you are going to tell me, tell me, then tell me what you told me.

~On writing in the French academy:
They focused a lot on the way you stressed your ideas.  Here it is more straight to the point and there it was also the way you focused it and how you made it more appealing or interesting. I think that in France you sort of have to prove how you master the language and how you have to use it; it was good to use a lot of metaphors.  Whereas here, it is more straight to the point, you have a thesis and you have to put it as clear as you can.

~In the Latin languages, the sentences are usually longer, whereas here there are several short sentences joined together.  That is a mistake I made at first when I came here for the first time.  I used to write very long sentences, which they could hardly understand.

~Advice for other international students:
I would tell them to be really concise, to keep in simple.  Not to use fancy words or expressions in English; even though to him it may sound better, they are really needless.  I would tell him to just explain the best he can the topic he is focusing on.

~It is sort of sad  [the lack of emphasis on “beautiful language” in the U.S. academy]…a lot is lost, but I think it is better.  Well, it depends on the purpose of your paper, but if you are writing in law, it should always be as concise as possible, and you should always avoid fancy expressions.  If you are doing creative writing, it is completely different but when it comes to law or politics or legal analysis, that fancy Latin expressions, which are very used in Spain for instance. People are really fond of using these expressions in the paper even though most of the people don’t know what they mean.

~I don’t know, even though I try to adapt myself to the way Americans write, really concise, really straight to the point, I still lack sometimes to make it sound nicer, or make it sound even more—I don’t know how to express it—more interesting or more attracting. In Spain, you use a lot of language resources such as metaphors or analogies and things like that.

I should say here it is a more functional language and practical and I think professional too in the current status quo, because you know that is what people are looking for, because you know if I wrote what I am used to writing— where you are demonstrating the beauty of the language— is pretty much different where you try to convey a quick message.  They would be two different arenas totally, so maybe if you are doing something in an office, maybe you shouldn’t use too much beautiful language; that doesn’t make sense.  Just tell me what you are telling me and that makes sense: what is your point; that is the thing.  The time restrictions and the deadlines and the bottom lines.

~When I was in Claremont in particular that is where I had my initial friction between the cultures and what I was told over and over again is “you have to cut down, clean up your paragraphs.”  To me I was very offended because I came with a lot of confidence behind me and suddenly I find that is totally different.  But it didn’t take me long to catch up though, I realized it was a totally different and any nice language I use is wasted, no one is going to look at it in that way.

~On sacrificing the beauty of “old English,” “the Queen’s tongue,” a legacy of the British colonial presence in Sri Lanka, to more concise and ‘business-like’ prose: 
You know when you read, it is a bit old I think, but some of these words we use only in one context has so much meaning which is totally lost. If I used that in my writing now, people would think I was doing something stupid, but for me I think it has been sad.  But that is an adjustment I had to do when I came here.  I was a lawyer too so we had a lot of old English writing. So, if you take legal documents you would find them very obsolete English with really long sentences and stuffed with caveats, but then you know the first thing I had to realize here was carve all that and say what you are saying in the simplest possible way.  I think to some extent I mastered that to some extent, but I still feel sad that I am losing a lot of the beauty of the language.

~[When I first came to the U.S. academy], my sentences were far too long and you know verbose, so I had to cut that down, which was a sad thing for me but also I realized the function of part of it.  The summer I was working at the Inspector Generals office for the postal service, and I realized that those memos or even the emails, you just have to be to the point.  And that makes a lot of sense; it is very efficient that way. You don’t waste too much time or anything.  Very simple language— you don’t use big words at all, even if there was a big one you would probably try to think of an easier word and try to tone it down before you send it out to anyone.  Even in school, I noticed unless it is technical word, very often they encourage you to use the easier word in place of the more difficult one.  So that way I think I left a lot of words by the wayside and styled my writing also to suit what is demanded here. It  is a bittersweet kind of experience because I am sad to let go of the some of the words.

~I don’t hate writing. Sometimes I enjoy it, and sometimes I get knocked out by my sentences, because it’s so good.

~On whether her native language has influenced her writing in English:
It shouldn’t because the structure is very different and the thought forms are very different… Koreans think other ways.  Americans are more logical, I think, and rational than Koreans. Koreans are less logical, and it influences my writing in a way because I can be more emotional when I write, but I shouldn’t be, right? But I think Koreans are more sensitive than Americans.  I mean, they can give a better description of things, maybe. But [my professor in U.S.] always tells me to give more details and be reasonable.

~Now that I am thinking about it and now that I have to write in English, I realize that in Spanish we write really like romantically, so we used to take long long sentences and use complex words and try to have examples and metaphors and that kind of thing; but, they’re not working here. “Specific” was not one of the words I should use to be like a good writer in Columbia, especially because you have to explain and we explain and give examples. For example, I can write a word that comes to my mind that is very romantically and politically correct and long long sentences, a lot of paragraphs, and give an idea and then bring it back in the next paragraph and if something needs to be added, you can bring it in the last part of the essay, it’s not like organized or as structured as it is here—very philosophical, I guess.

I’m so afraid that…if one day, I have to use my native language as an official and professional environment I won’t be able to. I had to make a call and schedule an appointment with the Bulgarian embassy for my passport because it expires. And I had a hard time communicating just because I’m not used to the professional, formal way of expressing myself. So every time I put on my resume that I’m proficient in Bulgarian, I have to be very cautious about it. In a way that, cautious about what position I’m applying for because I don’t know how well I’ll be able to express myself in Bulgarian because English took up so much of my writing abilities. Just writing in English so I’m just…I’m very intimidated in this sense.

~On differences between writing in Bulgarian and in English:
Well I guess it comes back to what’s important to your writing in your language. Bulgarian instructors would be strict about how you present your ideas and they would find ways to make your simple writing use abstract words to make it more abstract and more creative and over here they would cut your words and make it more concise. That was the biggest difference that I found.

~Urdu is a very rich language and it’s a combination of two languages, mostly Farsi and Arabic…I think Urdu is much richer, and much sweeter, I don’t know, I just feel it.

~On the differences between Arabic and English:
[In Arabic] it’s using the words to draw a picture and it’s not like using the wording in it’s simple meaning. So you use the wording in different ways and using not less simple words or simple structures. It’s different than in English because in English it’s better to have more simple structure in English. I’ve been told it’s better to have a little less complicated; don’t use three or four words.

~They [teachers in China] give models and say write like this, but no originality.  For example, everyone copies (uses the imagery of) moon “hangs” in the sky, whereas here you write your own opinions.  Sometimes the Chinese teachers look at words; they want big, beautiful words, and also logic, but not as much as in America.  Include big words that make your writing beautiful.  In English, I try to use big words, but I don’t use them very correctly, so it makes paper look weird.  You have to make sense, but not as obvious as in America

~On the difference between teachers’ expectations in China and U.S.:
American teachers teach to write your own; don’t copy anyone else, but Chinese teachers just want a very beautiful, good paper; they don’t encourage, but don’t care if someone copies; they like beautiful words and grammar

~On the differences writing in Spanish and in English:
In Spanish, I would just write in long flowing sentences, but still not run-on, by you know that culture standards.  I did repeat some things like with more emphasis; I guess in Spanish that is okay, but I would have forgone that in English.  I would have done less repeating. I fully knew that if this were in English I would just take away some sentences. I feel more comfortable in Spanish because I like to write nice long flowing sentences. English is a lot more direct. For some reason I feel more comfortable in Spanish where I could just like go along through sentences and kind of wait for you to get my point after a while. If I just tell you what my ideas are up front and there is nothing new after that, then I am boring you.  That is more of a cultural thing because in writing, all through Latin America, we sometimes exaggerate; they will exaggerate stories, so as not to bore the person, whereas Western European thoughts are very rational.  With making a point towards the end, I just kind of keep you in suspense until the end. It is kind of like an insult, or bad social etiquette to not do that because then I am just robbing you.

~My biggest lesson is that English is to the point.  Expand on your ideas more towards the beginning. So flowery thought and exaggeration, try to put that aside.  I love Spanish so much; there is so much room for an aesthetic appeal.  Where I feel like in English it is a lot more bland, so to speak. In Spanish, there is just so much more room for the aesthetic appeal, and English, people are just going to think you are pompous windbag.  There is a cultural aspect behind all that.

~On her strengths writing in Japanese:
My colleagues say for me that your way of writing is just kind of man’s writing. Because in Japanese language, sometimes we just notice the author is woman or man. Because sometime woman tends to write redundant way. And, men write short sentence and clear. Or assertive.

~On the stylistic difference in Korean texts:
I think American writing is easier to read.  I am taking a Korean literature class, and a couple of American friends, after they read and have time to discuss in the class, the American students say “oh I don’t get the point” because Koreans they are not straightforward; they put so many metaphors.

~On the nature of the Hausa language:
Let’s say my name is Karimatu.  We use it very strong.  The whole language is like that.  That is why people like me have a strong voice, but that is because of the way we pronounce our things: you combine the vowels.  the “e”, we don’t have that.  It is mostly consonants and a vowel that go together.