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In an article written almost four years ago (He did there confound all the languages of the Earth), I discussed the problem of learning many languages from a writer’s point of view. Learning other languages is very cool, but many people don’t realise how much time it takes. This inevitably means that you can’t spend that much time with languages you already know. Just look at my time log from last week: 67 hours Chinese, 29 hours English and 2 hours Swedish.

The backside of learning more languages

For most people, this isn’t  a problem, because knowing your native language to a certain level or knowing English to the level I have learnt it is enough in most cases. However, for people who aspire to become authors (meaning someone who at least tries to realise dreams of living off writing things), learning foreign languages becomes a problem, at least superficially. I have spent at least ten thousand hours learning Chinese and several times as much learning English. I have also spent some time learning French, albeit not that much. If I would have spent that time honing only my Swedish skills, I would have a mastery of my native language far superior to what I have now.

Similarly, if I hadn’t started learning Chinese, my English would probably be much better today than it actually is. Instead of spending all that time learning a new language, I could have read hundreds of novels in English and possible written a handful myself. I chose, Chinese, however, and I haven’t written a single novel in English, even if I do have a draft of a novel in Swedish (more about that later). I read a total of one (that’s right, one) novel in English last year. Compare that to my average reading pace which was close to one hundred books per year before I started learning Chinese.

Two sides of the same coin

Now, it might be argued that the entire discussion is bunk. What if I can write more interesting things in English or Swedish precisely because I have learnt other languages? What if the experiences I gained on the way enables me to write novels that no-one else can write? Besides, most things about writing is, I believe, not related to the specific language in question. Writing a novel is about much more than the words; it’s about much more than language.

Should I write in Swedish or English?

However, novels still need to be projected through language, regardless of which one it is. The question for me is which language I should choose, which is the core question of this article. As mentioned above, I have a draft of a novel written in Swedish. I think it has potential, I think it could become pretty good if I rewrite it and incorporate all the changes I know the story needs. In short, I think the book is too interesting not to finish.

Roughly a month ago, the idea popped up that I might want to rewrite the novel in English instead of Swedish. This felt a bit wild and crazy at first, but I now have a slightly more balanced opinion (I think).

English vs. Swedish

Why I might want to write the novel in English:

  • I like the English language
  • More people can read it
  • It’s an interesting experiment

Why I might want to write the novel in Swedish:

  • I write better in Swedish
  • It’s an opportunity to reconnect with Swedish
  • The draft is already written in Swedish

External vs. internal factors

One relevant question is whether external factors matter or not. One reason for writing the novel in English is that more people are likely to read it (I’m much more well-known in English than in Swedish, mostly because of Hacking Chinese, but also because few of people I know who speak Chinese also speak Swedish). Still, the chances of being picked up by a real publisher is close to zero (that’s probably  true in Swedish as well, though, especially for this novel).

The fact that a Swedish version of the novel would be better is also mostly an external factor. If I care very much about what other people think of my writing, I should write in Swedish simply because I’ll do a better job. If I don’t care, the language choice doesn’t matter in terms of whether the novel is well-written or not.

At first, I thought that the draft being in Swedish was a limiting factor, but I’m now convinced that it isn’t. The reason is that I would need to rewrite the novel entirely anyway (too many things need editing), so doing it in another language might actually feel more worthwhile. It would allow me to change all the details without feeling I’m just editing a vast number of sentences.


To be honest, the conclusion is quite obvious. However, I only figured that out after writing this article, so what you’ve just read is a journey through my own decision making process. The conclusion is obvious because the choice I make doesn’t necessarily limit future choices. It’s not like I choose between English or Swedish and that I can never use the other language for future novels if I feel like it. This means that the choice isn’t all that important.

Thus, the conclusion is that I should simply use the language I feel like using and don’t care too much about any other factors. I won’t start rewriting the novel until this summer in any case, but right now it feels like I want to try to write in English and see what it feels like (and what other people think about it).

If it doesn’t work or I don’t like it, I’ll know and I can write in Swedish thereafter. If it turns out well and I like it, I guess I’ll have to make the same choice again each time I start a new project. With time, I might even complicate the matter further by adding Chinese to the list of options, although that prospect is still very distant.

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Even though Taiwan is not Babel, my staying here has still made me think a lot about all the languages that exist in the world and what it means to study a few of them. The essential question here is what negative and positive aspects are there to take into consideration when learning foreign languages? The most important issue is the extraordinary amount of time it takes to become proficient in a foreign language (let’s use my English as a reference). In spite of knowing what it takes, I started studying Chinese and I even though I don’t intend to go to Dubai for real, I’m convinced that I will learn more languages in the future. I think most people would spontaneously answer yes to the question whether it’s good or not to learn a foreign language, so to counter this, I will start with discussing the various negative aspects involved.

The biggest problem by far is the amount of time required to learn a language. I’m not quite sure that people realise this, or rather, that they realise how much time we’re talking about. If we compare educations, for instance, learning a language to a certain level (see above) is probably as time consuming as undergoing a complete university education in Sweden for any subject. Still, I’m convinced that this is not the way most people view language skills. Of course, they know that it’s difficult to learn French, but if they haven’t tried, they don’t know difficult or to what extent. Most of the time, I don’t consider this a problem; if I did, I would never be able to motivate spending most of my time studying Chinese, but this is a question that keeps surfacing in my mind  Occasionally, it also interferes with my studying, which is the primary reason for writing this text in the first place. As is the case with most things that take up a lot of time, it isn’t the activities themselves that are the problem, but rather the things one could have done instead.

So, if  I wouldn’t have spent (at least) two years studying Chinese, what would I have done instead? Studying languages I already know would be the obvious answer for me. If I had invented that amount of time in studying English, perhaps I would feel a lot more confident writing fiction in English, or if invested in Swedish, I could have come farther down the road to becoming an author. Since time isn’t unlimited, this is a question about priorities and it sometimes feels like a difficult choice to make. Regardless of how diligent or talented the student is, focusing on many things instead of a few will always mean that the highest level is lower than it would have been otherwise. Unfortunately, if I want to become an author, it doesn’t really count that I’m proficient several other languages.

But here I am, studying Chinese, a language I knew only a few words in when I set out in August 2007. Why? The simplest reason is that I enjoy it immensely, I feel the need to learn more, to understand this language and to master it. I want to take my Chinese to a level where it’s genuinely useful, where I can read books, newspapers, discuss whatever topics that come up. I like the learning itself, and perhaps most importantly, I like the challenge. Needless to say, there is a challenge in improving my Swedish or English as well, but the challenge is of a different kind. Of course, knowing a few languages will always come in handy, but you all know that already (if nothing else, it tells people what kind of person you are), so I’m not going to expand on that at all.

At the end of the day, I’ll still spread my focus over several languages, although I know that this question will keep resurfacing now and then, regardless of this attempt to bury it for good. I might be hesitant to start studying yet another language, but if I know myself to any extent, I know that is not a promise I can keep. Still, I’d rather be very proficient in the languages I already know to some extent (Swedish, English, French and Chinese), which will assuredly keep me occupied for a while yet!

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