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Language learning

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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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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

For some people, completing a certain task is not enough, it has to be done perfectly. Intuitively, I count myself to this perfectionist group, but intellectually, I’ve gradually come to realise that this a double-edged sword and that there are times (quite often, actually) when aiming for perfection is simply stupid. If you’re not a perfectionist yourself, the likelihood is that you will find this article fairly pointless, but for those of you who at least partly share this personality trait with me, I hope it will be more worthwhile.

I think it goes without saying that if you want to attain very high levels of ability for any given activity, perfectionism is a must (you don’t get to the top if you’re happy with anything but the best). However, I’m sure that this attitude can be inhibiting and slow progress in some cases, especially at more basic levels, and discussing this topic here might help to draw attention to this idea.

So, when is aiming for perfection a bad idea? I’m prepared to say it’s bad at any time, except for the situation described above, when ability already is lost in the clouds, but it’s especially true for skills where you have to add a lot (like learning languages, chemistry or something). There are exceptions, such as sports where a solid foundation is everything (gymnastics, diving). But why is perfectionism so bad sometimes? Because it is inefficient. Spending too much time on something might mean that you spend less time on widening your horizons and learning more, which would in the end lead to even higher ability. Let me take an example from language learning, in this case Chinese because it happens to be what I’m currently doing. If I had a fairly big test next week, covering several chapters and many hundreds of new words, I’m tempted to aim for 100%. I did that all the time for the first year of Chinese, and indeed it payed off, but I think that the price I paid was too high and today I’m much more careful.

The alternative would be to be satisfied with something like 85-95%, which indeed isn’t bad. In my experience, reaching this level might require lots of work, but increasing the score further takes a lot more time per percentage point. To be sure to nail an exam, you really need review a lot and you will end up reviewing lots of things you really don’t need to review, just to make sure you know every single part. Making sure you have good grasp of the material and then being a bit more relaxed and accepting the fact that you might forget minor parts on the exam takes significantly less time and energy, but the outcome is almost equivalent.

I think those of you who frequent this website know that I’m not doing this because I’m lazy. The point here is that if the idea is to get really good at something (like Chinese) as fast as possible, focusing on perfecting basic or intermediate stages will be a waste of time. That time could be spent talking with people, broadening vocabulary or reinforcing grammar. I’m sure this gives a lot more in return for the time invested. I don’t mean to say that a solid foundation isn’t important (nothing could be farther from the truth), but I’m saying that you won’t get very high if you spend years just laying the foundations. Again using language learning as a an example, I’d much rather learn 100 words and remember 80%, than learn 50 words in the same time and remember every single one. I guessed at the numbers here, of course, but it’s an educated guess.

Looking closer at it, I think there are only two major differences between having 95% and 100% on a test. Firstly, there is a sense of achievement if the score is really high, and second, the time required is, as stated above, significantly longer. The lacking 5% won’t really affect anything real, only the grade and the students sense of achievement. Is this trade worth it? I don’t think so, especially when considering that it might be more healthy not to focus too much on exams and grades, but that’s really another topic altogether.

I realise that I’m in a quite unique position here in Taiwan and that people who study usually do so because they need the grades for something (I’m only here because I want to learn the language). In some cases, the difference between 95% and 100% might be extremely important. However, I’m convinced perfectionism is usually bad anyway if long-term learning is the goal. Furthermore, this principle is applicable to any hobby project or anything you do for your own good or because of your interests.

So, to all you perfectionists out there, do as I’ve done recently, try to relax a bit and understand that there is a rational argument, not for being lazy, but for not being too narrow-minded about exams and grades. Look at what you need to learn and learn it, but don’t be obsessive about it. We will always forget some of the things we learn, but the idea is to learn more than we forget!

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