To write well, you need a certain comfort with language. But it’s also useful to find yourself outside the comfort zone of your first language, at least once in your life. It may be to do with picking up other signals. Or the awareness that there’s a range of possible words for any particular thing, and some are more fun than others. Of course, while it is actually happening, being outside your linguistic comfort zone may not feel like fun at all. This can be true even if you’re surrounded by people speaking the same language as yourself, in a different accent.
The first language I really struggled with was Irish. My folks quit working in England and moved ‘home’ to Dublin while I was at primary school. I say ‘home’ because they were from the south west (Cork and Kerry), so Dublin was as new to them as it was to me and my siblings. The other kids had a 4-year head start on Irish by the time I was beamed into their classroom. In fact many of them had decided the language was more or less impossible, but I didn’t know that. While everyone else did singing, I was trapped in scary one-to-one Irish lessons. Learning irregular verbs off by heart was my quickest route out of those lessons, so I got on with it. I do remember feeling ripped off when made to read “Goldilocks agus na Trí Bhéar”. I was 8, so too old for kiddy stories. I’d already read the Mercier Press book of Celtic Myths and Legends, and was disappointed not to be reading stories about Diarmuid and Gráinne, or Cúchulain, or the Children of Lír. And Goldilocks just seemed wrong in a language with accents over the vowels, and h’s cropping up in all sorts of odd places.
A decade or so later when I was studying French and German at Trinity College, Dublin, I duly did time in France and Germany. Arriving in Ireland equipped with an English accent had been no joke, but when I got over to Europe I had trouble plucking up the courage to say anything at all. French was worse, because if you get it wrong it sounds so awful. German, maybe, is more similar to English in that the pronunciation is less precious. Having a partner who is a native speaker is a great way to pick up a language for real, and maybe for this reason I got further with Greek, a few years later, than I managed with French or German. It helped also that I lived in Greece far longer, years rather than weeks or months. As a result it’s a language I can speak again within days of returning. But if the subject of Greek comes up in English literary circles, people seem surprised – even mildly disapproving – that I can speak only modern, and not ancient, Greek. I wonder why?