Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Writing a novel in your second language

Rebecca Strong, not her real name, is in hiding from the Russian President after writing her novel Who is Mr Plutin? She’s managed to combine Russian spy thriller with chick lit which is feat enough but she also wrote the entire thing in English, despite it being her second language. And I think not even an EFL teacher would have noticed. I know as I read the first and second drafts and was hooked.

plutinWhen Vika Serkova wakes up in a luxury apartment in St Petersburg, Russia—married to an oligarch and an elite undercover Russian spy—all she can remember is being an American and living in New York. Her new, Dom Perignon and caviar-infused life is delightful, but only until her husband drops an ultimate bomb about why she’s forgotten everything and about her current assignment for the Russian president. The assignment implicates her family members in a conspiracy big enough to cost them their lives and Vika must save them—but only if she can manage it with most of her memory still MIA and her opponents set on destroying each other even before Vika’s manicure dries.

The heroine, Vika, is hypnotised into fluent native speaker American English. You’ve got the best Americanised English I’ve ever heard in a NNS, how did you learn it?

Mostly by going to school in the US. I moved when I was twenty and since I didn’t finish my university education in the USSR, I continued in the States. After getting a Bachelors Degree, I got a Masters so this made for about 4.5 years of studying in English. That and, of course, being immersed in the language. Another thing that many have said is that I have an ear for languages – I pick them up rather quickly. Which makes for an interesting fact when I say that I have no ear for music – I am completely tone deaf. Someone once said to me that there are very few people in the world (like 1%) who are great at languages and bad at music. Not sure if it’s true but if it is, then I guess it makes me very unusual.

What do you put your fluency down to?

When I first start learning any language, I make a point of listening and repeating after native speakers. Not repeating right after they say something but waiting for the right situation to repeat their phrasing.

I know that you visualised yourself living this American life and were very ready to lose any Russian identity. Do you think that’s anything to do with how good you became at English despite only going to the States at age 20?

I never thought about it in those terms but perhaps. I suppose if you were trying to escape a place that’s treated you badly, you’d want to fit in and discard that old identity as soon as you could. For me at the time it was mainly the promise and the fascination of America. We, the Soviet youth, worshipped the US. We copied the bootleg Bruce Springsteen tapes until the point where static noise replaced most of the music, we listened to the Voice of America hiding in the dark with our shortwaves, we ogled JC Penney catalogues that somehow made their way into the Iron Curtain territory. Unites States was like a promised land to us.  I didn’t want any remnants of anything Russian when I got there.

Are there any things you still get wrong?

Ha! Absolutely. The ‘a’ and ‘the’, the past perfect tense, and an occasional word that sounds like the one I need but has a completely different meaning.

Why do you think those little mistakes are so persistent?

Good question. I have no idea. I think I’ve been getting better with the past perfect but the articles have me completely stumped. The same happens in Spanish with the articles. So perhaps it’s the fact that my native language has no concept of articles at all?

Who is Mr Plutin? is available here. More info on the publisher’s site.

Rebecca Strong is a writer and an artist. She’s always careful about her acquaintances and her knowledge of geopolitical rivalries is purely accidental. She lives in Madrid.



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This entry was posted on July 1, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , , , .
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