Learning Grammar Through A Second Language

While my passion has always been writing fiction, I’m generally a curious person, and I’d say I’m in love with learning in general. Always have been. My day job is as a grad student in Spanish literature; I’ve studied Spanish for twelve years now, and one thing I’ve found in my own experience–and classmates have backed me up here–is that I learned English grammar by studying a second language.

I went to great schools as a kid–a real blessing–and I did learn basic grammar in elementary school with official terminology attached, to a greater degree than most of the people I’ve shared stories with. (We even had to do a parts of speech play in fifth grade English. I played “Adverb,” and won an award for best Adverb in the class. I’m glad I didn’t realize then there is no such thing as a good adverb, ha! At best, adverbs are tolerable in certain contexts. I strive to avoid them.)

Anyway, my point here is that, at least in the United States, it is very, very easy to get through school without ever having an in-depth study of English grammar. That’s a big problem if, like me, you have a love and a passion for writing. But never fear: learning a second language in a classroom will fill in many gaps, as surely as Strunk and White.


I have taught Spanish for two years, and routinely, I have to explain to my students what direct object and indirect objects are, and what the passive voice is. What’s a transitive versus intransitive verb? They just don’t know. They’ve never been taught that. Well, you can’t learn to use direct vs indirect object pronouns correctly in Spanish if you’re not sure what the heck that is in English, can you? So what ends up happening is that students learn the nuts and bolts of English as they’re grappling with Spanish. It’s not an ideal system, perhaps, but it gets results.

A great example of this, in my personal experience, was learning about the subjunctive. The subjunctive is a “mood” of language that is extremely common in Spanish. I had never been taught about the subjunctive in English class, but when my Spanish teachers explained that we do have it in English to express impossibility, I was astounded. We do, though. Look at this:

I wish I were in Madrid right now. (Usually with “I” we use “was,” right? This is the subjunctive, expressing an impossibility. I’m NOT in Madrid.)

If I were you… (I’m not you. I’m me.)

If the car were working, I’d drive you to the store. (Same thing. The car’s not working.)

The subjunctive is loosely used and rarely enforced in English, but if you’re a writer, it’s good to know it exists and how it works. If you have a character who’s highly educated or, in the case of my fantasy novels, a noble, chances are he’d know to say “If she were here” instead of “If she was here.”


I once had a student come up to me after an introductory level class, and he said he was having trouble reading in Spanish because he couldn’t digest the adjectives. In Spanish adjectives come after nouns, as in the example phrase this student gave me: “casa roja,” red (roja) house (casa). He said he didn’t know how to process such phrases because he saw the house first in his mind and then had to adjust the image to conform to the adjectives that followed. I assured him he would get used to this in time and showed him that language is always an arbitrary construction. I told him a Spaniard learning English might be confused by the order of the phrase “red house.” He might complain that he had to start with a mental image of big glob of red without any object to attach it to, because he was used to the object preceding the descriptions. Struggles and discussions like this, common occurrences throughout the language learning process, really heighten your awareness of what language is and how it works. That is such a plus for a writer!


If you struggle with the nitty-gritty of grammar, consider studying a second language. It will help you, I promise, and it has so many other advantages for your writing. It opens your mind to new ways to use your first language (Why not break rules sparingly, putting an adjective after a noun for emphasis?) It really drives home to you how ambiguous and imperfect any linguistic system is, and why you need to read your fiction as an outsider would, to make sure what you think you’re writing is actually what’s on the page. (This is one of many, many reasons you need beta readers/an editor.) It exposes you to a new culture and other ways of seeing the world, and that can only help you when it comes to character development. Please, if you never have, do consider studying a second language. It will enrich many aspects of your life as well as your fiction!



15 responses to “Learning Grammar Through A Second Language

  1. I was a Russian linguist in the Army and throughout various levels of education, studied French, German and Spanish. I’m sure at the time, it helped my English grammar skills, but nowadays, I’m spending a lot of quality time with The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer. I can’t believe how much I’ve forgotten! It really makes me wish I’d gotten an English or journalism degree instead of a BA in Obsolete Knowledge.

    • I just LOVE learning languages. Linguistics fascinates me, and it’s so cool to open myself up to new cultures and their experience of life. Thanks for the grammar book rec! I haven’t heard of Shertzer.

      • It’s from the same publisher of Elements of Style, that old Strunk and White standby. Very concise and easy to have handy.
        I love learning languages, too. These days I spend so much time trying to get my kid to understand English that I haven’t had much time to do more. Apparently “clean your room” doesn’t translate for an 8 year old!

  2. As a former Spanish teacher, now retired, I know very well both the difficulties of getting students to accept the elements of Spanish grammar that seem peculiar to them and the fact that English grammar and spelling are far more peculiar to people learning English. I also know how greatly the study of Spanish grammar enhances one’s knowledge of English grammar and how important that is for a writer. I am also an author of fantasy novels (A School for Sorcery, A Perilous Power, When the Beast Ravens, Bryte’s Ascent, all YA, and, most recently the adult fantasy Seduction of the Scepter). I look forward to following your posts, and I hope you’ll follow mine at erosesabin here at WordPress.

  3. I also became acquainted with the grammar of my native tongue through the study of foreign languages. A good exercise for writers who are stuck is to write in another language, then translate the piece into one’s own language (or viceversa). Different ideas develop as a result of this process.

  4. I grew up in a home with two generations of grammar Nazis who would have slapped you if you were to misuse subjunctive mood. Add to that 6 years of Spanish, and you can see my dilemma. I still cringe when someone says, “If only that was true.”

  5. I also learned English grammar by studying Spanish. In order to know what I was supposed to be conjugating in Spanish, I had to work backwards by figuring out if I did it in English or not. I also have a Masters Degree in Spanish Literature. My love of Spanish novels prompted me to write one or two novels of my own. Now….to get them published so I can translate them into Spanish.

    • that’s so awesome! I’m only seeing now I never found this comment before. I’m so sorry!!! Thanks for dropping by. And best of luck with your novels and translations. I admire your drive…. I would never feel confident enough to translate my own novels.

  6. Pingback: Creative Writing Tip: When “To Be” Becomes An Enemy | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  7. Greetings from Ohio! I’m bored at work so I decided to check out your site on my iphone during lunch break. I love the knowledge you provide here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home. I’m shocked at how quick your blog loaded on my cell phone .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, great blog!

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