Sounding Board: how to write something that sounds English?

Sounding Board: how to write something that sounds English?

This week is the rentrée for our students and teachers at Paul-Valéry University in Montpellier with everyone seriously back to work (including myself!) and looking forward to the next year. Our creative writing course for second-year students specialising in fields other than English students begins this first semester with fictional creative writing to be continued with non-fictional creative writing in the second semester.

In the fiction writing course we cover the basics including characterisation, setting, link between characters/setting, story etc but this is far from sufficient as one on-line distance student pointed out in June 2017:

‘I totally ignore how the English accent works, so maybe working on it would help improving the rhythm, for if we worked on the form, and so on the tone and the rhythm, it was not the main thing: I don’t know how to write, nor how to read, something which would sound “English”.’

In response to this we have gradually tried to introduce some exercises to develop students’ sensibility to the sounds and rhythms of the English language.

One of them is taken from Jeremy Harmer and involves having students listen to 5 short extracts of music in class and then write a short text inspired by one of them. They then exchange texts and their peers have to guess which extract they have described.

Early in the course short extracts from texts are read, such as the following one by Donna Tartt, and students have to guess where the action takes place (in our example my hotel room is blanked out). Later in the course, when we’re focusing on sound, students are invited to go back to this text and reread, this time thinking about sound and how sound creates an atmosphere:

I’d been shut up in my hotel room for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch-language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes – for I’d left New York in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even indoors…

Chaotic room-service trays; too many cigarettes; luke-warm vodka from duty free. During those restless, shut-up days, I got to know every inch of the room as a prisoner comes to know his cell. (5).

We look at onompatopeia (how would you describe the word squeak to someone?) and include several exercises for enriching and nuancing vocabulary to express tone of voice and/or volume. One example of this is the following simple matching exercise:

There are many different verbs to express tone of voice and/or volume. Match the right French verb to the English verb.

Chuchoter                                                                      shout

Glousser                                                                         groan

Crier                                                                                cry out

Gémir                                                                              sigh

Parler à qqn d’un ton brusque                           whisper

Sangloter                                                                       snap at

Avoir le souffle coupé par la surprise, la peur etc   gasp

Soupirer                                                                        giggle

Crier                                                                               sob

We think about how sound may be used to express emotion implicitly and have students rewrite sentences:

Eg. He was crossly washing the dishes…He banged the dishes down on the draining board.

As Guy Cook has pointed out playing around with language is primordial to language learning:

Language play…though it appears superfluous…is not actually so. Disconnection from reality, disruption and subversion of social structures, and the introduction of random elements, have particular benefits for all of us, and that is perhaps why we are so fond of them, even when they are forbidden. They are there to be exploited to our advantage    in many areas of human activity, including language learning.

And he continues ‘…language play involves the patterning of linguistic form, the creation of alternative realities, and the social use of both of these for intimacy and conflict’ (5).

We have also incorporated work on nonsense poems such as The Lock Ness Monster’s Song by Edvin Morgan

and the nonsense poem Fiddle Faddle by Spike Milligan.

Fiddle Faddle

Co-running a writing workshop in the Montpellier Ecrire en Mouvement Festival that took place in June 2018 I used this poem as the basis for an introductory pairwork giving two students alternative lines to the poem (Student A = odd lines and student B = even lines) and having them read the poem together at different speeds and volumes.

Tone, rhythm, sound bring us onto the question of voice in second language creative writer texts. On the on-line digital learning platform (Moodle) we use as follow-up work/preparation for the class we ask students to reflect a moment:

When writing fiction and poetry in English (or in any other language for that matter) it is worth bearing in mind that the meaning of words depends not only upon their semantic sense but also upon their sounds, rhythms and rhymes. This is why it is important to read out loud any text that you write. What does it sound like when you do read it out? What does it feel like to say the words written down?  Does it sound like English English or foreign English? Does this matter? What does your voice sound like in a foreign language? How do you want it to sound?

Echoes of your own language in the foreign language are also interesting (we will look at this in greater detail next term). For instance, instead of signing emails in French with merci beaucoup I sometimes write murky buckets which means absolutely nothing in English or in French (les seaux sales?) but which makes me smile because of its sound. My friend Lily instead of ‘Bises’ (kisses) finishes her mails with Bises-knees (bee’s knees in English = excellent.) If you’re introduced in these games have a look at  Soundtranslation and rebuslation:

Eva Hoffman, who emigrated to America from Poland in 1959, writing in her linguistic autobiography entitled Lost in Translation. A Life in a New Language feels excluded from the ‘harsh-sounding language’ and when her original first name Ewa, is anglicized to Eva and her sister’s name Alina to Elaine this sentiment is compounded:

The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us – but it’s a gap into which the infinite hobgoblin of abstraction enters. Our Polish names didn’t refer to us; they  were as surely us as our eyes or hands. These new appellations, which we ourselves  can’t yet pronounce, are not us. They are identification tags, disembodied signs  pointing to objects that happen to be my sister and myself. (105)

It is many years before the she can access the music of the American language:

But now the language has entered my body, has incorporated itself in the softest tissue  of my being. “Darling,” I say to my lover, “my dear,” and the words are filled and  brimming with the motions of my desire; they curve themselves within my mouth to the  complex music of tenderness.  (245)

An eighteen-hour course over one university semester cannot hope to open access to this ‘complex music’ but it can perhaps provide students with the confidence to fiddle around with the language as they try to express their own voice in the foreign language. It can provide a creative space to facilitate this process. This week I would like to finish with an excerpt from a piece of writing by Dylan Tallier, a second-year student in musicology, who wrote one of the most remarkable pieces of writing it has been my pleasure to come across since I have been teaching this course. Working from the writing prompt ‘I closed the box, he produced the following text:

riverrun, the reverie swirled in the cherry red constellation. Unbewildered. Flowing  gearwheels. Hera, white-armed hammonia, thou art my blood!

            The smoke rose unkempt above sinopia bedsheets. Hymn of eternity. Who am I? Who is I? The answer lied beyond the frail bamboodoor; for there was no soul left to expel an   exquisite breath on the cheek of Time.

            (. . . i bloxed the cose. . .)

            Clenching eyes. Clutching sheets. We were always dying in the arms of Parsifal. Who    but him could ever whisper in my ears while the world was falling to pieces? We were   always living and dying, and, for a tiny bit of eternity, the song revolved, the whispers became melodies, and the melodies became caresses. I could feel you inside me. You were the transcendental anemone, the coldly clothed carousel. The air was orned with oblivion. The pale light ascended zenithward, as though the thrilling thorn thumped.

            (. . . i cothed xe blose. . .)

            Then all melted away zephyrously: all was ink and memories. I frothed as she fell, a mareel on the dead sea of sheer caoineadh, of shy crepuscules under which I slept. I closed my eyes. Pandorasbox. You erased the words written on the sand from the hourglass. Flip me over! I was the agony of plebbish suffocation, the altered irony, the calyx of a life-to-be. None of your clouds, your semaphores, your laments or your feathers could ever save me. I was to become the samadhi.

            I closed the box.

When asked about his writing process (via email) he explains the coherence of his text as being:

mainly based on the form itself (how the text sounds in terms of rhythm, of “melody”,  how the words interact with each other, live together, fight each other, love each other,   etc.), and also, on a semantic level, on the way meanings interact with each other (what images they create, what feelings they convey, etc.)

He goes on to explain the precise meanings of the words that he used before concluding:

  I know I used some improper words or expressions or ways of writing, like “hammonia”,   “who is I?”, “i bloxed the cose”, “zephyrously” or “Pandorasbox” (which, by the way,  refers obviously to the box that is being closed. A metaphorical box, then. A play on the  expression of course, which is “to open” the box and not “to close” it–I let the reader think about what the contrary of the expression could possibly mean) and I even used  this Irish word “caoineadh” (which was another way to show the Joyce influence), yes,  I know, but I think we can allow ourselves these infringements if they describe better  what we have in mind.

This fascinating piece of writing is of course exceptional but perhaps an encouraging example of what second language students are capable of when their creativity is given free reign.


On a more mundane note I’m thinking about looking at how songs can be used to teach grammar. Apart from Que sera sera for the future tense and El Condor Pasa for the conditional do you have any ideas?

Photo by Allison Lili Guiraud

Cook, Guy. Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford University Press, 2000, 2012.

Harmer, Jeremy. How to Teach Writing. Pearson Education Limited, 2012.

Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation. A Life in a New Language. Heinemann, 1989.

Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. Little, Brown and Company. (2013)

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