Samuel Beckett, born in a suburb of Dublin in 1906, was a native English speaker. However, in 1946 Beckett decided that he would begin writing exclusively in French. After composing the first draft in his second language, he would then translate these words back into English. This difficult constraint – forcing himself to consciously unpack his own sentences – led to a burst of genius, as many of Beckett’s most famous works (Malloy, Malone Dies, Waiting for Godot, etc.) were written during this period. When asked why he wrote first in French, Beckett said it made it easier for him to “write without style.”
Beckett would later expand on these comments, noting that his use of French prevented him from slipping into his usual writerly habits, those crutches of style that snuck into his English prose. Instead of relying on the first word that leapt into consciousness – that most automatic of associations – he was forced by his second language to reflect on what he actually wanted to express. His diction became more intentional.
There’s now some neat experimental proof of this Beckettian strategy. In a recent paper published in Psychological Science, a team of psychologists led by Boaz Keysar at the University of Chicago found that forcing people to rely on a second language systematically reduced human biases, allowing the subjects to escape from the usual blind spots of cognition. In a sense, they were better able to think without style.
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