Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Poetry in a Second Language

A language learning secret from the past

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

On January 15, 1605, a young Dutch woman, Brechje Spiegels, died suddenly, catching everyone by surprise. A few days earlier her beloved, poet Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft, wrote love lyrics for her and now he had to write an epitaph. Overwhelmed by grief, Hooft remained silent for four days (we can use his habit of dating poems to trace his reaction to Brechje’s death). On January 19th, he finally produced an epitaph in Dutch but his attempt to both express and control his grief got tangled in complicated syntax. Dissatisfied, a few days later he wrote a simpler poem in Latin and a verse in French. Next day, January 23rd, he made another attempt, writing four Latin couplets and five lines in Italian, which he then translated into Dutch. Yet it was not until much later that he produced an epitaph that satisfied him – six restrained and poignantly lyrical lines in Dutch that entered the canon of romantic poetry of the Dutch Golden Age.

On the face of it, the story of Brechje’s epitaph confirms that the mother tongue is best suited for expression of feelings through poetry (see here for an earlier post on this). Yet it also contains a subtler lesson for today’s readers: multilingual poetry was the norm, rather than an exception, in Renaissance Europe and the fact that Hooft wrote funerary poems in four languages within a single week did not strike his acquaintances as unusual in any way. Well-educated Europeans in the 17th century frequently entertained their polyglot circle of friends by verses in Latin, German, English, or French, caring more about apt and witty formulations than ‘native-like’ language mastery.

The rudiments of poetic rhetoric were commonly introduced through Latin, as well as Greek, and those who longed for recognition by a cultivated international audience had no choice but to proceed in Latin. For some poets, it was much easier to write in Latin, than in their native languages, in which they lacked pre-established models. Renaissance poets also enjoyed mixing languages: some alternated lines in different languages and others used words from one language with the syntax and inflections of the other. One famous practitioner of such poetry was Teofilo Folengo, author of the comic epic Maccaronea that Latinized Italian words and gave rise to the term macaronic. Such poetry presupposed a multilingual audience that could appreciate creative mergers of various registers, dialects, and languages and take delight in the nuances of meaning highlighted through re-formulations of the same statements in different languages.

Today, some poets also compose multilingual verses or poems in a second language, yet such work is usually an exception rather than the rule. But then again poetry itself is becoming a rarity in the English-speaking world. This is a pity because it means we are losing a valuable language learning tool. So, what are the benefits of reading, writing, and listening to poetry in a second language?

The first advantage involves poetry's reliance on melodic, acoustic and metric patterns. These patterns differ across languages which is why we do not always enjoy foreign language verse. Translation and comparisons with existing translations raise awareness of these cross-linguistic differences, while listening to and rehearsing poems gives learners an opportunity to internalize the sounds and rhythms of the new language, and memorize words together with stress.

The second benefit of close engagement with poetry is increased awareness of the function of syntactic and semantic structures. Learners asked to fill in the blanks in a poem soon realize that their options are greatly constrained by metric, semantic and syntactic patterns.

The third advantage of poetry involves memorability of poetic lines. Meter, rhythm, rhymes and other features that make traditional poetry aesthetically pleasing, if a tad predictable, have originally emerged as memory aids that allowed bards in the preliterate world to commit to memory large amounts of information. Meter and rhythm help organize the text and place constraints on word choice, while alliteration, assonance and rhymes function as memory cues in the search for the right word. These patterns are equally helpful to language learners interested in enriching their linguistic repertoires and mastering poetic lines that can take them beyond service encounters.

In English, many well-known poetic lines come from Shakespeare but in other cultures, especially in the Arabic- and Russian-speaking worlds, the cult of poetry is still alive and verses are an integral feature of everyday interaction, social media, even political debates. Millions of aficionados in the Middle East tune in to reality TV shows Prince of Poets and Million’s Poets, where aspiring poets compete for the crown of the best Arab poet and lucrative cash prizes in front of judges who critique the quality of their verses and the manner of recitation. The secret of their popularity is simple: the shows are a modern reiteration of a millennia-old tradition of poetic contests and verbal dueling, impervious to political fragmentation and factional strife. To become a full-fledged discourse participant in such a world, one has to be familiar with its poetry.

Last but not least, writing poetry has traditionally been a superb way of playing with, practicing, and appropriating a second language. Reading and writing second language poetry offers learners an incomparable opportunity to unleash their creativity, make new words their own, connect with the new language in an emotional and personally meaningful way, and create a new linguistic self.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of Franz Hals' The Reading Boy from Wikimedia Commons.


Forster, L. (1970) The poet’s tongues: Multilingualism in literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hanauer, D. I. (2010) Poetry as research: Exploring second language poetry writing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.

More from Francois Grosjean Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today