Tim Parks’ essay at the New York Review of Books describes how, for him, living in a decidedly non-Anglophone Italy helped him perfect his command of the English language.
I left London in 1981 at twenty-five, in part because my wife, who was Italian and whom I had met in the States, wasn’t happy with England, and again because, having failed to secure a publisher for any of my first four novels, I needed to get away from friends and family who were pressing me to settle on a decent career before it was too late. I knew no Italian. I had no desire to leave England. Indeed, I was extremely anxious about losing touch with English. Two years previously, I had abandoned a Ph.D. at Harvard because I wanted to be in England to write about the English, not the Americans. So this new move felt a little like a failure. My hope was that I’d be back in a couple of years bringing a publishable novel with me. What changed my mind was learning Italian.
[. . .]
We had chosen to live in Verona because my wife’s brother was studying there. There was not a large English community in the city at the time, and anyway we did our best to avoid it so that I could learn Italian. For four or five years, aside from the language lessons I taught to make ends meet, I spoke little English and read even less, concentrating entirely on Italian fiction, Italian newspapers, Italian history books, checking every word I didn’t know in the dictionary. It was exhausting. There was no radio in English, no satellite TV, no Internet. I was immersed in Italian in a way that I think has become difficult today.
I say I was learning Italian, but in fact I was learning English too. Relearning it. Nothing makes you more aware of your own language, its structure and strategies, than the differences of a new one. And very soon I had my first major pay-off from all this effort. I had been reading the work of Natalia Ginzburg—È stato così; La strada che va in città; Caro Michele. I had chosen Ginzburg merely because friends advised that she was the easiest Italian writer for foreigners. But something in the laconic colloquial voice meshed with my own writing. Trying to imagine how that voice and downbeat storytelling style might work in English I wrote two short novels, Tongues of Flame and Loving Roger, in rapid succession. Oddly, though I had taken both voice and, to an extent, structure from Ginzburg, these would be the most English of all my novels, acts of pure memory of places and people: my family in the first book, an office where I had once worked in the second. Though both books were rejected dozens of times, I felt confident that I had got it right. Five years later both were published and won prizes.