How to Write in Another Language - 6 Top Tips
Writing in a foreign language is difficult…
The vast majority of us will always find it a challenge. Anyone who finds it a pleasure and a breeze, count yourself lucky.
Writing is so important because it is one of those skills that language learners need to use the most. If you work in a multinational cooperation, you will be au fait with the need to send colleagues across the globe e-mails outlining ideas, proposals and decisions taking place in the business – very often in a different language to your native one.
Writing, like the other skills (reading, speaking, and listening) is a macro skill and it has a number of sub-skills. More importantly, it stands out from the other skills in that it is a skill which as to be “taught” and “learnt” (Harmer 2004). Jeremy Harmer – a renowned author in language learning and teaching – explains in the first chapter of his book How To Teach Writing that speaking and listening are natural inbuilt skills but writing is artificial, as it has to be acquired.
So, it can be said writing is already difficult in our mother tongue, as it has to be learnt, which means it is twice as difficult in our second language!
One of the biggest failures of language learners is to forget to transfer writing sub-skills from their mother tongue to the second language and, instead, just go for ‘translation.’
Translation is a controversial topic in language learning and teaching (see Thornbury Online). There are pros and cons to it but what cannot be denied is the fact that it is a highly specialised skill: it takes mastery of two languages to be able to translate between them effectively.
That means if you write by ‘translating’ then all you are doing is setting yourself up for making grammatical and stylistic mistakes.
So, the first thing you should do when trying to compose a text in a foreign language is definitely not translate.
Follow these steps when writing a text in a foreign language:
Step 1: Before you begin writing, jot down your main ideas on a piece of paper. You should never begin writing until you have got a clear idea of what it is exactly you are going to write.
Step 2: It is very normal for ideas to come to you later. That means you need to be prepared to rearrange the organisation of your writing as and when new ideas appear. The best way combat this is to sketch out on a piece of paper how and where you are going to organise your main ideas and sub ideas.
Step 3: Writing should be the easier part of the task. You should have everything clear in your mind and on paper what you need before writing. That means if you need any subject-specific words, you need to look those up before starting to write.
Step 4: Writing a text is not something you can complete in a single sitting. When you write in your mother tongue, you will constantly revisit and redraft words, sentences and whole paragraphs. Don’t be afraid to do this in the foreign language – it is exactly the same “process” (Harmer, 2004).
Step 5: Trying to use fancy phrases and expressions you have read is great, because you are trying to engage with what you have been learning, but it can also lead to confusion, especially if you use them incorrectly or out of context. So, if it is important your text is 100% intelligible, forget the fancy language and go for what you know is correct – even if it is quite simplistic language.
Step 6: Most texts we write have a standard format. Take e-mails as an example. Even if you can’t read Spanish, if I showed you an e-mail in Spanish you would be able to identify it as an e-mail immediately due to its model layout and structure. This is true of many varieties of texts we write week in week out. So, before you go ahead and write, it might be a good idea to search for an example model in a language book or on the internet beforehand.
All in all, writing is a daunting task, but like everything in education it is just a question of planning, practice and preparation.
Harmer, J. (2004) How To Teach Writing. London: Pearson Education.
Thornbury, S. (Online) http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/t-is-for-translation/
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A polyglot and international traveller. Anthony speaks 6 languages and loves sharing his passion of language learning through his writing.
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