How to Master Writing in a Foreign Language: 5 Steps at Any Level
Have you ever gotten an email full of spelling and grammatical mistakes?
Chances are you have, and chances are it didn’t leave a great impression.
When you write in a foreign language, you don’t want to be the person whose correspondence is riddled with errors.
That, among other reasons, is why writing well is an essential part of learning any language.
- Why Writing Is So Important
- Ways to Improve Writing at All Proficiency Levels
- 5 Steps to Master Writing at Any Level
- Moving Forward: 5 Steps to Take as an Intermediate Writer
- Mastery: 5 Steps to Dominate Writing as an Advanced Learner
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Why Writing Is So Important
Writing Is Essential to Long-distance Communication
Need to communicate with someone who isn’t sitting across from you? You’ll probably need to use some form of written communication. Even if you’re setting up a time to make a phone call or have a language lesson over Skype, you’ll probably be sending an email, instant message or text message. Using online chat rooms, forums and comment sections of articles, sending snail mail and even updating your social media in a foreign language all require writing skills.
Mistakes Make You Seem Uneducated
It won’t always be obvious that you’re not a native speaker of your target language, especially if you’re reaching out to someone for the first time. Errors in your writing will make you seem like you haven’t done your homework. People may doubt your ability to understand their reply. That’s not a good first impression to make.
Language Tests Measure Writing Ability
Do you need to prove you can speak your target language? If so, you’ll probably be asked to prove you can write it. Most language tests measure your ability to write, either by asking you to write something in the language or by testing your ability to fill in the blanks in a sentence.
Often the oral parts of language exams are less rigorous or they’re considered optional—I know that’s the case with the HSK, which measures Chinese language proficiency. So being an excellent orator will not make up for below-average writing skills on many language exams.
Writing Is Essential for Professional Communication
If you hope to use your target language in any remotely professional capacity, being able to write with relatively few mistakes becomes even more essential. The stakes are high in professional communication.
You don’t want to make any faux pas in an email to a client or supplier who speaks your target language, nor would you want to use the wrong greeting or make a glaring mistake in a cover letter to a potential employer.
Mistakes in Writing Can Lead to Miscommunication
When you speak, smoothing out a misunderstanding takes seconds or, at worst, a couple minutes of confused back-and-forth. But when you write, choosing the wrong vocabulary word or garbling your grammar can cause serious problems with comprehension that end up taking a long time to unravel.
There are less non-language clues for the reader to go by than for a listener—things like body language, gesture and context. Because of the nature of writing, back and forth communication is also slower, so it takes a longer time to figure out what you actually meant to say. It’s so much better to write it correctly the first time.
Ways to Improve Writing at All Proficiency Levels
Learning to write in a foreign language isn’t that different from learning to write in your native language—which took you 12 years of formal schooling to master. In most cases, the difference is that you have to be more self-motivated to master writing in a foreign language, because you won’t have 12 years worth of teachers forcing you to spell correctly. However, the same habits that make you a good writer in your native language will help you be a better writer in your target language.
Read in Your Target Language
Children who read have better language skills and language learners who read in their target language have better language skills—especially better writing skills. The benefits of reading accrue from any type of reading, not just active reading. Even if you’re reading a romance novel or Harry Potter book in your target language and you’re casually skimming over anything you don’t understand, the increased exposure to the language in its written form will help you develop better writing skills.
Get Corrections on Your Writing
The best way to build a solid writing ability is to write and get corrected. Remember: This is how you learned to write in your native language. If you’re studying independently, you can get corrections on your writing on sites like Lang-8. If you’re working with a private tutor, make sure he or she gives you written homework and corrects it, explaining any mistakes.
Once you’ve gotten your writing corrected, make sure to rewrite your text to incorporate the corrections. That will allow you to internalize and practice the correct grammar, vocabulary and style in your target language.
Pay Lots of Attention to Grammar
Writing well means having impeccable grammar. When you speak, it’s easy to slur declensions (in many languages, native speakers do just that) and generally hide a less-then-ideal grasp of grammar. There’s no way to hide poor grammar when you write—everything is black and white on the page. So becoming a better writer means a complete grasp of grammar rules.
5 Steps to Master Writing at Any Level
Building the Foundation: 5 Beginner-level Steps to Get Started Writing
1. Learn the Rules
Your first step as a beginner is to learn the building blocks of your target language’s writing system.
If the language has an alphabet (most do), that means both mastering the alphabet and learning spelling rules. Note that even if you’re learning a language that uses the Latin alphabet, you’ll still have to learn some new letters, accents and pronunciations.
If you’re learning French, for example, you’ll need to master the accent marks and to know when a c should be written with a cédille (ç).
If you’re learning Chinese or another language that uses characters, focus on learning both basic, common characters and the building blocks of those characters (radicals).
2. Master Basic Grammar
When you’re a beginner, it’s easy to feel like the grammar rules you’re learning are boring and stuffy. But this stage is all about foundation building—it might not be super interesting, but it’s extremely important.
Take all of your grammar lessons very seriously. You should also make sure you do grammar exercises—which count as writing practice—and get corrections to make sure you internalize and master grammar concepts as they are taught.
3. Focus on Correct Sentences
When you’re a beginner, don’t try to write out huge compositions. Focus on writing simple sentences, but writing them correctly. Grammar exercises are a great example of a writing exercise for beginners. Don’t get caught up in the quantity of writing you’re doing.
At most, your compositions should be about a paragraph long. At the beginner level, it’s better to focus your energy on doing a little well than doing a lot poorly.
4. Keep Subjects Simple
As a beginner, don’t focus on writing complex tales using constructions you don’t really understand. Beginner vocabulary and grammar concepts are generally very descriptive and concrete.
The nouns you’re learning are the kinds of things that you can point to or hold in your hand rather than abstract concepts. Grammar you’ve learned will be similarly concrete. Here’s some subjects that are well-suited for beginners’ writing:
- Descriptions of your family, your home, your bedroom or your hometown
- Descriptions of your routines—how you spend the weekend, what you do at work, how you make dinner
- Descriptions of what you did during the past day, weekend or on your last vacation
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be trying to argue about the meaning of life—just focus on writing about simple subjects and doing so correctly.
5. Write Longhand
If you’re like most people, you probably do most of your writing on the computer—in your native language or any other language. Your computer probably double-checks your spelling and might even have a grammar check as well.
If you’re learning a character language like Chinese, the experience of writing on the computer is substantially different (easier) than writing longhand. The only way to get good at writing—and to build a really solid foundation—is to practice writing by hand. Here are some things you can write out by hand:
- Diary entries
- Shopping lists
Remember, though—if you really want to master writing, you need to be not just writing for yourself, but getting corrections on your work. So don’t write anything so personal that you won’t be willing to share with a teacher!
Moving Forward: 5 Steps to Take as an Intermediate Writer
1. Move to More Complex Subject Matter
At the intermediate level, you should start writing about more complicated subjects that require more advanced vocabulary and grammar.
Current events is a great subject to practice with, because there’s always something going on! You can also keep it personal by writing about experiences further in your past or your plans for the future.
If you’re struggling to find subjects to write about, then check out native authentic media such as TV shows, movies, newspapers and so forth. They can readily provide you language practice as well as engaging ideas for what you can discuss.
Another option is FluentU. It’s a language learning program that teaches with authentic videos that span a range of topics, formats and levels. The program currently offers 10 languages and includes varied videos like movie clips, music videos, news segments, vlogs, commercials and more.
With tools such as interactive subtitles, flashcards and personalized quizzes that include opportunities to write in your answer, you can learn vocabulary and get spelling and grammar practice within a multimedia context.
2. Write Longer Texts
At the intermediate level, you should be trying to write more than a few sentences. Do at least some writing that hits the 500-word mark.
You should also start thinking about more than just whether or not each individual sentence is grammatically correct—make sure that you can write a coherent paragraph with sentences that relate to each other and flow correctly. This means learning to use pronouns appropriately and learning the phrases your target language uses to refer back to ideas that have already been mentioned.
3. Start Typing
Once you’ve established a strong foundation by writing longhand, you should move to typing.
You’ll need to change your keyboard to your target language. If your target language is Arabic, Russian or another language that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, I would recommend getting keyboard stickers as well.
Typing well involves a lot of practice and is like learning a manual language, so it will take practice to get to point where you can type as fast in your target language as in your native language. Using the computer opens up a huge number of opportunities for writing in your target language, such as:
- Using social media. Pay attention to which social media platforms are used by speakers of your target language. If you’re learning Russian, for example, set up a VKontakte profile. If you’re learning Chinese, a Weibo account is basically a must.
- Commenting on blog posts. Reading blogs in your target language is a good way to get in plenty of reading practice, and participating in the online discussion is excellent writing practice.
- Utilizing relevant apps. Other apps that have a written component, ranging from dating apps to weight loss apps that force you to write updates.
4. Learn Specialized Writing Styles
Writing well, like speaking well, requires using the correct phrases, vocabulary and style for the circumstance. Different types of writing require radically different types of vocabulary and often have their own set phrases and formats that are quite different.
Using the correct greeting is remarkably important if you’re sending someone an email or letter. Here are some types of writing that most likely have specific formats that you should learn:
- Letters, both formal and informal
- Cover letters and resumes
- Other types of writing, depending on your goals as a language learner, might include academic papers, news articles, reports or scripts.
You’ll also want to learn set phrases like “once upon a time.”
5. Read in Your Target Language and Write Summaries
One of the best ways to practice writing is to summarize—in your own words—things that you read in your target language.
This type of exercise is ideal for writing something that can be corrected by a language exchange partner, teacher or tutor (remember you want to get corrections on at least some writing, and you’re less likely to be corrected on your social media posts).
The goal is to use the reading material as a way to learn new vocabulary and sentence structures and then to summarize the pieces—without referring to the original—so that the vocabulary and turns of phrase are internalized. Basing your writing on something you’ve read also eliminates the need to come up with a subject, which is surprisingly difficult when facing the blank page.
Mastery: 5 Steps to Dominate Writing as an Advanced Learner
1. Write for Publication
Want to become a really good writer? Make sure that your work is publicly available. The idea of a stranger reading your work is a powerful motivator to get it right. This doesn’t mean that you have to become a full-time writer in your target language (although there are certainly writers who write in a language that isn’t their native language), just that you should seek out opportunities to publish works of writing. Here’s a couple of ideas:
- Start a blog in your target language
- Guest post on other blogs in your target language (especially if you don’t want to commit to blogging yourself)
- Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine in your target language
- Submit a professional paper at a conference related to your profession.
2. Practice Different Types of Writing
At an advanced level, you’re working on more then learning set phrases used in writing. Instead, you want to master different types of writing.
There are surprising cultural differences in some types of writing—I had a French professor insist that an essay must be five paragraphs and had to adhere to a very strict format in order to be correct. Here are some of the types of writing you’ll want to work on as an advanced learner:
- Persuasive essays
- Narratives of different lengths
- Professional writing like reports and memos
3. Retell Stories or Essays You Read in Your Target or Native Language
Retelling stories (or other kinds of writing, depending on what type of writing you’re working on) is a great way to practice.
You read a piece of writing (of a manageable length, probably between 1,000 and 2,000 words), put the original aside and then try to replicate the piece of writing on your own. This exercise will both help you overcome writer’s block and teach you new vocabulary.
Retelling stories is a good way to internalize the turns of phrase, vocabulary and sentence structure that native speakers of your target language use in their writing.
4. Pay Attention to Style
You’ve moved beyond merely avoiding gross errors in your writing—so now it’s time to care about whether or not your writing sounds decent. This means varying your word choice by using synonyms and using sentence structures that aren’t only correct but that also sound good to a native speaker of your target language.
5. Continue Getting Corrections
Once you get to an advanced level, it’s easy to assume that you don’t need any more instruction. But if you really want to master writing, you need to continue getting corrections on your written work—indefinitely. It doesn’t have to be on every piece of written work you produce, but periodic corrections will help you continue improving your writing.
Writing is one of the hardest things to do well as a non-native speaker of a language, because there’s no room to hide behind mumbled errors and because becoming literate—even in your native language—requires quite a bit of effort and instruction.
That doesn’t mean writing should be neglected, because your overall language ability will often be judged solely on the basis of how well you write. There are lots of ways to improve your writing ability, but they can be essentially boiled down to three key components:
- Read a lot
- Write a lot
- Get your writing corrected
If you can do those three things, you’ll see your writing ability increase until you can genuinely consider yourself a master!
Emily Liedel is a writer and polyglot. She speaks French, Spanish, Russian, German and Mandarin Chinese—her goal is to speak all of the official UN languages fluently (HINT: Arabic is the language left on her list). She writes about language learning and living abroad at www.thebabeltimes.com.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)