Writing In Another Language: The Ultimate Challenge

There are four basic language skills. Native speakers acquire them in the following order:

  • Listening: As babies, we hear our parents speak, and we gradually associate the words with objects, actions, and concepts.
  • Speaking: Eventually, we manage to imitate those sounds, so as to affect our own relationship with our surroundings.
  • Reading: We learn to associate symbols printed on a page with the sounds and concepts we already know.
  • Writing: We learn to produce such symbols ourselves, affecting our relationship to the world at a higher level.

As we are all aware, some people don't even succeed at making it through all four of these steps in their own language! If you don't (or can't) expect much from life, then listening and speaking, even at a sub-standard level, may be enough.

But most of us want a more fulfilling existence. We want to read, because some of the most profound insight into human nature can still only be found in books. And we want to write, because we hope, in our own small way, to contribute to the vast body of human knowledge that will be passed on to future generations.

Or maybe we just want to enjoy comic books and to send emails that will be understood by our colleagues. It's all of a piece.

Still, moving up the ladder from listening well to writing well is harder than it seems. I know very few native English speakers who write well, even in English. In many professions, the expectation of good writing simply isn't there. In corporate life, it's easy to identify the bad writers, even without reading a word they've written. They are the ones who want to deal with everything through face-to-face verbal exchanges. "Let's just have a meeting about this," they might reply to a more erudite colleague's carefully composed email.

But learning to write in a foreign tongue is even harder. One of the main reasons is that, in a second language, we tend to learn the four crucial skills in a different order. In a traditional language classes, speaking is expected almost immediately, while reading and listening are learned in unison. Meanwhile, your first homework assignment is likely to involve writing.

Most language teachers act as if the four language skills are all just one big skill: Knowing The Language. As a result, foreign language learners wind up with an odd mishmash of abilities.

But writing and speaking are not the same. This is true, not just in terms of mechanics, but also in terms of the actual choices we make in terms of grammar and vocabulary. When I write an email, I use different words, and a different type of sentences, than I do when I speak aloud-- even to the same person!

As long as you're clearly understood, it's sometimes okay to change the structure of a spoken sentence in the middle, to extend that sentence to 100 words, and, having made your point, to trail off without actually getting to the end. But on paper (literal or figurative), it's not appropriate to express oneself like that. The writer ends up looking sloppy, confused, and stupid.

Unfortunately, many non-native English speakers were never taught to make this distinction. They write the way they speak. This is bad, because in writing, all the tiny errors of a language learner are magnified. A native speaker who reads an email written by a non-native speaker has the opportunity to clearly see where the writer still has a lot to learn. Non-native speakers make particular kinds of spelling and grammar mistakes.

For example, the writer might use a popular idiomatic phrase, trying to sound cool and current, but missing some nuance of usage, creating an awkwardness that's actually worse than ordinary mediocre language use. Or the writer may confuse two words with similar sounds but very different meanings, revealing a long-time misunderstanding that would be embarrassing for the reader to point out.

Writing lessons are not like regular English lessons. It's not enough to be taught by a native speaker who can google for publicly available grammar exercises. You need someone with a demonstrated track record of having their own writing validated by other native speakers. This might be a published journalist, an academic in your field of study, or even an experienced marketing writer.

Or it might just be someone whose writing moves you. One of the great things about language is that most of us have the ability to recognize when someone else uses it better than we do ourselves.

Other Verbling articles by this teacher:

Reading Difficult Texts Aloud: Fluency For Advanced Students

"Stand" vs. "Stand Up": What's The Difference?

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