“A different language is a different vision of life.”
— Federico Fellini
One Sunday afternoon several years ago, I thought it would be fun to try to write a poem in Spanish. I think I must have been reading too much Pablo Neruda.
I hadn’t written a line of poetry since high school, and I’d only been studying Spanish for about five years (my native language is English). Needless to say, the poem ended up being much more difficult to write than I’d originally thought.
Despite the nagging worry that a native speaker would laugh at anything I put on paper, I finally managed to finish the poem. (You can read it here.) It didn’t come close to Neruda’s poetry, of course, but to me it felt like a monumental achievement just to have written it.
You’ve probably had a similar experience if you’ve ever written in a foreign language (maybe English is that foreign language for you). It’s discouraging when you keep making mistakes, and it can be a struggle to figure out which words to use to express yourself correctly.
But it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling when you keep pressing forward and finally have a finished piece of work that you can be proud of.
I believe that with practice anyone can improve their writing skills. When I was a writing tutor, I saw my students who spoke English as a second language make incredible progress when they put in the time to write each week.
The same is true for me when I keep practicing writing in a foreign language. When I first started studying Spanish, I wouldn’t have dreamed I’d ever be able to write a poem. But now, after years of study, I can write not only in Spanish but also in Italian and French.
(To be honest, though, I’ve only been studying French for a handful of years so I still need a bit of practice before I can write poetry. 😉)
If you’re looking to improve your writing skills in a foreign language, here are eight tips that will help you make the most of your practice time:
1. Look at Mistakes as Learning Opportunities
Writing in a foreign language isn’t easy. It’s inevitable that you will make mistakes, and some of them might even end up being quite embarrassing.
Whenever that happens to me, I try to take it in stride. I remind myself that I still make occasional mistakes when I write in my native language too. (I’m sure you do too when you write in yours.) Naturally, we’re going to make even more mistakes when we write in a foreign language.
But don’t let your mistakes discourage you and make you afraid to put your words on paper. Instead, look at them positively and use them as a learning opportunity.
Mistakes help you identify the areas you need more practice in. Make sure you understand why what you wrote was incorrect so that you can avoid making the same mistake again in the future.
2. Use a Grammar and Spell Checker to Edit Your Writing
With tip #1 in mind, I like to use a grammar and spell checker so that I can catch most of my mistakes while I’m still writing the first draft. This way I’m getting immediate feedback on my writing so that the errors won’t become ingrained in my brain.
Grammarly is an excellent choice if you’re writing in English. You can find similar apps for other languages. On Apple computers, for example, you can turn on keyboards for different languages.
Check out my article here for more editing tools (nearly all of these are for writing in English).
3. Think in the Foreign Language While You Write
I find I end up making the most errors when I try to directly translate my thoughts in English while writing in Spanish, Italian, or French.
One way I avoid this is by giving myself plenty of time and not rushing myself when I write in a foreign language. It takes me a little bit longer to think in Spanish (rather than English) and then to process those thoughts onto the page, but I make far fewer errors when I do.
When I do need to translate from English, I like to use Linguee, a fantastic website where you can type in a phrase from your native language and see how it would be translated into the foreign language that you are studying (it’s available for seven different languages). Google Translate is also sometimes helpful in this situation.
4. Become an Avid Reader
Reading widely in a foreign language is one of the best ways to grow your vocabulary, strengthen your writing skills, and absorb the language’s grammar.
In each language I study, I try to read everything I can get my hands on: novels, newspaper articles, poetry, comics, instruction manuals, and the list goes on.
Listening to audiobooks doesn’t count here. You want to read a physical book or an eBook so that you can observe punctuation, spelling, and the author’s stylistic techniques.
It’s especially important to read the types of articles or books you would like to write. This will help you learn the vocabulary and style specific to that type of writing. For example, a self-help article usually has a more conversational style than an essay you would write for a college professor.
When I read in a foreign language, I also like to take note of idioms. These are phrases that are usually not taken literally and are generally only understood by those with a strong grasp of the language. For example, if you want to wish someone luck in Italian, you can say, “In bocca al lupo” (literally this expression means “in the mouth of the wolf”).
Idioms are a great way to spice up your writing and make you sound more like a native speaker.
5. Create Your Own Phrasebook
You can break it up into sections based on the vocabulary you learn.
For example, I like to write book reviews. In each foreign language that I learn, I make it a point to learn the vocabulary I need when talking about a story. For Spanish, this would be words and phrases like la trama (the plot), está ambientada en Barcelona (it is set in Barcelona), trata de un mago (it is about a magician).
I organize these words and phrases in the phrasebook under “book reviews.” The next time I want to write a book review, I have the correct terms to use right at my fingertips. Eventually, they become committed to memory too.
6. Study the Grammar
When I first start studying a foreign language, I try not to obsess too much over grammar. If I worry about whether I need to use the subjunctive form of a verb while asking my friend how his day went, I’ll most likely just end up tongue-tied.
Making small grammatical errors when speaking usually isn’t that big of a deal. In fact, the spoken version of a language is often completely different from the written one.
When you’re writing in a language like Spanish, however, and you don’t use the subjunctive when you’re supposed to, it can be a dead giveaway that you’re not a native speaker. You could even come across as uneducated (unless you’re writing a text message).
To strengthen your grasp of a language’s grammar, I recommend working through a grammar workbook (I like to start with the Practice Makes Perfect series of workbooks from McGraw Hill. They have workbooks for many different languages.)
7. Learn How to Write with Style
Learning how to write well doesn’t stop with mastering grammar and spelling and proofreading your work for typos.
You also need to know how to outline your work, craft strong introductions and conclusions, write simply but compellingly, and much more. I call this writing with style.
I recommend reading writing craft books and articles on writing to learn how to write with style.
You should put this advice into practice when writing in both the foreign language and your native language. I’ve found that as I improve my stylistic skills in English, my writing in Spanish, Italian, and French improves too.
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a fantastic book to start with (especially if you’re writing in English). I also recently put together this list of my favorite writing craft books.
8. Ask a Native Speaker to Edit Your Writing
Whether I’m writing in my native language or in a foreign one, I almost always ask a friend or a family member to proofread my work. Even the most famous writers have editors who review their books for errors.
So, of course, it’s even more important to have an editor when you’re writing in a foreign language. No matter how advanced of a speaker you are, there are often subtleties in the language that only a native speaker’s ears are attuned to.
They’ll tell you, “This sentence doesn’t sound right. Write it this way instead.” They may not be able to give you a detailed explanation why but trust that they know what they’re talking about.
If you’re looking for native speakers to correct your writing, I recommend trying out Italki.
After joining the site, you can write short entries in the language you are learning. Your notebook entry will appear to native speakers of that language who will leave you helpful feedback and point out any errors. In return, you can help edit other user’s entries that are written in your native language.
If you need more in-depth feedback on your writing, I recommend setting up a language exchange with a native speaker. I did this with a Spanish-speaking friend of mine who wanted to improve her English. I corrected what she wrote in English, and she corrected what I wrote in Spanish.
If it’s difficult to find a friend who has the time to help you on a consistent basis, then your best bet is to hire a tutor. Italki also has language teachers at affordable prices (they have both professional teachers and community tutors).
The Takeaway: Practice, practice, practice
Of course, none of these tips will help you very much if you don’t put in the time to write. As C. S. Lewis once said,
“What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write…so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on.”
There are many ways you can practice. Here are two ideas:
1. Start a blog.
This is a fantastic way to motivate yourself to practice each week. I created a WordPress blog as a place for me to share my Spanish writings. Posting on Medium would be another excellent way to practice.
Usually, I write a piece (often a book or movie review), ask a friend to edit it, make any suggested corrections, and then post it to my blog.
2. Translate paragraphs.
Look for books or articles in your native language about topics that you’d like to write about. Then try translating a few paragraphs into the foreign language you are studying.
You can use Linguee or Google Translate or just Google (for example, you can search: How do you say “x” in “x” language?) to look up phrases that you’re not sure how to translate. This will help you learn new vocabulary. It’s especially useful on days when you’re not sure what to write about.
In bocca al lupo! Buena suerte! Bonne chance!