How to use creative writing to learn a new language

If you are learning a new language, then there is nothing better than writing stories in that language. True, you may not be able to do this as an absolute beginner, but once you know something — you can write.

Why write? You write because you want to speak. Writing is an exercise in collecting your thoughts and putting them down on paper with as much time as you need. Time is the crucial difference. When you speak, you have to produce the language immediately. If you’re pondering in your mind if what you’re saying is correct before you speak then it’s probably too slow. When you write, you can practice the grammatical structures without pressure. THEN after you’ve been doing it for a while a mini-miracle happens. Your speaking is much improved, because you’ve spent the thinking time in the writing process so when it comes to speak — you’ve got it.

Now we come to the question of what you should write. You can write anything of course, but the best use of your time is to write a story. Does that sound scary? Well, it doesn’t matter that it’s not a Raymond Chandler short story. It’s not creative writing with the aim of creating a little piece of literature. It’s a personal story you’re writing. You might think ‘oh, I’ve got no interesting stories’ but that’s just not relevant (nor is it true, and likely you are poor judge of what other people find interesting). You invest in this story writing with the aim of learning a new language, not of impressing a publisher. So the pressure is off.

The point is that this is your work. It’s not a dry exercise. You care about this story and so you are motivated to write it and then translate it. It is fascinating because the work is your very own. It’s nobody else’s.

But you say you can’t write stories. Well, you can probably tell stories. That’s all you have to do. You write how you speak, not how you were taught to write in a creative writing class. Anybody can write a story. The trick is not to think about it too much. As Marshal Rosenberg said you just need to say what happened. That means leave out the analysis, leave out the summary and leave out the emotional words. You don’t have to tell people how you feel, they can figure it out. It turns out this is the way we tell stories to friends in speech anyway, so it makes sense to practice the skill in writing, you will later use in speaking. Of course later you can come back to the story and you can jazz it up if you want. You can add adjectives and emotions and summaries to your heart’s content — but don’t do it in the beginning. It’s not literature — it’s a practical learning exercise based on events in your life.

Maybe it’s hard to know what you want to write about. Maybe you worry that it won’t be interesting to other people. OK, here are some ideas about what to write about…

Your morning routine
A day in your life
My first road trip
Something horrible I remember from school
My bucket list

So, the easiest kind of story to write is a travel story. A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and something really needs to go wrong. At it’s shortest, it can be three paragraphs long, and the paragraphs can be one or two sentences. It doesn’t matter when you’re getting started. As far as style goes, you can start simple. ‘I get up. I go to the toilet and make a cup of coffee. I get dressed and go downstairs. As I open the door and step outside, a boy riding a skateboard goes past being pulled by a dog. I wait for the tram.’ The sentence construction will, and in fact, should be simple. There’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s a perfectly fine strategy to write your story in your mother tongue and then translate it. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I mean, how else would you do it? Be aware of the language you use though. If it’s really kind of idiomatic, like ‘he stabbed me in the back’, the chances are your target language is not going to express this idea in exactly the same way.

Avoid writing what you know how to write — instead write what you really want to say. This is brain training. Later when it comes to speaking, you look inside your head and there you find what you want to say. This is the practice. But keep it simple. Write the first draft in English (say) and then ruthlessly simplify it. You’re still saying the same thing, but simplicity will make you a better writer. Remember — write how you speak. Chances are your speaking style is not complicated.

The easiest way to simplify any story, is to write it in the present tense. You’ll soon find, that even with the best will in the word, you can’t normally write an entire story in the present tense, because you’ll want to contrast two events, and one normally happened before the other one. But the advice still holds. Take your original story, which is probably all in the past tense, and substitute as much as possible into the present tense. Once you get the story perfect, you can go back and put the whole thing in the past tense.

In the internet age, it’s easy to get your work checked and corrected. I recommend the site Lang8 (http://lang-8.com/) which exists for that very reason. You will find people willing to work to correct your work for free. They do it very conscientiously and often very quickly at no cost. In response, you can do the same for somebody who’s learning your language. It works very well. If you are writing something that is a bit longer, you can upload multiple smaller posts, and that way it’s easier on the checkers and you see your progress happening progressively.

When you get the whole story corrected, what then? In my experience the best thing to do is create a landscape A4 document with a table with 3 or 4 columns. In the first column you put the original native language text, in the second column your original attempt in the language you are learning, in the third column put the corrected text. In the fourth column you make a note of what you’ve learned from the correction.

Over time, you will see that your stories become more sophisticated and that you make fewer mistakes. The objective is always to make new mistakes, and to try and write new stories having learned from the work you’ve done before.

I have used this technique to learn German. It’s made it a lot more efficient and fun. In conjunction with reading simplified novels intended for native speakers, the techniques of grammar, writing and reading encourage the patterns of the language in my head to form. They are then there when I want to speak, without the listener having to wait a long time for me to express myself, and with a much higher degree of accuracy.

Think about it. We all know speaking and understanding is what we really want. But if we don’t have stories to share, all we’ve got is small talk, and small talk becomes tiring very quickly and repetitive. Once you’ve written your stories — you’re ready to tell them. To speak them. That’s the point. All of a sudden, you don’t have to make small talk — you can tell a story instead. Much better. And then people will ask you questions and ‘hey presto’ you’re in a real conversation.

Story is the most powerful technique I’ve found in learning a new language. I recommend it to you.

If you are learning German and you live in Berlin then check out languagegym.net. There’s a link there to my ‘famous’ workshop ’90 Minutes to Hack the German CASE system’ (that’s all that der, das, die stuff). You can always write to me at peterjmerrick@gmail.com and this collection on Medium showcases stories written by me and by the learners I’ve worked with. https://medium.com/language-gym-berlin