Writing in a second language – part II

Last time I promised to share a few tricks that would help you to improve your second language writing skills. These are not ultimate truths (and maybe they will even they will be something obvious for you) and they don’t guarantee your second language will suddenly become perfect: in fact, they might not work for you at all. But I hope that at least they will inspire you to try or to come up with your own tricks.

I thought I’d be sharing all of them at once, but it turned out I have a lot more to share than I thought. This is why I decided to focus only on one or two tricks in a post otherwise the text would be too long and you’d have to wait for it much longer. Today comes the first of the tricks.

Do not translate

I have to admit that I sat for quite a while trying to decide which advice would be the most crucial, the most beneficial of them all. There it is: do not translate.

If you think in your native language and then trying to write down your thoughts in another language, you will find yourself struggling for the right words and correct grammar. Also, your text will sound foreign, because you are most likely to intuitively adapt grammar structures and expression from your mother tongue. As you can guess, it will make the later editing difficult as well, since you will see familiar and thus “correct” sentences. An awkward sentence will stand out more than a sentence that is incorrect but follows grammar rules of the native language.

If you are wondering how to follow this advice here’s the solution: learn to think in the second language. You can start simply by picturing yourself in everyday situations and “acting out in your head” dialogues and scenes in a second language – the same way you probably do in your native tongue. Then, confident or not, move on to picturing scenes or dialogues for your stories. Even if the words and grammar you use are simple, you making sure that when you sit down to write the sentences that will come to you will be already in the second language.

Do not worry too much about perfect grammar, you can wonder if it should be “could be” or “could have been” while you edit later. If you’re stuck with every sentence pondering whether it’s correct or not, it means you’re not really thinking in the language… Do you ever ponder in your head whether the thought you just had was correct or not? I guess except for rare occasions of actually pondering on grammar or amusing yourselves the answer is “no”.

I am not trying to tell you that grammar is not important because we all know it is. But unless you’re in your language exam giving a presentation, you don’t have to have it perfect the first time around, right? You can note your thoughts down and have the first draft ready to correct and embellish or you can be stuck at the very first sentence trying to decide whether to pick “wrote” or “written”.

So, which one you want to do?



Writing in a second language – part I

Writing in a second language – part III

10 thoughts on “Writing in a second language – part II”

  1. You see I have another problem as well! I believe I’m thinking in English and I write and then when a native speaker corrects the ms it seems translated. How would you sort this problem!? I have no clue how to do that!

    1. Some of it will come with time for sure, language acquisition is not something that comes over night. I think some other tips (which will come in the next posts) might help you as well.

      For now I’d say that you might try to keep it simple – obviously for fiction writing you will have to use complex sentences, but it might be better if you stick to simple ones and then, while editing, you merge them and fix them.

      If you read in English, stop at random paragraphs to study them – even single sentences that caught your attention. Write down interesting expressions (for example native speakers use a lot of phrasal verbs which second language speakers avoid, as they can be a pain). Try to find them while reading, write them down, write sentences or short texts with them – just to get used to them.
      Think of some action or description and how would you describe it. And then, while you read (preferably a book you’ve already read), write down or mark all the similar actions/descriptions. Compare yours and “native” ones.
      Go back to your oldest texts (but not the ones that have been corrected) and try to correct them – since your language skill already progressed you will find the things that you didn’t notice in them. They might help you to learn how to spot things that became less obvious since your language is better now.
      In the end, editing is unavoidable whether you are a native or not, so if I were you I’d focus more on how to spot the issues rather than getting it right in the first time.

      Also, if I can be so bold (since I am not native speaker myself) and look at your comment here, I’d recomment simple sentences and phrasal verbs as a first step. The most “non-native” sentence in your comment is the longest and most complex one (Can I suggest an exercise? Take this sentence, slice it in three separate ones and only then try to think of how to make them one (or two). Play around with “connecting words” (“and then, after I write it, a native speaker…” etc.) I don’t know if it helps with your problem, but at least might support learning more about the complex sentence structure.
      I also pointed at phrasal verbs as you actually want to “sort out” (solve) a problem, not sort it (put it into right place/category/in order).
      I hope it helps a bit with your problem or at least point you in the right direction. Let me know if you find it useful!

          1. Good luck! Just don’t stress yourself too much, in the end books are for enjoyment, aren’t they? 😉

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