How do I develop writing skills in a non-native language?
May 18, 2006 2:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I develop writing skills in a non-native language?

Does anyone have any tips for developing a writing style in a foreign language? Knowing the conversational side of the language unfortunately doesn't take care of the written one. People don't speak the way they write. What's the best way to practice using vocabulary and stylistic constructs specific to writing?
posted by gregb1007 to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably best to try and pick up a handbook of writing for that language. I'm sure every language has the equivalent of a Strunk & White stylebook.
posted by JJ86 at 2:28 PM on May 18, 2006

Read a lot in that language, quality newspapers and novels.
posted by atrazine at 2:32 PM on May 18, 2006

Agreed on reading the language. Get as many formats in as you can. The more you get a feel for it, the better your own style will come through. Beyond that, I found that writing essays and blog posts helped me develop a voice, as well.
posted by moira at 2:45 PM on May 18, 2006

Definitely by reading. Try reading varied written materials-- newspapers, magazines, books. If you have a particular writing style in mind, pick a medium that most closely resemble how you want to write. If you have access to a tutor(in person or via email even), practice writing, then have it edited/corrected by your tutor.
posted by MD06 at 3:20 PM on May 18, 2006

Keep a journal and write letters. Find a langauge partner at a nearby university and help them correct their term papers in exchange for helping you figure out what sounds the most fluent. Memorize specific entries if you can. I had an independent study like this my senior year of college and got a job with a Japanese company as a result.
posted by Alison at 4:16 PM on May 18, 2006

What Alison said - keep a diary or a journal in that foreign language. When I was learning French in elementary school, all my teachers had us do this. It was a great way to memorize words that I encountered every day (i.e. eating breakfast, watching TV, etc.) and for picking up new ones, like 'oh I just saw X on the internet' and so on.

When you first begin, you may find yourself turning to the dictionary for every other word. But gradually, you'll begin to remember more and more, because you just wrote similar stuff the day before.

And it's also kinda fun - you get to go over your entire day and pick out the most random or mundane parts, i.e. anything that will help increase your vocabulary or make a new entry more different than the others.
posted by invisible ink at 5:04 PM on May 18, 2006

I'm sure every language has the equivalent of a Strunk & White stylebook.

No, actually very few do (and I wouldn't recommend S&W for English, but that's another story). If it's a language with a significant online presence, you might start a blog in the language you're working on and ask native speakers to correct you. I know a guy who did this for Russian and it did wonders for his writing ability. (Reading is great, but it doesn't really help you write. Only writing does that.)
posted by languagehat at 5:05 PM on May 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Reading is great for acquiring a large vocabulary but it's not enough for writing.

Maybe people "don't speak the way they write", but writing has also a lot to do with breathing, rhythms and sounds that you can only get from speaking the language: you have to hear your own voice in this language to be able to write it with any style.

I think.
posted by bru at 5:30 PM on May 18, 2006


Every day.

Have a set quota (X pages per day) and write under a time limit (X minutes or hours per day).

The quota/time limit is important because writing quickly is key if you are going to use this skill for anything useful. This is difficult at first but gets much easier after a few weeks of practice.

It's the every day part that is the killer. It is this part that will determine whether you ever become functional in the language and, more importantly, if anyone other than you would want to read what you have written.

Good luck and have fun. If you like writing in your own language, you will love writing in someone else's.
posted by cup at 6:10 PM on May 18, 2006

Best answer: Joseph Jacotot used to teach lawyers how to write briefs and pleadings in Belgian. The funny thing was, he didn't speak it. Jacques Ranciere explains how in The Ignorant Schoolmaster.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:12 PM on May 18, 2006

Not really so funny, anotherpanacea: very few do.
posted by rob511 at 10:44 PM on May 18, 2006

Languagehat's suggestion to start a blog is brilliant and probably precisely what you'll need.

Also, don't neglect the development of your verbal skills in the target language--it will feed back into your writing, and vice versa.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:33 PM on May 18, 2006

I work in Spanish which isn't my first language. I print out many of the emails I receive and paste them in a notebook. I circle the "chunks of language", expressions, forms, etc. and try to integrate them into my writing. I do that same thing with the football newspapers.

I've also found when I'm writing and want to know if I have an expression right that google is a great tool. I will find a phrasing which I think is accurate and do a search with the phrase between quotations. If there aren't very many hits then I probably have something wrong and try some other variations (this happens alot with prepositions particularly).

I wouldnt worry so much about developing a personal style or learning all the rules as much as trying to imitate as much as you can.

Doing a blog is also a good idea, as just an excuse to write.
posted by BigBrownBear at 4:35 AM on May 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Joseph Jacotot used to teach lawyers how to write briefs and pleadings in Belgian. The funny thing was, he didn't speak it.

I don't see what's so funny about that, since there is no such language as "Belgian." What's funny is that he managed to teach lawyers to write a nonexistent language. Actually, that may explain a lot of things.
posted by languagehat at 5:44 AM on May 19, 2006

Heh. Dutch, technically. (The language for official business in Belgium before 1830.) However, at the time it was considered different from the language of the Netherlands, because of the Flemish dialect. So, Flemish, or... yeah, Belgian.

Bit of a derail, really.

Gregb1007: be sure to spend some time correcting your own work, if possible with a native speaker. The alternative is to balance a lot of reading with the writing, so that you don't end up solidifying grammar and style mistakes. Hit the random button a few times on blogspot to find a ton of really horrible English language blogs. You don't want to end up like them!

(Which is what languagehat said, way up there.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:57 AM on May 19, 2006

languagehat replied: No, actually very few do.[languages have stylebooks]

Dunno, it depends on the language. Spanish has dozens.
posted by JJ86 at 7:57 AM on May 19, 2006

Well, yeah, that's why I said "very few" and not "none." There are roughly 6,800 languages in the world (very roughly, of course). How many do you think have style guides?
posted by languagehat at 8:27 AM on May 19, 2006

Obviously the least most spoken languages will have no style book. But 25% of the world speaks 3 languages, two of which I know for a fact have style guides. The OP didn't specify which language interests him but the odds are high that there is one for his needs unless he is looking for something very esoteric. I was referring to the more widely used languages.
posted by JJ86 at 8:45 AM on May 19, 2006

The OP didn't specify which language interests him

Exactly. "A foreign language" does not mean "one of the more widely used languages." As someone who frequently studies esoteric languages, I'm not as confident as you that that's what he means. And what you said, as opposed to what you may have meant, was "I'm sure every language has the equivalent of a Strunk & White stylebook." (Emphasis added.) I'm not trying to be a dick about this, but if you say something wrong, you can't expect not to have that fact pointed out.
posted by languagehat at 9:02 AM on May 19, 2006

Not to mention that "style guides" are a poor resource for any language, including English. You're likely to get the equivalent of people telling you to hold your pinky out when you sip tea. What the poster needs is to "develop writing skills," not to satisfy the local equivalent of Strunk & White idiocy.
posted by languagehat at 9:04 AM on May 19, 2006

I'll just toss in another nod to those who have suggested journaling in your foreign language, or blogging with it.

Worked wonders for me.
posted by dead_ at 9:53 AM on May 19, 2006

Mod note: a few commetns removed, take nyeah nyeah stuff to metatalk, email, or just let it go
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:00 AM on February 19, 2007

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