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Writing in English as a Second Language: Tips for Students

writing in English as a second language

As Columbia University Professor William Zissner observed, what’s valued as “good writing” in one language can be vastly different in another language. An ESL student of his from Egypt observed that Arabic writing uses a lot of proverbs, something an English writer can’t do if they want to be taken seriously. Students from Ethiopia were used to writing long, flowing, complex sentences that demonstrated their education and knowledge. The Spanish language with it’s wealth of Latin-based words is a gold mine for poets and writers as it’s naturally expressive. But what’s considered good writing in English is something quite different.

Here are some tips for ESL students who want to write well in English:

Read a lot to improve your writing

Read newspapers, magazines and books. You’ll find answers to subject-verb agreement questions, plurals, adjectives and past tense and past participle conjugation. You’ll learn spelling, vocabulary and idiomatic phrases as well as basic sentence structure. Reading will help reinforce grammar rules you know and teach you ones you didn’t. Also take advantage of blogs for ESL students.

English speakers value clarity

The English language has over a million words. It’s a language that’s full of nuance. For example, look at the subtle difference between the words yell, shout, scream. You wouldn’t necessarily use them in the same context. You could scream from fright, but not yell or shout from it. When there’s a disagreement, depending on the nature of it, you might call it a dispute, argument, debate, quarrel or fight. Exposure to these words via conversations, music, films and books will help you understand which word you can use and when.

Brevity

Modern English is not what linguists would call a “flowery” language. Its most celebrated writers tend to be the ones who write short, punchy sentences. There’s a very popular app for writers called the Hemingway app that evaluates your text for sentences that are too long, too complex or confusing. It has a special function to detect adverbs. Why is there an app called Hemingway instead of Poe or Faulkner? Because Hemingway was the quintessential “lean” writer and that quality of expressing a lot in few words is highly valued in English.

Action verbs

Some languages form sentences that are like mazes. They talk around a subject because being direct is considered rude. In English, being direct is appreciated. Those who can “get to the point” are praised instead of sidelined. The language itself reflects this with its use of action verbs. Don’t put things in the passive tense. Say it straight. For example: “I threw the ball to Jack” is much easier to understand than “The ball was thrown to Jack by me.” Action verbs are an ESL writer’s faithful ally. Fuzzy on what’s an active verb and what’s a passive verb? Check out this site to learn more.

Don’t overuse Latin-based words

If your first language happens to be a Latin-based one, your tendency will be to make good friends with the Latin-based words in English. And there are many. Depending on which reference you use, anywhere from 40-60% of English words are derived from Latin. Relying on your Latin roots will certainly make it easier for you to express yourself, but will also make your English unbearably formal. Students in American high schools who study Latin generally do so in order to score better on the SATs.

However, if you look at the way English is spoken on the streets, on television, in films or the way it’s sung in music or written in magazines or books, you’ll see that English’s Anglo-Saxon roots are put to use far more often than its Latin ones. So don’t rely on your easy Latin affiliates, and make the effort to delve into the world of Anglo-Saxon based English.

Don’t translate from your native language into English

This is hard for anyone trying to speak a second language. But try thinking in English rather than translating your thoughts from your native language into English. The difference is vast. Thinking in English means you’re also becoming familiar with the logic of the English language, its grammar, nuances and idiomatic phrases.

Trying to translate from your native language into English is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. The grammar will be awkward and hard to understand and you won’t be able to capture the meaning of what you’re saying. That’s because English is another another with different forms of expression. Learning them will help you communicate what you mean.

English spelling can be frustrating

A seemingly unending stream of vowel combinations (beauty) and consonant combinations (thought) and some words that are spelled the same but mean different things (the noun tear vs. the verb tear). Check out this spelling guide to help you gain more confidence in your writing.

Write a lot

Taking the above into consideration, it’s time for you to practice writing in English. To improve your English writing, you should write every day. But it’s not enough for you to write every day. Someone needs to be able to tell you when you’re making a mistake…

Get help of an English native speaker

Today, the Internet is a huge resource for ESL learners. Whatever your native language is, you can bet there’s a native English speaker who wants to learn it. While a lot of these language exchanges focus more on speaking, you can certainly request to use the chat function as a way to practice your writing. Ask them to correct your spelling and grammar and offer you tips and explanations.

It’s not the same as having a teacher who has more grammatical knowledge, but your average layperson should be able to spot basic spelling and grammar mistakes for you. Visit these language exchange sites to partner up with a language learning buddy and improve your English writing.

The best way to learn to write well in English is to read a lot and write a lot. Make sure a native speaker corrects your work and practice as often as you can to get better.

Main Pitfalls of Learning a Second Language Writing System

learn second language writing system

Second language systems like Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Greek and Russian all have different alphabets. Learning the alphabet is the first step in learning to read and write in these languages.

As if learning a new language weren’t difficult enough, the process is made more complicated by having to learn a new writing system on top of it. Here are some of the main challenges of mastering a new alphabet system:

Understanding phonetics

Of course, there will always be a tendency to try to make things sound like the language you’re most familiar with. But in many alphabets, the sounds you’ll be encountering will be totally different from English sounds. Did you know that the “th” sound is unique to the English language and challenging for people learning English to pronounce? Likewise, many sounds in other languages will be difficult for you to grasp at first. Don’t be frustrated if you can’t get a sound right on the first try. Intonation and accent take time to build. Keep at it and you’ll get better.

Understanding the logic

The English alphabet, also known as the Roman alphabet, is about sounds, not about symbols. The letters are building blocks to create a word and usually have no meaning unto themselves. But not all writing systems have the same logic. In fact, for many other language systems, the letters of the alphabet are symbols that stand for something on their own. By looking at the alphabet as a phonetic building block, you miss the logic of the other language which is to use symbols to build meaning.

In Chinese, which is a language based on symbols, you can’t pronounce a word if you don’t understand its meaning. In English, however, you can sound a word out based on the letters without having any clue what the word means. Don’t try to apply the logic of the Roman alphabet to a different writing system. Learn its logic in order to understand the language.

Identifying different fonts

Just like in English, you’ll have to learn to identify writing in different fonts and styles. Handwriting will be different from printed text and there will be variations of printed text as well. Think about cursive writing, capitalization and the thousands of different printed fonts that any English reader can easily identify. However, a young child who has only just learned to write the alphabet wouldn’t be able to identify a letter written in cursive.

Other languages will offer this same challenge. In addition, some languages have different writing systems. Japanese, for example, has three writing systems which are all distinct from each other. The best way to learn these various writing styles and fonts is to expose yourself to all of the different styles of writing that exist in a language so that you’re not confused when faced with a different style.

Learning to write

Reading is one thing. Writing is another. Everyone remembers that phase when they were learning to write the alphabet. How it was a painstaking process that was much more akin to drawing the letters than to writing them. Over time, it became more natural. Now, you’re in a phase where you’re learning not only what the letters of the new alphabet look like, but how to write them. Some languages, like Hebrew and Arabic are written from right to left. If you try to write these languages from left to right, it will hardly be legible.

Imagine if someone tried to write a sentence in English by writing all the words backwards. It would look strange and awkward. All languages have a specific way to write their characters and letters. Learn the order of the pen-strokes and the direction correctly so that your handwriting will be readable.

Attitude is everything

The biggest reason people fail to learn is that they give up too easily. It’s not that the language is too hard or too impossible or too different. Anyone is capable of learning anything as long as they dedicate themselves to it. Get through the slow awkward phase, realize that it’s different than when you were learning to read English as a child and focus on small triumphs. Maybe you could recognize a word written in different fonts or you were able to read a whole sentence out loud without pausing. Celebrate these milestones and keep working at it.