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How to improve your writing skills in a foreign language

By: Itziri Moreno Wed Dec 20 2023

Improving your foreign language writing skills requires lots and lots of writing practice. Writing practice gives you experience figuring out how to communicate in a clear way, and can help you develop your overall language skills. However, simply putting down what you want to say on paper is not enough; writing needs to be carefully crafted in order to convey meaning effectively. For example, you’ll need to consider the purpose of your writing, what topics you are discussing, and who your audience is. In this article, we’ll take a look at what it means to be a good foreign language writer, and outline eight ways you can improve your foreign language writing skills. Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

    1. Read everything you can in your target language

    It’s so important to read everything you can in your target language! Good writers tend to be good readers. Reading is a pathway to learning new vocabulary and grammatical structures. It reinforces your spelling skills, and familiarizes you with writing conventions. You can then turn around and apply these in your own writing. The trick here is to read different styles of writing to get an idea of how native speakers express themselves in different contexts. Formal styles of writing (books, articles, magazines) will help you learn the type of language commonly used in the professional world. Informal writing (social media, text messages) will help you learn the ins-and-outs of how people actually speak and communicate socially (slang, common expressions). Be aware, informal writing may not always have correct orthography and punctuation, and may contain lots of typos and shortened words. So make sure that you read both types of texts to develop a robust knowledge of the language!

    Pro-tip! Keep a language journal handy so that you can jot down new words, expressions, and structures to look up while reading.

    2. Ask a native speaker to edit what you write

    Asking a native speaker to edit what you write is a great way to receive feedback that will help you improve your writing. A native speaker can give you pointers on how to phrase sentences more naturally, suggest alternatives to words, and highlight differences between your native and target languages. All of these things will help you communicate more clearly and sound more native-like! But what if you don’t know a native speaker? Have no fear, the internet can help! There are plenty of online communities on various social media platforms where you can set up language exchanges—you help a learner of your native language with their writing skills while they help you with yours!

    3. Pay special attention to grammar

    Paying special attention to grammar while you are writing can help you use language more accurately. Because you typically have more time to think when writing, you can take your time to look up rules you are unsure of, or find examples of phrases in order to construct coherent sentences. While grammatical mistakes are often overlooked in spoken language (because listeners are often still able to work out what the speaker meant to say), they tend to stand out more in written language. Readers may have a hard time understanding a text full of errors because they aren’t able to ask for clarification!

    When you write, try making an effort to write grammatically correct sentences. This can help you improve your overall knowledge of the language. When you are unsure of a grammatical point, just look up how to use it. For example, if you don’t know the correct word order in a sentence, look it up in the textbook or a grammar blog (Did you know that Mango has language-specific grammar articles?). Actively researching and applying grammar rules will likely help you the next time you want to use a similar structure in the future. 

    One thing to keep in mind is that the writing conventions of your target language might be different than English. How many times did your English teacher tell you to fix your “run-on” sentences? Well, in other languages, long sentences might actually be the correct way to write! Learning these differences will help you become a more natural writer in your L2.

    4. Think in the target language while writing

    Another way to improve your writing skills is to think in the target language while writing, instead of translating directly from your first language. Direct translations can result in awkward sentences and end up being a crutch because you can end up relying too much on your native language rather than on the target language. Instead, once you have a plan for what you want to write, think of the types of structures you will need in the target language and build your sentences piece by piece. Once you have a finished product, you can always go back and fix those sneaky grammatical and spelling mistakes. With time and experience, thinking in the target language, and your writing skills, will start to feel more natural.

    5. Make a phrasebook for yourself

    Making a phrasebook while you read is an excellent way to keep track of new expressions, words, and grammatical structures. Homemade phrasebooks are also a great way to learn common idioms—expressions whose meaning is not the same as what is literally expressed by the words that make it up (e.g., “He’s driving me up the wall” involves no cars or driving!). When used correctly, idioms can help you sound more native-like. Just be aware that these phrases can be tricky as the meaning or grammar can differ from the norm, and may not make sense out of context. It’s best to memorize them as chunks, rather than trying to break them down. So why not keep a notepad (or your phone) handy to jot down words and phrases that catch your attention? This will help accelerate your learning process, as well as giving you an easy way to retrieve this information when you sit down to write.

    Pro-tip! Transition phrases such as, “in addition,” “consequently,” “in other words,” “in conclusion,” etc. are very useful and can help make your writing seem more fluid. Make sure these are included in your phrasebook!

    6. Learn how to write in a variety of styles

    Learning how to write in a variety of styles is extremely beneficial both for learning vocabulary and developing the ability to write in different registers (i.e., formal vs. casual). After all, texting with your friend is very different from writing a report for school. Writing in different styles can also push you to use different grammatical structures. For example, many novels and stories are written using the past tense, and present dialogue using natural sounding, informal language. On the other hand, a breaking news report may use formal language, and could focus on the present and future tenses. Thus, challenging yourself to practice writing in different styles—from poetry and stories to essays, blog posts, and text messages—will help you expand your overall knowledge of the language and improve your ability to communicate in a wide variety of situations.

    7. Edit your writing with a grammar and spelling checker

    Another great way to improve your language skills is to edit your own writing using a grammar and spelling checker. Most word processing software have multiple language tools built-in, so this can be as simple as changing the spell checking language of what you are using. This will give you immediate feedback on both spelling and grammatical mistakes! You can also use online tools that can help you revise your grammar. Simply search “grammar check in (insert target language)” and you will usually find a variety of resources (including browser extensions) that can help.

    Although technology can be very helpful, it’s important to know that it has limitations. Spell checkers do not always interpret what you are trying to convey correctly (have you ever had a hilarious autocorrect mistake?). Always double-check the suggestions against your own knowledge of the language, using dictionaries or other resources when necessary. This can help you identify mistakes made by the software, and can be a great opportunity to learn new words and grammar.

    Pro-tip! When using grammar checking software, try to focus on individual phrases or sentences. Software often has issues correctly interpreting larger chunks of text.

    8. Keep it simple

    Keeping sentences simple can help you take advantage of what you already know when you write. For instance, if you’re in your first semester of a language class, focus on the basics. Did you include the subject and the verb? Does your sentence need an object? Is the adjective in the correct place? Don’t jump immediately into trying to use more complicated structures or verb tenses you don’t yet know. Instead, save these for when you are further along in your language learning progress. You will master them with time!

    One thing to keep in mind: As a beginner writer, you won’t have the same level of expression that you have in your first language. But that’s ok! Find creative ways to express yourself using what you know to make short, clear sentences. Simple coherent sentences are better than incoherent mumbo jumbo, even if they do seem a bit robotic.

    How important is writing for improving your language skills?

    Writing is very important for improving other language skills, especially when it comes to accuracy. Writing lets you focus on using language correctly and avoiding mistakes because it is more slow paced. The slow pace of writing also lets you take the time you need to fill in the gaps in your knowledge—basically, if you’re missing a word or don’t know a structure, you can look it up or ask someone. This will indirectly improve other aspects of language use as well (e.g., comprehension, speaking). Writing also gives you a physical record of your work, making it easy to ask for and receive feedback, which can help you reassess your knowledge and correct/clarify any gaps. 

    What tools can you use to improve your writing skills?

    A good dictionary and thesaurus are two tools which can help you improve your writing skills. Dictionaries and thesauruses are instrumental in helping you find and select the best words to use. Beyond these, translators, grammar checkers, and word processors can help you improve your writing as well. Here’s a list of some tools you can check out to help you become a better writer:

    • Vocabulary/dictionary tools

      • Wordreference supports about 20 languages, and includes definitions, as well as help with phrases, collocations, and conjugations.

      • Linguee is both a dictionary and a translator that allows you to search strings of words. It will provide authentic examples using the words, as well as a side by side comparison with an English translation.

    • Grammar checkers

      • has a grammar checker and conjugator that supports about 15 languages.

      • LanguageTool is an app that checks grammar and style in over 20 languages.

      • For Spanish learners, Spanishchecker not only points out errors, but also explains why they aren’t correct.

      • Plagly’s grammar checker can proofread a text in 20+ languages.

      • Word processors: Google docs supports over 70 languages and Microsoft Word over 50 languages.

    • Native speaker communities

    What kinds of books should you read to improve your writing skills?

    There are many types of books that can help you improve your writing skills. They can range from children’s with simple language and pictures to advanced classics written in the target language. Here are some ideas to get you started!

    • Find translations of popular books. Popular books translated into your target language are a great choice for improving your writing. Try reading a wide range of books, from children’s stories like “Little Red Riding Hood,” to more complex works like “Hamlet” or “The Odyssey.” I personally find that Harry Potter is an excellent way to learn writing, because the books are very accessible. Even if you haven't read them in English, why not give them a chance in your target language—you will certainly learn lots of new vocabulary you can use in your own stories!

    • Use bilingual books. Bilingual books can be an excellent resource for developing writers. These books are usually made for children who are raised bilingual, and usually have text in both languages presented side-by-side. They also have tons of pictures, easy vocabulary, and engaging story lines!

    • Read short stories. There are many compilations of short stories designed for language learners. These books are categorized by level of proficiency, and typically have a glossary, summary, and comprehension questions. You can practice writing by answering the questions or creating your own summary and comparing it to the one given.

    • Read popular authors in your target language. Reading books by popular authors in your target language is an excellent way to learn about writing, literature, and culture. For example, try Umberto Eco if you’re learning Italian; Victor Hugo if you’re learning French; Dostoevsky if you’re learning Russian; or Haruki Murakami if you’re learning Japanese. These books will most likely have English translations in case you ever get stuck on something.

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