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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #45, about how people who speak English as a second language can improve fluency. The post first ran on Feb. 9/18.
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant. Today we’re talking about how to become more fluent in a second language.
Today I’m answering a question from Luk deClerck who is currently based in Østerås, Norway. Here’s what he asked by email.
[email] Dutch is my native language and English is a good second followed by French and Norwegian. Until recently, I thought of myself as writing well in English. But when I started to use ProWritingAid to edit my writing before sharing it, I found I still have a significant margin to improve my text. My grammar, vocabulary, readability and style are gradually improving and I’m reducing the time I spend reworking my text. I do, however, keep struggling with sticky sentences and a high “glue index.” What do you suggest I do?
Thanks for the question, Luk. I love hearing from Europeans who are so much more confident with different languages than North Americans. I am still struggling to improve my French. After 122 consecutive days with the software DuoLingo, I am only 63% fluent (and I consider that a gross exaggeration.) So good for you for speaking four languages! That’s an incredible accomplishment.
Let me begin by making a few comments about ProWritingAid, a software that I’m very familiar with because I use it daily. It’s pretty good, and it’s relatively affordable. (There is also a free version.) You enter your text into a box and then the software immediately analyses it giving you a score out of 100. It looks at all aspects of writing: grammar, sentence length, style, readability and other metrics as well.
It took me a little work to learn how to read and use the various reports, but after some poking around, I figured it out just fine. Ironically, however, the only thing I don’t like about ProWritingAid is its obsession with “sticky sentences” and “glue words.”
The concept of “glue words” is usually credited to Richard C. Wydick, a retired professor of law at the University of California, Davis. His book, Plain English for Lawyers — now in its fifth edition — has been a favorite of law students, and others for more than 25 years. Here is how he explains the idea:
“In every English sentence are two kinds of words: working words and glue words. The working words carry the meaning of the sentence. In the preceding sentence, the working words are these: working, words, carry, meaning, and sentence. The others are glue words: the, the, of, and the.
“The glue words do perform a vital service. They hold the working words together to form a proper, grammatical sentence…. But if the proportion of glue words is too high, that is a symptom of a badly constructed sentence. A well-constructed sentence is like fine cabinet work. The pieces are cut and shaped to fit together with scarcely any glue.”
I’ve included a longer link to this subject below.
But here’s what I have to say about glue words, Luk. When you’re learning a new language, this is way too sophisticated a concept to focus on. When you’re just learning to hike, you don’t start with Mount Everest.
In your email to me, I noticed some small grammatical errors. Now, if I wrote an email to you in French, I know I would have many MORE mistakes. But I’m going to suggest you concentrate on dealing with the basic grammar first before you start trying to deal with glue words. Since you already have ProWritingAid, I suggest focusing on the Grammar section. For those who don’t have an application like this, I’d suggest the free version of Grammarly. Links in the description.
I know you want to reduce your editing time, but remember that the best writers are always the most vigorous editors. This means that you may end up spending more time editing, but ultimately, your final product will be better.
Finally, while we’re on the subject of learning other languages let me wrap up with a comment from the German philosopher Goethe: “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
Thanks for your question, Luk. I wish you all the best in improving your English.