7 ways non-native English speakers can improve their writing

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Are you one of the non-native English speakers who’s afraid of writing. Don’t be scared. And don’t think that focusing on grammar is the answer. Here’s what you should do instead…

I’m a debate coach at my local high school and a great many of my students speak English as a second language. I have one particularly enthusiastic young man — he’s in grade 9 — who loves to speak, but whose English is choppy.

Last week, he was debating a topic related to the news (“This house regrets the rise of entertainment news”) and he treated the word ‘news’ as plural. For example, he made comments like, “These news are…” For any native-born speaker of English this error was highly grating, almost like fingernails on a blackboard. But I could see why he did it: the word news does appear to be plural. I corrected his error politely and kindly and hope he won’t make it again.

But this kind of mistake — so easy to make yet so hard to discern — must appear like a  bogeyman to non-native English writers. Here are some suggestions about how to improve your fluency if English is a second language for you.

  1. Read a lot: I know, this sounds like boring and predictable advice. But it works. Even though some North Americans no longer read very much, don’t follow their bad habit. If you want to learn English as a second language, it’s absolutely essential that you read voraciously. (In fact, anyone who wants to write needs to read voraciously.) Here’s the best way to do that: read only material that you love. So what if this leads you to cheesy romance novels or exciting thrillers. It’s far better to read mediocre writing daily than to feel guilty about not reading the classics. When I have a good book (biography and literary fiction are my genres of choice), I’d far rather read than watch TV or surf the Internet.
  2. Give yourself enough time for writing: Recognize that by learning a second language you are achieving something that is difficult. I speak a little bit of French, but other than that I’m restricted to English. I have enormous admiration for anyone who speaks more than one language. Of course, it’s going to take you longer to write in this second language. Don’t allow yourself to become too frustrated, because that’s only going to make life more difficult for you. Instead, give yourself more time for writing than your English-speaking compatriots are going to require. Two of my three children are dyslexic and this means that reading and writing takes them longer than anyone else. Does that stop them? No! They read and write at their own pace and just allow more time for it. You should do the same.
  3. Break the edit-WHILE-you-write habit: Because you are bound to be self-conscious about your struggles with this new language, you’re going to be very concerned about making mistakes. I strongly urge you to put that concern on hold. There is a time for writing and a time for editing. These are two separate tasks that should occur at different times. So what if your crappy first draft  is filled with errors? No one else should see this draft and you will have plenty of time to edit it later. Always write first and edit second. One of my non-native readers emailed me last week to tell me about her experience in breaking this habit. “Usually, I ended up spending hours on two paragraphs feeling nervous and incompetent,” she told me. “I wasted a very long time trying to polish my sentences while generating the ideas.” Now, however, her mentor tells her she’s an excellent writer and she has recently submitted her first abstract for publication. (Congratulations, Ahlam!)
  4. Avoid idioms unless you’re sure you really understand them: As you have likely discovered already, idioms are the toughest part of any language to learn. In fact, idioms differ nationally and sometimes even regionally. When my husband lived in England for several years he learned that to “knock someone up” meant to drop by and visit them, not to get them pregnant, as it means in North America. In time, you will get the hang of these idioms and you can start using them freely. But for now, avoid them.
  5. Write daily: We all become better writers with practice. This is a rule that applies to English speakers as well. But because English is your second language, you need to focus on it even more acutely. It’s often a good idea to keep a blog – make it on any subject that interests you — because then your writing will have an external audience, which can be motivating to you.
  6. Have someone check your grammar: the rules of English grammar are complex and can be difficult to learn. If you are publishing your work on a blog, or handing it in to a professor for marks, you’ll want to be reassured that your grammar is correct. See if you can make a deal with someone you know who speaks English as a first language. Perhaps you can do something for them — handywork? cooking? tutoring in your language? — in exchange for having them check your grammar. This person does not need to be a professional editor. In fact, I’ve found that secretaries or executive assistants often have a terrific grasp of grammar.
  7. Use free online resources to check your work: Be sure to take advantage of the many free options for online editing or writing improvement. These include: the Hemingway App,  Online-Utiliity.org,  Grammarly  and ProWritingAid. The other benefit of these online sources is that you don’t have to be embarrassed in front of a computer program….

How have you adapted to writing in a second language? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Dec. 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Fifteen Dogs, a novel by Andre Alexis. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.