Do you have difficulty writing in a second language? (video)

Viewing time: 3 min. 32 sec.

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 #41, about how to get better at writing in a second language. The post first ran on Dec. 15/17.


Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant. Today we’re talking about writing in a second language.

I’m answering a question from Yousef Hosseinnejad who lives in Mashhad, Iran. Here’s what he wrote to me.

I’m planning to move to Canada and since I’m not native to English I have to pass an English proficiency exam. I have managed to get a good mark in all skills except writing. Because I earned a very good mark in speaking that makes me think I’m doing okay with grammar and use of words. Do you have any suggestions for how I can learn to write more like a native?

Thanks for the question, Yousef. I’m currently working to learn French so I identify with your question, although perhaps not for the reason you think.

For me, it’s much more difficult to learn how to speak a second language. While I am still far from bilingual, I can read and write a lot more fluently than I can speak. I think it’s because I get nervous and embarrassed about making mistakes. Anyway, the first thing you should do is congratulate yourself on being able to speak a second language. That’s an excellent first step.

Now let me explain a little bit about the neuroscience of learning languages. There are four measures for fluency: speaking, listening, writing and reading. Each has its own set of challenges and each requires a different set of skills.

How well you do with each modality depends on how much practice you’ve had. If you’re having difficulty with writing but none with speaking, my guess is that you’ve had lots of speaking practice but not nearly enough writing. For me, the problem is the reverse. I’ve had lots of writing practice in French but not nearly enough speaking.

You can’t expect the skills to cross modalities easily!

Here are some other facts to consider:

The majority of people apparently find it much easier to learn to speak a new language than to learn to read and write it. (I am the exception who proves the rule).

There may also be some genetic factors at work. Some people are born with a natural ability to speak a second language more easily. Others seem to pick up comprehending more readily.

When speaking or reading a language, you don’t need to know as much grammar. When we speak, we all find ways to get our meaning across. Sometimes this is done with context, and sometimes it’s done by waving your hands around. But for written tests, your examiners are going to be much more concerned about your level of grammatical correctness.

If you want to become better at writing English, you need to practice a whole lot more. Try keeping a diary or a blog and get some feedback from a native English speaker at least once a week. I’ve written my own blog post on how non-native English speakers can improve their writing and I include the link below:

It may seem simple, and it is. If you want to get better at writing, do more of it.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of learning to write in a second language, let me wrap up with a quote from Italian film director Federico Fellini: “A different language is a different vision of life.”

Thanks for your question, Yousef. I wish you all the best as you work to develop a different vision for your life.


7 ways non-native English speakers can improve their writing

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