How to Improve your Writing Skills in a Foreign Language

Improve your writing skills in a foreign language by writing about anything that keeps you motivated, with the help of a couple of free websites. However, written drills don’t improve communication skills. Creative writing does. To master a foreign language, shift the focus of writing from accuracy to creating contents and communicating them.

2018/09/29

Stefano Lodola

By STEFANO LODOLA

We all want to master a foreign language, and we can master a foreign language by writing. You don’t need full control of a language to be creative. Control is achieved by having a wide vocabulary and a full understanding of the mechanics of a language’s grammar. A learner can be creative with their language when they only have a little to play with. If they do that at the start, when they know more they will also make better use of that. We only have to think of how a child plays more imaginatively with a cardboard box than they do with the latest computer toy to realise this.

In order to master a foreign language by writing, let’s understand the nature of this skill before we look into some ideas to hone it up in a foreign language.

The nature and purpose of writing

Writing is a productive skill because the writer creates new language and does not only interpret existing information.

Here are some aspects that determine what and how we write:

  • Letters, computers, cellphone texting, etc. require different styles of writing and communicative conventions
  • Poetry, short story, lecture notes, etc.
  • Subject-verb-agreement, tense, aspect markers, references, etc.
  • Ways to greet in a letter, appropriate ways of phrasing ideas, etc.

We use writing for a variety of everyday communicative purposes, from making a shopping list to writing essays for school or creating reports for a presentation at work. Common uses of writing include:

  • Shopping Lists
  • Essays & Term Papers
  • Poetry & Song Lyrics
  • Prose, Short Stories, Novels
  • Notes
  • E-mail & Text Messages
  • Letters & Postcards
  • Personal Journals & Blogs

Accordingly, there are several design principles to consider when planning for writing in a foreign language:

  • Language activities should reflect plausible, real-life communication
  • Writing in a foreign language can have the same wide range of purposes as writing in your native language
  • Writing in a foreign language should be taught systematically, not as a random thing used here and there only as a support task

To master a foreign language by writing, these points are important to consider in order to design more effective writing tasks that:

  • Fulfill the pedagogical purposes of the assignment (e.g., do not say that the task practices narration when all it does is drill the past tense)
  • Can be successfully completed by the students
  • Students learn something they can actually use to communicate in authentic situations

The benefits of creative writing for learners

Creative writing aids language development at all levels: grammar, vocabulary, phonology and discourse. It requires learners to manipulate the language in interesting and demanding ways in attempting to express uniquely personal meanings. In doing so, they necessarily engage with the language at a deeper level of processing than with most expository texts. The gains in grammatical accuracy and range, in the appropriacy and originality of lexical choice, in sensitivity to rhyme, rhythm, stress and intonation, and in the way texts hang together are significant and let you gradually master a foreign language.

Much of the teaching we do tends to focus on the left side of the brain, where our logical faculties are said to reside. Creative writing puts the emphasis on the right side of the brain, with a focus on feelings, physical sensations, intuition and musicality. This is a healthy restoration of the balance between logical and intuitive faculties. It also affords scope for learners whose hemisphere dominance or learning-style preferences may not be intellectual or left brain dominant, and who, in the normal process of teaching are therefore at a disadvantage.

Here are some benefits of creative writing for learners who want to master a foreign language by writing:

  • Creative writing enables a writer to manipulate the language in unusual ways, in order to express something. This engages you on a much deeper level of processing a language, which gives you better results in return.
  • It also enables you to break away from monotony. When students or learners are trying to tackle a new language, it’s easy to get frustrated and bored with the same old curriculum.
  • Creative writing enables you to work on your cognitive strategies as well, and improve through analysing and trying out new ways to formulate meanings. That is, once you’re able to let go, and accept the fact that language learning is a process that entails lots of mistakes.

Take the habit of reading and writing

In order to reap all these benefits and master a foreign language by writing, you must be able and willing to learn consistently. No matter what method you may use, every learner reaches a point when they are satisfied or simply bored with the same method of learning. Creative writing, as any other instrument used for acquiring a language needs to be done consistently.

Release your creativity. Think of a language as a game. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. A part of being able to be creative and play around with a language actually means you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Push your boundaries. Kids love playing around with words, but once you become an adult you should be able to play around even more effectively, because your vocabulary expands and you can write extensively.

Writing is a complex process that demands of authors to have clear ideas they wish to communicate

Become an avid reader. Reading widely in a foreign language is one of the best ways to grow your vocabulary, strengthen your writing skills, and absorb the language’s grammar. In each language I study, I try to read everything I can get my hands on: novels, newspaper articles, poetry, comics, instruction manuals, and the list goes on.

Ask a native speaker to edit your writing. Post your writings on Italki. Your journal entry will appear to native speakers of that language who will leave you helpful feedback and point out any errors. In return, you can help edit other user’s entries that are written in your native language. By receiving feedback, you can master a foreign language.

4 Ideas for creative writing in a foreign language

1 Pre-writing

Pre-writing tasks review and build students’ knowledge of relevant vocabulary, relevant grammar points and, most importantly, students’ background knowledge, since that is what really generates thoughtful and interesting written work. Pre-writing tasks are a crucial element of successful writing instruction.

Pre-writing activities may take many different forms. Here we review a few effective ways to get the writing process started: associograms, prompts, interviews, and reading/listening activities.

  • An associogram is a collection of lexical items and/or ideas that relate to a topic.
  • A well chosen picture or song can foster the learner’s creativity. A few questions in addition to the picture can really help ideas flow. Written prompts can help students hypothesize what is going on in the picture and generate interesting content.
  • Interviews can serve to generate ideas for writing and move learners beyond their own experiences. It usually works best when some of the questions are unexpected or “hook” students’ interests.
  • Responding to texts. When language learners respond to texts, whether written or oral, they can learn new vocabulary, expressions, grammatical structures, and valuable pragmatic information (e.g., how to structure an e-mail, a movie review, etc.).

2 Alternate endings

Alternate ending activities can be used with any text (from stories, music, or film). For known texts, students can simply come up with a different ending. Or they can predict an ending of a story from a reading. Similarly, students write a sequel to the story that takes place five years later. Or have students re-write the story (or parts of the story) from the perspective of one of the minor characters.

3 Short stories

Short stories can include a modern fairy tale or a parable, a moment-in-life description, or even a mystery. Ideally, the students read a mystery story beforehand, to learn relevant vocabulary, grammar, and narrative structure before they write.

4 Production tasks

For example, Wiki entries, blogs, a brochure advertising study abroad programs. These activities might be better suited for intermediate or more advanced learners.

Writing is useful and fun if it serves the purpose of communication

Writing deserves systematic and continued attention in the foreign language classroom in its own right, not merely as a support skill for listening, reading or speaking. Writing is a complex process that demands of authors to have clear ideas they wish to communicate, to take note of their audience, to be aware of the purpose of the texts they produce, and to use the linguistic aspects of language necessary for conveying meaning effectively. Writing tasks should reflect a variety of purposes for writing in real life.

Writing is essential for developing literacy and can help language learners connect the foreign language to meaningful expression of ideas. By incorporating creative writing into your study schedule, you can gain a sense of autonomy over the language. You can master a foreign language by writing and have fun doing that.

Improve your language skills in a foreign language through creative writing

Creative writing is an excellent activity to improve your writing skills in a foreign language for many reasons:

  • It’s a chance to put into practice words and grammar patterns that you learned recently, and expand your vocabulary by looking up new words in the dictionary if needed.
  • It’s a chance to check the spelling of words you’re familiar with but never use in writing.
  • It’s an intimate time to reflect on the language you’re studying. Ask yourself: “why do I need to use this tense?”, “how can I express this idea?”, “how do I put these words together in a sentence?”, “are these words related to each other?”.
  • It’s a way to keep yourself motivated, especially by writing about topics of your interest. Writing itself is a pleasure, but you can also take pleasure in sharing your writings with your foreign friends and teachers.
  • If you read aloud what you’re writing and check the pronunciation online (on Google Translate or other websites), it even counts as speaking and reading practice.

In particular, creative writing is useful to improve your writing skills in a foreign language because it:

  • Provides interesting, lively opportunities for language practice.
  • Is not uncontrolled and uncontrollable verbal doodling but requires precision and accuracy in expression and vocabulary.
  • Allows us to focus on specific ideas, forms or literary texts
  • Is not intimidatingly out of reach for most of us but creates opportunities for students to explore their language and their imagination
  • Is not a substitute or a replacement for oral communication but represents a lively, stimulating way to give new meaning to a somewhat lesser-used language skill

Ideally, you might want to have your writings checked by your teacher, language exchange partner or volunteers online, but the act of handling new words alone already helps memorizing. Your writing skills in a foreign language will naturally improve with daily practice.

The best way to put those words into practice is to use them in conversation. I personally start every language lesson, both as a student and as a teacher, by repeating key points from the previous lesson, which includes making sentences with the words. You can do the same during your language tandem. However, making sentences by yourself works ,too. Since writing skills in a foreign language are often overlooked, creative writing is a good habit to take.

Write about what keeps you motivated

Write about what you’re interested in. It doesn’t have to be a “basic” topic, like buying groceries or tickets. I usually write about philosophy, society, and romance. You might want to write about surfing, cats, or physics. Your topics of interest are your basics, because it’s likely that you’ll have a chance to talk about them in real life.

For the same reason, I never take classes or group lessons: I might just not be interested in the topics they deal with in standard curriculums. Family? I don’t want one. Shopping? I hate it. Sports? I don’t watch it. Entertainment? I haven’t watched TV for 16 years.

It’s certainly easier to say things if you know a lot of words, but you can still get by through roundabouts. For example, I can still say that “my dad’s sister got married” or that “the guy threw the ball in the hole”, if I ever need to. I don’t like wearing clothes, not to mention learning the name of clothes in other languages. I’d rather describe the shape or the color of the clothes I want to point at.

Post your homework on Italki

italki

Any time is good to hone up your writing skills in a foreign language. You can always write, as long as you have a pen and a sheet of paper. In this age of language learning apps, this might sound old-fashioned, but actually there’s plenty of research indicating that you memorize information better if you take notes by hand. This applies to writing skills in a foreign language, too.

However, there’s at least one drawback in leaving your writings on paper. It’s not practical to share them and have someone correct them, unless you have a tutor who patiently does that for you.

You can have a native speaker check your homework for free!

That’s why I always post my homework on Italki. Italki is the largest online language learning community and, among other features, has a section to post your homework on the website and have other users like you correct it for free. Yes, you can have a native speaker check your homework for free! This way, you also feel motivated because you know that someone is going to read it and even correct it for you.

On Italki’s website, you find the “notebook” page under the “community” item in the top menu.

If you’re new to Italki, sign up from this link to get 10US$ credit for your first lesson, if you ever decide to take lessons on Skype (registration is free).

Google Translate and Search are your friends

If you’re still learning a language, chances are that you’re not sure about how to spell words, or can’t come up with the right word in that language. You’re here to improve your writing skills in a foreign language, but if you’re writing alone you can’t ask your teacher or language exchange partner. For that, ask your best friend: Google Translate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you to copy and paste every funny translation that Google Translate churns out. Google Translate can be a useful tool to support your writing practice, and overall learning experience. This is how I use it:

1. Check spelling

Improve your Writing Skills in a Foreign Language​ with Google Translate
Improve your Writing Skills in a Foreign Language​ with Google Translate

Google Translate tells you real-time if something looks wrong in the sentence. While it’s still weak at analyzing long sentences, it works very well with spelling. Accept its suggestions.

2. Look up words as in a dictionary

Use Google Translate for your daily writing practice

Enter a single word in the text box, and Google will return a dictionary-like list of all known definitions, including sinonyms. Fast, uh?

3. Look up a word in context

Use Google Translate for your daily writing practice

Google Translate looks dumb but it can be pretty smart. If you provide a word in the context of a phrase or sentence, Google will select the most context-sensitive definition.

For example: if you type in the Italian noun coda, you will see that it means “tail”. Now let’s provide more context. Type in coda di gatto and it will translate into “cat’s tail”. But type coda in autostrada and it will translate into “queue/line on the highway” (traffic jam), because it’s found next to the word “highway”. The more context you can give Google, the better your translation will be.

Another example: if you type in the Portuguese noun cara, you will see that it means “face”, “visage”, “appearance”, but also “guy”. Now let’s provide more context. Type in lavei a cara and it will translate as “I washed my face”. But type aquele cara alto and it will translate to “that tall guy”.

4. Answer usage questions

Use Google Translate for your daily writing practice

Test your sentence in the real world. A quick regular search on Google will answer grammar questions, such as:

  • Syntax: to find out which preposition to use (“in the purpose of” or “with the purpose of”?)
  • Word order: in Italian, adjectives come before or after the noun they point at. Is it “bella vita” or “vita bella”?
  • Usage: like finding out which of two similar words is more commonly used (“a deep insight” or “a profound insight”?). Run a search on both phrases and compare the number of hits.

To make sure you get the most accurate results, it helps to go to your Google search settings and under Search Language, select your target language and native language.

Writing practice is simple, useful, and fun

Writing is an excellent activity to improve your language skills, not limited to writing. An excellent way to improve your writing skills in a foreign language is creative writing. Feel free to write about anything that keeps you motivated, regardless of how rare or hard that topic is. Either write by hand, or post your homework on Italki to have native speakers correct it for free. Use Google Translate and Google Search to support your writing practice and overall learning experience (but don’t cheat!).

Go unleash the writer within!

Stefano Lodola lecturing about learning languages

Do you want a complete guide on how to learn a foreign language?

The tips in this article are taken from my on-demand course on Udemy “Fluent. Simple. My proven quick-start guide to learn any foreign language”. There I share what I actually do to learn foreign languages, in the form of a presentation based on contents that I usually show in polyglot clubs.

After this quick-start guide, you’ll know exactly what to do from day one. I put popular tools and personal tips together into a complete language workout for your brain. These tools can be used to learn a language in the spare time that you have each day and can be applied without going abroad.

This is not a generic guide: I only recommend methods and materials that I actually use myself and find useful. This treasure of life experience will spare you years of ineffective studies.

The course includes:

  • My experience as a language learner
  • Links to select learning resources
  • Study methods and tips
  • Advice to draft your study plan

To make sure that you’ll actually put that into practice, the course comes with the option to book a 30-minute consultation on Skype (not included in the course enrollment fee). We’ll discuss your study plan and I’ll answer any questions that you may have.

Click here to read the course program and watch the free preview.

Take it today and become a language learning machine!

Stefano Lodola

Meet your language coach

As a language learner, I was raised speaking only Italian, but now I speak nine foreign languages.

As a teacher, I’ve taught Italian to adults in language schools and universities.

I’ve lectured in polyglot clubs and coached students on their way to fluency.

I’m eager to share my secrets with you.

Stefano Lodola

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