Writing is one of the most underrated AND underused exercise to improve your language skills.
Understandably so: writing in your target language is not easy! When you write, there’s nowhere to hide: every mistake you make, every word you don’t know, is painfully visible on the page. That is, if you don’t suffer from writer’s block and are just staring at a blank page!
However, it’s not because it’s hard that you shouldn’t be doing it! For me personally, it’s more of a mindset issue. I think it’s very difficult to write in my target languages and I don’t know what to write about. But once I start writing, I find that I can actually say much more than I initially thought and I learn a lot in the process!
I bet it’s the same for you. Even if you’re no master of the written word, some daily scribbling can do wonders for your language skills… both written AND spoken!
In this post, I’m going to give you a framework for Perfect Writing Practice that will show you what to write about how to write, and how to get the most out of the things you’ve written.
So no more excuses (and I’m talking as much to myself as to you here). Let’s do this!
Step 1: Before you start writing
Writing is high-intensity, but low-embarrassment
Writing is a very high-intensity language learning activity. You’re not just reading something, not just mindlessly filling out grammar exercises.
No. You’re producing something in your target language all by yourself, AND it demands some creative input!
No wonder so many people put it off…
On the other hand, I find writing rather low on the ‘embarrassment’ scale. Yes, all your mistakes are visible on the page. But at the same time, you’re probably not writing for an audience of 500,000 people are you? Plus, you won’t have anyone laughing at your face when you make a mistake like during a spoken conversation (not that that really happens often, but I know it’s a common fear for language learners).
So when I write, I don’t worry too much about mistakes. I’ll probably make many. I’ll have somebody correct them, and then I’ll learn from them. Then I move on.
It’s the same in spoken conversations, but I find it much easier to take a laid-back approach with writing. It might be like that for you too!
Why Writing Is So Helpful
There are other reasons why I like writing for language learning.
First of all, it gives you much more time to think. When I’ve just learned some new grammar concept, a new verb tense, etc. I often find that conversations go too fast to really use it. I need some more time to think!
Writing gives you that time. That’s why it’s perfect as intermediate step to implement new grammar patterns. After a while it’ll all become so ingrained that you’ll think faster in the target language anyway so you can use it in conversations.
The same thing applies to learning new vocabulary. Often when I learn a new expression or a new word, it doesn’t roll off the tongue immediately in conversations. If you use new vocabulary in a short written text first, you give yourself the time to make full sentences.
Also, if you’ve learned some vocabulary on a topic and you decide to write a short text on that topic, you’ll immediately find gaps in your vocabulary knowledge that you can then fill! AND you’ll find out which words you have memorised, but can’t use in a sentence yet…
So writing is a great diagnostic tool as well.
Step 2: What to write about
And that brings us to our first question: what should I write about?
Well, as usual: it depends on why you’re learning a language!
We’re circling back to your ‘big why’ for your language learning journey again. How do you see yourself using your target language?
In which situations do you want to use your target language?
Once you have a list of these topics, you know which vocabulary to learn… and which topics you should write about!
Here’s how I usually do it.
- I first decide on a topic to learn vocabulary about.
- I then gather all the input (reading + listening) I can find on that topic in my target language and extract the most useful vocabulary.
- Then I write something about that topic with my newly acquired vocabulary!
For more information about this, go through the Vocab Cycle Workshop.
You could also write a dialogue about a specific situation that will probably come up while using your target language.
If you’re not learning a lot of new vocabulary but still want to practise writing, you can do some short daily journaling. Just write 10-20 sentences about your day. Write down what you’ve done, who you’ve talked to, things that happened, etc.
These are things that will come up often in conversations too so you’ll learn some high-value vocabulary from this exercise.
Finally, texting or chatting with friends or language partners is also an excellent way to practise some writing! You could use an app like hello talk for this. That app connects you with native speakers of your target language who are learning your mother tongue. Find someone to talk to, and then set yourself a goal of using the chunks you’ve just learned in this chat. This will make it much easier to start using the vocabulary you've learned in spoken conversations!
Step 3: Effective Writing Strategy
Write conversational language!
Don’t make the mistake of writing long essays with a lot of complex sentences! That will make the writing process much more daunting and will not be useful for most people whose goal is mainly communicating and speaking!
When I write in my target language, I like to write as if I’m talking, because that’s probably how I’m going to use my target language anyway. So write dialogue-style. Or if you’re journaling, write as if you’re telling your friend about your daily adventures.
Keep it simple.
Get your texts corrected!
There’s little use in writing in your target language if you don’t have your texts corrected.
Because you can’t spot the mistakes in your own texts! That’s why you made them in the first place!
The REAL learning happens when you see what you did wrong.
So it’s absolutely CRUCIAL that you get feedback on your scribblings.
Thankfully, the internet has made that very easy… and free!
There’s a website called http://lang-8.com/ where you can write texts, and native speakers will correct them for you. In return, you also have to correct a text in your mother tongue once in a while.
It’s an excellent website with a great community. Every time I’ve used it, I also got several full corrections from different people within a couple of hours of writing my text! Often even with explanations about grammar, word use etc.
Use it! Or ask a friend/teacher to correct your texts. As long as you get feedback AND do something with that feedback, you’re good. For example, make flashcards of expressions you got wrong or revise the specific grammar point you apparently struggled with during writing.
Step 4: Bringing it all together in your Perfect Writing Practice Strategy
So there you go! A simple way to add some regular writing practice to your language learning routine.
Here’s a recap/action plan:
- Make a list of situations in which you’re going to use your target language. This will be your list of topics to write about too!
- Learn vocabulary related to this list.
- Write a short text using this vocabulary! Preferably a dialogue or something very conversational.
- Once in a while, add in some journaling too: write about your day. Again: conversational style!
- If you like chatting, find a language partner on hello talk and text him there.
- Get everything you write corrected! Check out http://lang-8.com/
- Learn from your mistakes!
- Carry over to speaking!
Again, Perfect Writing Practice becomes 10 times more powerful if you integrate it into a full language learning routine, with focused study sessions and reading, listening, speaking practice.
For example, if you choose a topic, get reading and listening input on that topic, internalise that input in a Focus Study Session and then also write a short text, you have effectively used three out of four skills and approached the topic from different angles. If you then manage to use the vocabulary you’ve learned in a spoken conversation too, I can all but guarantee that you’ll know that vocabulary inside out.
So incorporate writing into a broader strategy to reap its full benefits!
Ok, that's enough reading… Over to you!