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Write Right – Language Learning and the Prolific Polyglots

One of the nicest perks of my job is being able to listen to talks given by language learning experts, authors and enthusiasts. The inspiration is always there – and frequently turns into a blog post. This one is about different ways in which writing can help your foreign language study – if done right.

0. Why writing matters

Guys, I wish this question was trivial. In fact, quite often the speedy-and-urgent language learner is heard saying “I don’t really want to read or write, I’m just going to speak the language, that’s enough for me.” This makes me really sad – and when a language learning method tends to rely on language speaking too much, calling it “the natural approach” or something funny like this, sadness mixes with doubt in equal measures.
Not writing is “natural” for a three-year old.
For a language learner, not writing means missing out. You’re not organizing your ideas. You’re not trying out new vocabulary. You’re not taking time to encounter (and produce) language that doesn’t disappear in a puff of air the moment you said it.

1. “Describe the house where you live” and other language classroom delights

The real reason behind not wanting to write in a foreign language might be this – you’re not given a decent chance.
Here’s what I mean: at the end of a vocabulary lesson focusing on houses and furniture, your teacher gives the entire class a paragraph or two to write. All the same, all with little creativity and deserving to be copied from the model text in the coursebook. Which you do, since the task does not excite or motivate you to do anything else.
Some language classes I’ve been to are quite guilty of this. Here’s something I believe: a piece of writing shouldn’t just be an excuse to recycle whatever language came up before – it should force you to go looking for language you don’t know yet. That’s where inspiring topics come in handy – issues you’re super-keen to write about.

2. In for the long run: writing, reflection and gradual change

Three things happened recently that inspired the idea behind this part.

  1. Seth Godin’s 5000th blog post – and the emphasis he puts on writing often, from the heart and frankly.
  2. Lindsay Clandfield’s talks in London – and his use of Scott Thornbury’s quote that “I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write about it.”
  3. My discovery of Italki – and the “notebook” feature it offers.

Here’s the idea, then:
Write as much as you can in the language you’re learning. Make it as open as you like, as personal, important, honest as you want it to be. Seek out corrections, feedback, discussions and interactions. These are all excuses to write some more.
The bad news:
You will make mistakes and they will be pointed out. You will speak your mind on the internet and someone will be offended, amused or simply bored by your texts. Both of these things will hurt a bit.
The good news:
You will make mistakes and they will be pointed out. You will speak your mind on the internet and someone will be offended, amused or simply inspired by your texts. Both of these things will make you think and improve and write more.

3. Starting your foreign language writing: tips and resources

Italki (mentioned above) has opportunities for writing texts and submitting corrections.
Duolingo (reviewed before) gives you a chance to translate other texts – and improve other translations.
Lang-8 is a language-learners text exchange with a free and a Premium feature.
Blogger, WordPress and Tumblr are super-popular and easy to use expression platforms.
I’ve also heard that pen and paper are easy to pick up and use.
Google Drive (reviewed before) is a free, versatile way to store, share and edit documents.
Oneword.com is really simple (one word, 60 seconds, WRITE!) and I wish it existed in other languages as well.
Interpals lets you find penpals from all around the world. The ultimate excuse to write well!
Got any more ideas? Write me a comment and I’ll add yours to the list!

(Photo credit: eltpics)

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. “it should force you to go looking for language you don’t know yet” – exactly! Writing is a great chance to be experimental: expand your vocabulary, try new structures… Whether you’re writing a diary, description or opinion piece you have the chance to learn in a way you don’t with speaking.

  2. Hello Wiktor,

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I find that I agree with it, yet also that, at the same time, I don’t. Here are some thoughts I had while reading it.

    “You’re not organizing your ideas. You’re not trying out new vocabulary.”

    My main language partner for Spanish and I often speak on such complex topics as religion, politics, and the nature of good and evil. And even now, months since we started doing this, I still have trouble with those topics. Writing is certainly a useful way to challenge yourself, but I wouldn’t say it’s the only way.

    I think I’m one of the people you would classify as learning through that “natural” approach. But really the distinguishing factor here is that I prefer a lot of input before output. For example, I am almost finished with my first novel in Spanish (a 600 page behemoth called Los Detectives Salvajes written by Roberto Bolaño). Once I finish, it will be time to start writing. Sure, I’ll make mistakes, but at least I’ll have a clue of what I’m doing.

    So sure, not writing really only is natural for a three year old … but we were all three once and we all didn’t know how to write our native language. And guess what? We got over it. I don’t understand how not writing in the beginning precludes ever writing.

    Regards, Samuel.

  3. Hello Samuel,

    Thanks so much for thinking about this and for your comment. I really enjoyed reading it and pondering over my reply, which follows 🙂

    The post’s intention was to provoke and to be firmly on the “pro-writing” side. I’ve encountered several methods that promote speaking/listening over reading and writing – the result of that is that learners neglect the second pair of skills. From a methodological point of view, this is harmful.

    At the same time, I fully agree that listening/speaking comes first in any “natural” development of language. And I can relate to what you said about needing lots of input before anything is produced. No method fits all learners, and I would probably learn some languages the way you described 🙂

    So I guess I’m all in favour of balanced skill development here, but at the same time I’m concerned about how little writing gets done. As a teacher, I used to be guilty of this myself. As a learner today, I’m trying to right my wrongs.

    I hope that makes sense now. Good luck with your Spanish!


  4. Hello Wiktor,

    Thanks for the wonderful reply.

    Personally, I feel that not taking the time to read and write in a foreign language represents an important gap in a complete understanding of fluency. I also feel that running with the assumption that one will learn those skills if only they do enough speaking will lead to poor results. I would consider it equally as flawed as the idea that if only you study enough text, you will eventually be able to understand the spoken version. Obviously, there are a number of essential skills that must be acquired for an overall complete understanding and ability in a language, and that it is unwise to ignore the development of any of these areas. I trust we agree on this.

    The point of disagreement, both here and in most discussions I see, seems to revolve around which of these potential shortcomings we choose to focus on. In my own experience, I have met many language learners who spend years learning through books and in classrooms and find that while they can understand any text presented to them and write very well, spoken communication is beyond them. Hence my feeling that the speaking/listening aspect of language is the most neglected, and therefore the most in need of some focus. I am curious whether this is a difference between the US (my home) and Europe (where I’m assuming you’re from), that in the Europe, learners are much more likely to have friends who speak other languages and only focus on speaking and joking around, while in the US such a situation is less likely and learners will more often spend years in the classroom never actually interacting with native speakers. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    And finally, thank you for the reminder. Writing is really something I should focus more on as my level gets higher.

    Regards, Samuel