Between speaking, writing, reading and listening, writing in a second language is often the most daunting skill for foreign-language learners to master, and usually because they dedicate the least amount of time to practicing it (this also applies to bilingual people who grew up speaking a second language around the home but never had to formally use it in school — you know who you are).
Though usually, the ultimate point of learning another language is to help you have spoken conversations with other people, you’ll do yourself a disservice if you neglect your written skills for too long.
If you ever plan on texting or emailing someone abroad, it’s important to feel comfortable writing in a second language.
And beyond these practical concerns, you’ll be a much more well-rounded language student when you can form thoughts in another language and articulate them with the correct grammar and spelling. It’s a lot harder to get away with grammar flubs when you’re writing in a second language. In that sense, improving your writing skills will be one of the best things you do for your grammar.
Here are six lines of attack you can take to improve your written skills.
1. Get creative with scissors and flashcards
Let’s start from the very beginning. Let’s assume you’re not yet comfortable with spelling out complete sentences from scratch. This is all good and fine.
One of the ways Babbel helps you work your way up to this is by asking you to first arrange chunks of the sentence in the correct order. Then, our app eventually asks you to spell certain words by arranging a group of randomized letters in the correct order. And eventually, when you’ve gotten good at this, you’ll be asked to spell the words from scratch.
If you’re trying to recreate this at home, you could start by making flashcards that feature words or phrases so that you can practice arranging them in the right order. You can also write the English translation on one side of the flashcard so that you can test your ability to spell it correctly.
Of course, this is all built into Babbel’s teaching method, so you could save a few trees and download our app instead!
2. Read a lot
Though this looks deceptively like a ploy to improve your reading skills, this is actually a double-whammy strategy that’ll do wonders for your writing acumen too.
This is one of the reasons why well-read people often go on to have excellent writing skills, even if it’s in their own native language. Absorbing written language makes you better at emitting written language, and it wires your brain with a better instinctive grasp of how it’s supposed to look and work.
If you don’t know where else to start and your writer’s block feels insurmountable right now, begin by reading anything and everything you can get your hands on. You can also watch movies with subtitles to improve your listening, reading and writing skills all at the same time.
3. Take lots of written notes
It’s been pretty well-established that taking handwritten notes helps improve your ability to recall that information later.
Beyond being a useful study aid, keeping a language-learning journal will help make your learning journey a more personal one. You can document phrases or vocabulary that you personally resonate with, as well as rephrase what you’re learning into your own personal form of shorthand (which is part of the reason why writing things down makes it easier to remember them).
And of course, it goes without saying that when you hit the ground running with a pen (and not your feet), you’ll be more comfortable writing in a second language when it’s time to express yourself for real.
4. Practice writing what you hear
Eventually, when you feel ready for a slightly more advanced exercise, you can try your hand at transcribing audio of someone speaking.
The point of this isn’t just to focus closely on your comprehension of the spoken language. It’s also to practice your ability to seamlessly translate what you hear into what you see on a piece of paper.
If it’s possible, see if you can find a written transcript of what you’re listening to so that you can periodically pause and check your work.
5. Translate an article into your second language
This will definitely feel like a lot of work if you’re not used to it, but this is truly character-building stuff that will end in real progress.
Find a short essay or article in your native language that interests you. Then, try your hand at translating the piece into your learning language.
You’ll probably need to keep a dictionary handy for this, but this exercise is great for a few reasons: one, it forces you to troubleshoot your way through written composition. Two, it challenges you to convey concepts using different grammatical structures and idioms — you know, to actually “think” in the language rather than literally translate each word separately. And three, you’ll probably wind up learning a bunch of new vocabulary.
6. Try writing a short essay of your own
This is the boss round — can you handle it?
Eventually, once you’ve worked your way up to it, you should challenge yourself to start writing your own essays and compositions. They don’t have to be stuffy academic papers either (unless that’s what you’re into). You can start by writing short diary entries about how your day went, or by writing a letter to your friend, or by explaining your stance on a political issue.
It’s good to learn to walk before you run, so focus on simple (but correct) sentences before you work your way up to complex, flowery compositions.
When you’re done, see if you can find a native speaker to grade it or give you feedback, or at the very least use a spellchecker to catch your basic mistakes.