Short essay: Thoughts on learning to speak and write in a foreign language… naturally

By | May 4, 2016

When learning a foreign language, I think we all tend to go through stages. First, we may have a mild (or major) interest in the culture of a foreign country, and begin to pick up a few words here or there in that country’s native language. In the case of Japanese, it might be a few phrases from subtitled Anime where it’s easy to pick words that frequently appear. I still vividly remember learning one of my first Japanese expressions from a good friend in high school: “Hajimemashite, douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu“.

The next stage involves more formal learning by taking one or more classes or devoting some of your spare time to properly learn the basics of the language, especially grammar, pronunciation, and alphabet(s). For many people, memorizing isn’t that challenging (given the time and effort), but the tricky part here is to start learning the ins and outs of that language’s grammar, including certain tendencies that are different from one’s native language, like how in Japanese subjects are often omitted.

After a few years of extensive study, most people can probably manage to figure out the meaning of text in that language, assuming they have access to a dictionary. Learning to understand spoken language can be much tricker due to differences individual speech (in Japanese there are significant differences across genders and ages) and also due to regional accents/dialects. But, even for listening, I think practice really does make perfect, at least in the sense that you “understand enough” to either enjoy the content in that language, or learn something from it. For reading and listening, which I’ll call passive tasks, there is typically so much context to go by that you can just guess things as you go–essentially every sentence becomes a mini puzzle. If you are living your day-to-day life in that language, any misunderstandings you have about the meaning of a certain expression will probably get ironed out by time, as you undertake a gradual process of trial and error.

Now we come to the real challenge: the active tasks of writing and speaking in a foreign language. It depends on the person, but for me I feel speaking is generally the harder of these two. One reason is that you typically have to respond in real time, and the other is the need to be concerned about pronunciation, not only of individual words but also of phrases, since in Japanese the intonation of words can influence words later in the sentence. You also have to worry about things like aizuchi (words used to show you are listening, like “sou desu ka“) and words that show you are thinking (like “etto…” which is a little similar to the English “umm…”). You also have to inflect your speech to express your emotions. Finally, you need a conversation partner in order to make any progress. This condition alone means that self-taught students who don’t live in a country which speaks that language will have a very hard time of getting to an advanced level in their speech.

There are some advantages to learning to speak as compared to learning to write. For example, when speaking there is a quick feedback cycle between expressing something and getting a response. Although it’s usually pretty hard to find someone to correct your mistakes during a conversation (except maybe a private tutor who is paid for that), there is often an opportunity to reuse an expression you just heard, which allows you to cement it in your memory for more easy recall later.

Learning to write, on the other hand, lacks many of the difficult aspects of learning to speak, like pronunciation and a need to respond in real time. For those doing self-study, especially those living outside of Japan, it should be easier to pick up writing (and by writing, I am mostly referring to inputting with a keyboard, though writing by hand is also included) because there is nearly an infinite set of resources available in the form of websites and in many books which can be pretty easily acquired from online retailers. One can also write all day long, in the form of a blog or essay, without needing anyone available at that moment (unlike speaking which usually requires a partner). So, in a certain sense, you can study writing as much as your free time allows.

However, herein lies one of the challenges of learning to write natively. Just as with speech, it is pretty difficult to find someone to correct your mistakes on somewhere like a daily blog. The problem comes when you know just enough grammar and vocabulary to be dangerous, meaning that you can just start writing nearly anything that comes to mind, using only a dictionary and knowledge of grammar rules. However, if you are not careful you might end with extremely unnatural prose that sounds like something that came out of a computer translator. Ok, maybe not that horrific, but you get the point.

Getting to the final stage, where you can write like a native, such that none of your language has the scent of your native language, is quite a challenge, and I feel many people are never able to achieve this goal. I myself still have a long way to come, though I tell myself this is because I have placed an emphasis on passive Japanese (i.e. reading and listening) over active for many of my years of study.

Completely natural writing (as well as speech) requires not just learning a complete set of grammar rules to build sentences with, but also a large set of exceptions, without necessarily any logic behind them. To put it another way–how often have you read the text written by a non-native speaker of your native tongue and said to yourself “this just doesn’t feel right”. It isn’t technically grammatically incorrect, and there is no official rule that has been broken. Some of this can be explained by the linguistic phenomenon called “collocation” which describes how certain groups of words are used more commonly together than others.

To help get your writing to sound more natural, I suggest you try and create a tight feedback loop which mimics a conversation. This means that you should favor writing emails (either to a friend or coworker) over writing a blog. When writing emails, try to force yourself to reuse words and expressions used by the person you are communicating with (hopefully a native speaker). Also, if you say something unnatural it’s more likely to be pointed out as opposed to a blog where mistakes can sit for years on a webpage without anyone pointing them out. Text chat provides an even shorter feedback loop (nearly immediate), though you should keep in mind the expressions you learn from chatting with someone may not be applicable to an email or other more formal type of writing (think of the abbreviation “l8r” used in English chat, which would be strange to use in a business email).

If you really want to keep a blog in a foreign language, I recommend reading other blogs written by native speakers immediately before and after you make a post, and be sure to do a thorough proofread of your text before posting it, looking for unnatural or incorrect parts. When I have written a blog in the past in Japanese, I frequently googled combinations of words to verify if they were common before using them. This helped me write much more natural sentences, but it had the disadvantage of being quite tedious and taking out some of the fun out of blog writing.

Another option when you are reading is to take notes whenever you come across an expression that seems useful, and force yourself to use it in the next day or so in your own writing. This can be an effective way of increasing your vocabulary, though it takes a good amount of persistence and willpower to not get lazy and quit after a few days.  If you have the time you can write a few example sentences on the spot, though that can interrupt your reading practice.

One other way to help raise your writing and speech to native level is to find one or more role models–native speakers who you can respect and pick up phrases from. I think to a certain extent this automatically happens when speaking, especially when we make friends and talk to them on a frequent basis, but for writing I feel it requires a bit more conscious effort to find and leverage such linguistic role models.

Once in a while, ask a native speaker to give you detailed criticism of your writing so you can have a sanity check to see how close to native level you are. Doing this for everything you write would be way too tedious (for both you and the other person), though there are some tools out there like Lang 8 which can help make this process more efficient (disclaimer: I have not actually used this site but think it is worth experimenting with). Writing in a foreign language for weeks, months, or longer, without having someone double check your work carries the risk of developing certain bad habits that will be hard to break later.

Another thing I am considering getting into is writing fiction short stories in Japanese. I feel this is one of the hardest domains because much of the internet doesn’t contain full texts of proper ‘literature’, so the technique of google for natural sentences isn’t nearly as useful. Also, it is harder to find someone to correct your language since you’ll need a person that is pretty well-read. Finally, the lexicon of words used in literature is much higher than in normal everyday conversation, emails, or chat. The best thing you can do is just read as much as you can in that language, ideally from published authors, and try to remember as much as you can as you read.

At the end of the day, learning to write and speak naturally in a foreign language is essentially about learning to imitate others in an efficient way, and match up thoughts and feelings with the appropriate words. I feel the number one enemy is not the large number of words nor the foreign concepts you need to master, but complacency. The danger is when we realize we’ve reached the level where native speakers actually understand what we are saying (or at least seem to), and we slack off, telling ourselves that we’ve made it. Learning to speak and write such that we can communicate basic ideas is very different from doing so with native-like expressions, and making sure we are aware of the massive gulf between these two things is one of the steps to true fluency.

This reminds me of a book I once read about Zen meditation many years ago, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. The central theme of this book was that there is something special about people when they start to learn something new: they look at everything with an unbiased, fresh mind, devoid of expectations and thoughts of “I should be pretty good at this since I have this much experience”. Though the book was focused on meditation, I think applying the concept of Beginners Mind to our language studies may have a surprisingly large impact, especially for those that have been studying a few years or longer.

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7 thoughts on “Short essay: Thoughts on learning to speak and write in a foreign language… naturally

  1. Erica

    HiNative and Lang-8 were designed just for that purpose: to have natives correct your writing. HiNative has a spoken aspect too, and while it is shorter, that makes it easier for everyone. Trying to learn from longer clips is exhausting.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for letting me know about HiNative, it looks interesting! Maybe I’ll check it out sometime.

  2. Kei

    Your assessment of higher level language learning is very true. Mimicking native patterns and habits is key to improving your ability. Writing and speaking are also very different, in all languages. In most cases your writing is not going to exactly replicate the way you would speak it, and sometimes writing like you would speak comes out quite strange. As with learning the language in the first place, I think practice, as you suggest, is key. It’s really nice that there are websites to help with your writing, because it can be hard even to get friends to correct your writing, especially if they don’t want to be harsh on you.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment, glad you agree with that I said (:

  3. Emi

    Totally agree with what you said. When I read your entry, nuances like 分かる being preferred over 知る came to mind. I have used Lang-8 for years, and I can vouch that it is a very good tool for studying Japanese, if one is hardworking. Since others correct one’s entries, one should correct other people’s entries for a balanced exchange, so it does become time-consuming. However, it is really good because one gets to see a variety of expressions recommended by a variety of people. While this is good for N3-ish learners and above, lower level learners might find it confusing to have so many different options to choose from and may require a non-native to explain the difference to them. But all in all, I definitely recommend Lang-8 🙂

      1. Emi

        Hello locksleyu 🙂

        Thank you for your recommendation.
        I have just slaved over a script for a Japanese speech contest, so I’ll take a break from writing for a bit ^^;;
        ( if you’re interested 🙂

        I’ll join the writing lab when I feel up to it 😀



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