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English as a non-native speaker/writer
Thu Dec 01, 2011 9:34 am
I had this up in the new edition of Squills, and I decided to post it here, for everyone to use. ^__^
Everybody wants to be able to express themselves in English these days. Not surprising, since
English has somewhat become the
of the world. When English is learned as a second
or foreign language, however, it can get challenging.
Writing in English is a personal choice. You may be aiming for a larger audience, or maybe it's just
the language you're comfortable with. But either way, there are times when you find that things
don't sound as awesome as it did in your language. The only way around it is to work on English
skills to make it sound better.
Understand your language and English.
By 'understanding' I don't just mean learning the grammar rules, but actually understanding the
structure and formation of a sentence. The first thing to do is to look at the SVO (Subject, Verb,
Object) organization. Most European languages follow pretty much the same SVO as English, but
many Asian languages follow the opposite.
So, when translating a sentence from your language into English, it has to obey the rules of
The importance of grammar.
All through school (and in college) I was taught grammar. I was taught the parts of speech, the
grammatical syntaxes, the third person verb dilemma, modals, auxiliary verbs, tenses, etc.
My schools gave a huge importance to grammar, but forgot to teach us its application in English.
As a result, I was never able to form a coherent paragraph.
There are various grammar activities and tutorials online. Those should provide the easiest
While grammar and learning its nuances are very important, don't forget to understand the
need to form a meaningful flow in your writing.
As strange as this might sound, I learnt a lot from watching TV. English shows are a great source
of dialogue. Besides pronunciation, there's also the slang, the tone of speaking, the phrases
often used, etc.
You can identify which type of sentence is used in which situation. It will also help you write
natural or believable dialogue.
It helps if the shows have subtitles as well.
So, grab the remote and start watching Supernatural (or anything in English, really)!
The best way to get over English's challenges is to read. Reading an excellent way to understand
how sentences are used and are connected in a paragraph. Besides being a source of new
words, it's also fun! If you don't know the meaning of a word, instead of rushing to the
dictionary, try to work out the meaning based in the context. Then check with a dictionary.
The internet is a wonderful tool that'll help you learn. Since most of the content is in English,
just reading a favourite website or blog will help you understand English.
And of course on writing sites like YWS, you can get your writings reviewed. Sometimes the
critiques may seem harsh, but you have to take it in your stride.
Since most of us speak our native languages at home and maybe at school, vocabulary needs to
be strengthened. There are a number of activities instead of reading a dictionary.
There's Boggle, word building, Taboo, spin-a-yarn/story building, crossword and a vast array of
activities on the internet.
Writing to a native English audience.
Suppose a story is based near where you live. Such a setting would be new to native English
speakers. You need to make sure the inherent cultural aspect of your writing isn't lost to the
audience. An extra effort is needed to avoid info dumps while explaining to your readers.
Consider the opposite; a typical setting for such an audience. Don't make your British characters
go to work riding a polar bear. It may sound silly, but those kinds of mistakes are easy to make,
just because we're so used to them in our own culture.
"But if it's a language you already know somewhat, then I would recommend reading.
When I went as an exchange student I knew English and except for slang, my vocabulary
didn't change much, the way I talked changed and I started dreaming and thinking in English
after about a month."
"I got some hurtful reviews like I had a horrendous grammar, which did hurt at first, but
then I took in good sense and started working on it. And now it has benefited no one but
me. So I think sometimes the hardest things in your life make you a better person."
" About false cognates, those can change the meaning of a sentence without you noticing. I
suggest to listen to the radio, TV, or a even a song, focusing on trying to understand, that'll
develop that ability, it sure help a lot."
"If I were to give advice for ESL/EFL writers, I would recommend not to use the translation
strategy. Translations from one's native language to a foreign language are bound to sound forced
and awkward, and I'm the living proof. Write in English from the very beginning.
Try to avoid 'translating' idioms in your native language to English, because even though many
idioms and sayings are similar around the world, there's a good number of those that aren't. For
example, who would understand me if I said 'not my stack of hay' instead of 'not my cup of tea'?
And while in English we 'pull a leg', in Finnish we 'pull a nose'."
As a side note to Demeter's, we all have a 'mind-language' which may not be English. Remember
to take pains to translate your 'mind-voice' correctly and pretty soon you might find yourself
thinking in English when writing. That's what has happened to me and it has a very positive
influence on my writing.
Most of all, every ESL/EFL writer should know that you're extremely brave and cool for being able
to write in a language other than your own.
Pretending in words was too tentative, too vulnerable, too embarrassing to let anyone know.
- Ian McEwan in Atonement
sachi: influencing others since GOD KNOWS WHEN.
Sat Dec 03, 2011 9:08 pm
Thanks so much Lava!
English is my first language, but not my native which is Arabic. One day, I'd love to write stories in it, so I'll bookmark this for future reference one day
Wed Dec 28, 2011 2:23 pm
Gosh, I didnt realize you had put this here. It looks amazing, Lava and it shows the amount of work you've put into this.
"Next time you point a finger
I might have to bend it back
Or break it, break it off
Next time you point a finger
I'll point you to the mirror"
Wed Dec 28, 2011 2:43 pm
This is great, Lava. Although English is my first spoken language, it isn't my first written language. We were never taught the basics of written English language in my school so this has actually been really useful!
Sun Apr 08, 2012 10:41 pm
Wow, that is a VERY good topic.
There are writers in every part of the world, and for them to be able to share their work they need to know how to write in English. And not just write, but to write in a way that their stories remain the same, having the same vocabulary and expressing what they're supposed to, meaning the same things the author meant when he/she wrote it in his/her first language.
And that's not easy. For example: how many different "feelings" (in lack of a better way to express myself) synonyms can express, depending on the language (at least in Portuguese is like that). This are things that you generally do not learn at school. And even if you do, you probably don't study them all.
English is not my first language and I don't think I'll be trying to write a story in it for a long time, but I definitely want to... eventually... someday in the future.
It's a very long-term plan. Still have a lot to learn.
Anyway, congratulation on your topic. It was a great idea to post it. And your advices were also very helpful.
Oh, yes, and I'm sorry for posting... what? Four months after the last post? But I liked it way to much not to say something. And sorry for the long post, I got carried away
Sat May 12, 2012 1:14 am
Interesting, yes. Thanks.
I am myself not a native English speaker, but since I moved here five years ago English had become my best language. I think in English, and have never actually needed to translate anything. It never really occurs to me that I am writing in a language not native to my mind, but feels as natural as breathing.
"Yeah, I am the brain, some say insane."
"Look for the missing link between your dreams and reality. Find it - it is the key."
-From Drak to Let to Lap to Drak!
"I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul."
— Pablo Neruda
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