Last Updated: July 4, 2019 8:17AM
Using the global tongue
Writing in a language that is not your mother tongue can be a daunting task. Even if you generally feel comfortable speaking a language—perhaps you do so daily—writing it is something else entirely. While the spoken word soon disappears into thin air, the written word remains. In other words, a mistake in printed text has a far greater chance of being scrutinized or—in the age of social media—ridiculed.
How to develop writing skills in English
English as a second language has its own particular difficulties, partly due to the nature of the language itself and partly because so many people in so many places speak it. Here are our top tips for improving your business English writing skills.
Understand that English is a strange beast
Over the centuries, many languages have influenced the development of English. Thus, its grammar and spelling can be highly irregular. Idiosyncrasies are very hard to learn, except by constant exposure over a long period. Even native English speakers find it difficult to explain the numerous irregularities inherent to their language—they just know what sounds natural to their ears.
Tip: Does “Red little riding hood” make sense? In English, it’s important to keep your adjectives in the right order.
Call in an expert
If you have any native English speakers in your office, ask them to check your text. Don’t be offended if they provide many corrections. If time permits, ask your colleague to explain the changes.
If you do not have the opportunity to consult a native speaker, or if your text is too long for your colleague to check, it may make sense to turn to a professional editor.
Tip: Use an English language corpus to make your prose sound idiomatic.
Keep it simple
English has an extremely rich vocabulary and a flexible structure, so it can be tempting to write creatively. But when writing in a non-native language, it’s best to keep a steady hand on the throttle of creativity and write plainly and clearly. Keep your prose short, keep it straightforward, and say what you want to say as simply as possible. Whenever possible, get a native speaker or editor to check your work before clicking send.
Tip: No one wants to hunt for meaning in a text. Stick closely to the principles of plain English.
The thesaurus is not always your friend
A thesaurus is a tool for finding more interesting alternatives for boring or commonly-used words. When writing as a non-native, use this tool sparingly. Many words in English have a range of synonyms, but more often than not each has a nuance that could make it entirely inappropriate for your specific situation.
Take the following:
“I shall adore to articulate toward you apropos a neoteric hobbyhorse I am nursing for respective dealings inside the bunch.”
This is a somewhat exaggerated example of thesaurus-abuse. What the author actually meant to say was:
“I’d like to tell you about a new idea I have for personal interaction in the team.”
Tip: If you’re not sure what combination of words to use, consult a collocation dictionary.
English grammar tips & tricks
Here’s a quick list of what to avoid when writing in a non-native language:
- Colloquialisms and slang: Best not to use these, especially slang, as they usually do not translate well. Even commonly used slang can sound absurd when used out of place.
- Similes, idioms and metaphors: Only use these if you check first with a native speaker.
- Long sentences: You may need to write a fairly lengthy sentence now and then, but keep in mind that errors in structure are more likely to occur in longer sentences.
- Phrasal verbs: Use of these also depends on common usage and intrinsic clarity. Only use them if you’re very familiar with their usage.
- Humor: This is more of a gray area. While it may seem that some things are universally funny, many jokes or situations that seem funny in one language or to one culture do not travel well. Use humor sparingly; its reception will depend greatly on your target audience.
If you can work with a native speaker, you may find the above types of language can improve your text and help you connect with local readers. That’s why Lionbridge engages a massive community of native-speaking subject matter experts in 350+ languages, who can help create, edit, and translate your content.
Interested in learning more or starting a project? Reach out today.