How to Improve Your Basic Writing Skills: Hacks for Language Learners
Basic writing skills matter – there’s no denying that.
However, there’s a good reason writing skills aren’t central to the Speak From Day One method for language learning:
Languages are made to be spoken.
Real conversations with real people is what it’s all about. Connecting with people is what makes a language come to life.
That’s why at Fluent in 3 Months, of all the four language skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking), we focus on speaking. Speaking from day one is the smartest decision you’ll ever make as a language learner.
Even so, it’s a good idea to have some basic writing skills. Being able to send emails, write the occasional text and scribble down important phrases you’ve heard can really come in handy. Especially if you plan on relocating to a new country.
So, In this article I’m going to talk you through basic writing skills are, how they’ve helped me and how you can learn them.
What Are Basic Writing Skills (and Why Do You Need Them)?
Having basic writing skills means being able to get your message across.
Your writing won’t be grammatically perfect. You’ll make spelling mistakes. And, you’ll probably have to look at a dictionary every now and again. But you make sure you're understood by the person reading your writing.
Remember, you’re not trying to write a novel here, you’re just trying to communicate what you want or need through your words.
You don’t really need a great level of vocabulary to write – even in your native tongue. Think of the situations where you find yourself writing:
- Confirming a hotel reservation
- Responding to a delivery order
- Leaving a note for someone
- Writing an email for information
- Texting your new friend to invite them for a drink
All of these situations can be handled with just a few simple phrases or words.
- We’ll arrive around 4pm
- Can you leave the parcel with the neighbour
- “Buy milk!” – Love James
- Can you tell me when you’ll have the shoes available?
- Do you fancy a drink about 9pm?
All pretty basic, right? If you’ve learned the most common 100 words in the language, and you’ve got a dictionary to hand, you can easily make these sentences and get your point across.
I’ve recently moved from England to Germany, and I’ve found the ability to write short phrases and send emails really useful as I establish myself in a new country.
Let me explain…
How Writing Skills Have Helped Me
Back in England I was really into playing rugby, and it’s something I want to keep going in Germany. By playing ruby in Germany I can use the language more, see more of the country, and escape my girlfriend for a few hours on a Saturday.
I found a team but they didn’t have a phone number. The only options were to email or send a Facebook message. That left me with a decision to make: do I write to them in English, or do I try my best with my okay German. Well I decided to give it a go with my German.
Here’s how it went:
My grammar was all over the place, but they understood what I meant and I was able to get the information that I needed. And when my German improved over the next few weeks, I could check in with them again on Facebook:
As it stands, I was able to start playing rugby as soon as I moved to Germany. All from a few simple written messages.
Not too shabby, right?
Being able to do a little writing (and I mean a little) saved me a lot of time and effort in Peru, too. Normally a hostel will message you asking for confirmation of your stay – which I didn’t realise before I went to Peru – and I was able to make sure my reservation was saved:
My grammar really isn’t great there, but I got my point across. And having basic writing skills for these situations honestly makes a difference.
Okay, that’s some real-world examples of how it impacted me. Let’s look at how you can hone your writing skills, shall we?
How To Write In Your Target Language
“Write like you speak” was the best piece of advice I ever received from a writing mentor, who was helping me with my English writing skills. And, today, I’m going to urge you to do the same in your target language.
It’s normal when you look at a blank sheet of paper to feel overwhelmed about what to write. You wonder: Will my sentences sounds correct? Am I using the right tense for this verb? Will they even understand what I mean?
How can you avoid these worries?
Instead of thinking about what you should write, I recommend thinking about what you would say to someone, in person. Say it aloud, if you like. Then just copy that down exactly as you said it. It doesn’t matter if your target language has a written case or a structure, just write it how you'd say it.
Basic Writing Skills: My Example
I’ll give you an example we can do together and I’ll show you my (imperfect) result in German below.
Let’s say you’ve found a really nice pair of sneakers in a shop. But, they don’t have them in stock. The shop assistant has given you a product code, 0123456, and told you to send an email to their customer services and you can check if they have stock elsewhere.
Here’s my rusty attempt….
Wie geht es Ihnen? Ich habe in Ihrer Koeln laden eine schuh mit den nummer 0123456 gesehen. Konnen Sie wenn Sie diesen shcuhe in einen andere laden haben schaun? Vielleicht Düsseldorf?
All I did to create that was say it out loud and write it down word for word afterwards. There are probably grammar mistakes (I think the case may be wrong in my second sentence). But that’s not really important.
What is important is that the person who receives it understands what I’m looking for, where I looked for it last, and which shop I’d like them to check that is close to me. The rest they can figure out for themselves should they need to.
You could even do this with stripped back Tarzan German.
Ich bin James. Ich sehe die Schuche 0123456 in Koeln. Haben Sie mehr?
All I said was, “I’m James. I see this shoe in Koeln. Have you more?”. The person at the other end still knows what I want, even with this truly basic German.
Now you give it a try – write a simple request in your target language. How did you get on with your attempt? Show me in the comments, I’d love to see.
The key here really isn’t to overthink it. You’d never think twice about writing an email in your own language – which probably isn’t that grammatically correct either – so don’t overthink it in your target language, either.
But, if you want to practice your written language, there are some great ways you can do that for free, too.
Tools To Help You Practice Basic Writing Skills
Writing is one of those wonderful skills you don’t really need a partner to practice with. You can easily pick up a task any time of the day – on the bus, waiting for a train, sat in front of the television – and start writing.
I do recommend writing so that people can respond to you and check your grammar or spelling so you can improve.
For that there really is no replacement for texting or emailing language exchange partners. Much like speaking to them in person, writing where you’ll get a response will push you to learn.
But if you don’t have the facility to text or write to people just yet, there are some other great ways you can get practice in for free. Here are some of the tools I’d recommend.
I first came across Duolingo through reading a review of it when I was learning Spanish. Now, for vocabulary building it’s the first place I turn.
You’re able to see simple sentences written down as well as type them for yourself.
If you want to practice your speaking and your writing, HelloTalk is a cool app where you can text people (without sharing your phone number) and have some basic written conversations in your target language.
Other users will be able to provide you with more grammatically correct sentences. You can even take part in challenges where you write a certain amount of words in your target language, and then the same amount in your native tongue.
You can read our complete review of HelloTalk right here.
The last place I’ll recommend for practising your basic writing skills is Language Forums. There are two types of forums you can join to practice your written language.
The first is a niche forum. This is a forum that relates to a topic that you like, such as a hobby. For example I’ve been able to find a rugby forum for German people. Here I can share my opinions and ask about the sport:
This could also be a Facebook Group if you find that the forums are a little quiet. And, there’s always the option of a language specific Reddit page, too:
Alternatively you can find yourself a language learning forum, like the Fi3M non-English forum, where you can try out your written language with natives and other learners.
If you’re a little more self-conscious over your writing skills, this may be a more ‘safe’ environment for you to practice.
How Do You Improve Your Writing Skills?
You don’t need to be an everyday Shakespeare to write in your new language. Simple sentences, grammar mistakes and getting your point across are all part of the process, just like speaking.