Lessons for Writing in a Foreign Language

The college experience is defined by the fulfillment of a set of academic standards through constant written assessments in the form of exams or essays.  The process of committing ideas and personal arguments concretely and definitively to paper is one of the most daunting forms of expression with which even the best of students struggle. 
Writing, and writing well, are difficult processes in themselves, and writing in a foreign language is equally, if not more, demanding, especially when it comes time for revisions.  Here are some suggestions for what to look for when editing foreign language essays:

Read your draft aloud! Many students at the university level best learn foreign languages by immersing themselves in the visual, oral, and auditory aspects of the new language.  Reading an assignment out loud combines all three of these senses in one process, which often highlights many linguistic errors that reading alone cannot identify.  This can be one of the most beneficial exercises for quickly and efficiently detecting grammatical and spelling errors.

1.  Use correction guides! Many of the foreign language department faculty issue keys with commonly misused or mistaken grammatical and linguistic trends; these are very helpful for identifying the most common writing errors.

Here is an example from the Spanish department’s correction tablet:

Error:                                                          Correction:
Estoy a la universidad.                       Estoy en la universidad.

Avoid making the same mistakes as past students—ask your professors for essay samples to see what kinds of errors they encounter most.  In addition to these general guides, use recommended dictionaries to spice up vocabulary usage.
Dictionaries that are only in the foreign language are much more useful for discerning correct usage!

2.  Check for correct verb tenses and agreement between nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adjectives.  Foreign languages often require conjugations that are very distinct from the structure of your native language.  Consult grammar texts and conjugation charts as necessary.
Use highlighters or different colored pens to mark every part of speech.  By signaling each basic component of a sentence, it is much easier to identify incorrect word order and agreement between words.

3.  Peer edit! After receiving approval from your professor, exchange drafts with a member of your class to give and receive feedback before you turn it in.  Many language classes emphasize peer collaboration to solidify grammatical and contextual rules through correcting other students’ essays. 
Foreign language Teaching Assistants offer extremely helpful advice for making detailed edits and they usually have weekly office hours.

4.  Read your draft aloud! This is always one of the best practices for catching the most minute writing errors in foreign language assignments (see above).

Writing in a foreign language is not as structurally, contextually, or stylistically as intuitive as writing in your native tongue, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, seek second opinions, and review technical resources.

-By Erica Solari ’12

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