Five Reasons You Should Write as Part of Your Language Learning

For the vast majority of language learners, myself included, we learn another language so that we can speak it.  We aren’t learning it so we can read the newspaper.  We aren’t learning so that we can write letters to people.  We may do both of these, and enjoy them as activities, but they are not the reason for our learning.  We want to speak.  We want to be in conversations in which we both understand and are understood.  Speaking, not writing is why we learn.

If speaking and listening are the most important things we do with the language though, why would we spend any time worrying about writing?  Reading we can understand, but writing?

I want to offer five reasons why I think that writing should be an integral part of your language learning journey.  And specifically, I want to ask you to consider a personal narrative in the form of a journal or a diary as the main focus of this writing.  I believe that writing has amazing potential to help maximize your language learning and significantly increase the rate at which you learn.  Which of course will get you speaking sooner. Here are my five reasons why writing will help you learn language better:

  1. Our brains function in the same way whether we speak or we write.  A message is created and transmitted. It just sends the message down a different pipe. If you take a moment to grab a pen and paper and write a few sentences you will see that you cannot write without speaking out the words in your head.  In this way, writing is a stress free way to practice speaking.   Because we get to write at our own pace with no audience, we can give our mind a tremendous amount of repetition with the grammar, words and expressions of the language.
  2. Writing allows us to use all of the words and grammar forms  that we are currently learning and to solidify those we have already learned.  This goes back to the repetition mentioned above, but if for example, we need to hear or produce a word 30 times for it to begin to get “stuck” in our mind, we can significantly increase the rate at which we incorporate new words into our usable vocabulary.
  3. Writing about our days in a journal or diary connects the words and grammars we are learning to the context of our lives.  This context and emotional connection creates richer meaning and allows for greater retention of the material.  We remember things better when we put them in a context that is familiar to our lives and that we are interested in.
  4. The next step is to get a native speaker to correct these journals. Once corrected, these journals become an amazing source of integrated review which will allow you to easily and quickly review everything that you have learned.  Language learning too often is a race from A to B to C and we often forget much of what was presented back at A by the time we get to point D.  If however we have journaled all along the way, looking back through these regularly allows us to reconnect with all of the grammar points and words we learned previously.  This is what I call integrated review.  To get your journals corrected, ask a native speaking friend for help or if that is not possible, check out the amazing FREE online program called Lang-8.
  5. These journals are also a great to have as a form of self assessment.  There is nothing quite like looking back at your first journals to remind you how far you have come. If you haven’t read Yuki’s story yet, go back and read it now.  It will help you understand this last point.

Writing is an important skill in any language, but now one we are usually interested in worrying about as we go about learning a new language.  But don’t underestimate the potential writing has to be a great part of helping you learn that language.  It is a maximizer and will enhance all that you are doing to learn.  So get started writing today!

Many of you worry that your writing will stink.

Let me tell you a little secret - it will.

But it doesn’t matter.  Even your blather is part of moving you forward and the more blather now, the quicker your blather will become poetry.

So get started.  Do your best.  Write about things you love.  Have fun!

What has your experience with writing been like as a language learner?

 

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17 Responses to Five Reasons You Should Write as Part of Your Language Learning
  1. 葛修远
    April 14, 2011 | 6:57 pm

    I agree with nearly everything you’ve said here, but I think it’s important to point out that writing and speaking can be vastly different, and the difference is bigger in some languages than others. There is a gulf in style and vocabulary between written Chinese and spoken Mandarin, for example, so the two don’t contribute to each other as much as a learner might want.

    Also with Chinese (and Japanese to some extent), as the writing bears no resemblance to speech, learning to write will slow down your acquisition of speaking ability a lot, so choosing not to write could be a good decision for some people.

    • aarongmyers
      April 14, 2011 | 10:22 pm

      Thanks for the great insight. When reading or writing in Chinese, do you find that you are saying the words in your head as you write? I am not familiar with these languages. I could see how taking the time to learn the writing system, which is vastly different than the English system, could slow down the process. Do you think that writing could come into play at some point to help learn the language? I guess I feel that the process of writing allows me to use the language in a way that mimics speaking, but without all of the pressure and stress involved with trying to produce. That’s why I find writing to be such an important part of my learning. The second reason is for creating the integrated review that I feel is super valuable and one of the most important reasons to write. But, if the written and spoken word are vastly different, then I guess those same affects could be lost. Is there any place where written Chinese is closer to the spoken language? When kids write notes to one another at school for example, is it different? I am learning here too. Thanks again for the comment and I look forward to learning more.

      • Thomas (rhinospike.com)
        April 18, 2011 | 2:57 pm

        I can’t comment on Chinese, but I can share my thoughts about Japanese. Japanese has a way to write words without using the Chinese characters (kanji), so it is possible for a Japanese learner to write early like an English learner. Writing without kanji characters makes it harder to read though, as Japanese has many, many homonyms. It’s also not always clear where a word ends and another begins (Japanese normally doesn’t use spaces). But you can still write and have your writing corrected on lang-8.

        I started journaling in Japanese on lang-8 and it has worked miracles for me so far. I’m good enough in Japanese that I can express my thoughts without much trouble, so most native speakers give me advice on how to make my sentences more natural (as opposed to correcting mistakes), which has been extremely helpful to me. My writing, and confidence in writing has increased over the past week or two. I try to write like how I’d talk, and then get recordings of my corrected journals from RhinoSpike and practice telling my own stories out loud.

        • aarongmyers
          April 19, 2011 | 11:48 pm

          Super great testimony of how writing has been a big benefit. Very cool and hopefully others will be inspired and follow your lead. Thanks so much for sharing your story Thomas.

      • Daniel
        June 1, 2013 | 2:48 am

        Hi Aron,

        You raised some valid questions, which I’ll try to address here (as a student of Chinese myself)…

        - “Is there any place where written Chinese is closer to the spoken language?” Yes. For most students, that would be almost always. For the most part, only literature, publications, etc. are different from spoken Chinese. These are irrelevant for most non-advanced students, who are more concerned with just getting by with the most elemental of communication.

        - “When kids write notes to one another at school for example, is it different?” I didn’t grow up as a kid in China, but I can say this…when friends text me by phone or on QQ, Skype, etc. they almost always write in a colloquial style, reflecting the spoken form.

        Writing, as you suggest, is in my opinion, as useful in Chinese and Japanese as it is in other languages. We just need to make the distinction here between writing as a way recording your thoughts, and writing Chinese characters by hand.

        Assuming that you do your “writing” with a keyboard, then it’s fairly straightforward to express your thoughts in Chinese, as the computer saves you from actually having to manually write out each characters by hand.

        At worst, one could argue that writing is an exercise best suited to intermediate-level students as you need to not only have learned enough grammar & vocabulary to write meaningfully, but also be able to visually recognize enough characters to type efficiently.

  2. Andrew
    April 15, 2011 | 8:52 am

    Agreed, also most people really do want to be able to read their target language even if that skill is secondary to speaking and writing something, especially if it will be read and corrected by a native speaker, is the best way to learn how to do that. It’s also one of the fastest ways to quickly learn correct grammar and verb conjugations and such.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • aarongmyers
      April 17, 2011 | 4:50 pm

      Thanks for the comment Andrew. I think the main thing is that we often get focused on one thing and I guess I think in my experience I retain more and learn deeper if I am doing a bit of everything all the time – reading, writing, listening and speaking.

      And hey man, I’ve been waiting for your next post. Looking forward to it.

  3. Jana
    April 24, 2011 | 8:39 am

    I find writing really useful, too. I actually find it easier to start writing before I start speaking with people, since with writing I have more time to think and iron out a lot of grammatical mistakes. You just don’t have time to think about those things when speaking, and people tend not to correct you as much either.

  4. [...]  I am a big proponent of journaling as part of an over all program of language learning. Read more here and here.  A client of mine recently shared a way in which he journals with a language helper [...]

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  8. Gavin
    May 25, 2012 | 12:31 pm

    Nice post Aaron, this made me look back to a post I made on this topic last year which you had an interesting comment as well on writing’s relation to conversation. It gave me a chance to consider my thoughts on the relationship between speaking and writing a bit more and my main idea at the time, and still is more or less, was the different (and similar) kinds of attention to language development speaking and writing provide. Thomas’ comment above resonates with me as well being a Japanese learner, however as blogging and other social media becomes ever more popular, the divide between registers in writing and speech seems to be disintegrating, or at least less clearly defined which would give weight to your argument I think. Btw, I thought you might like to check out what Richard Schmidt, an SLA researcher here in Hawaii, wrote about on his experience keeping a diary while learning Portuguese in Brazil, it’s an older study (1986) but it still gets cited a lot. His summary of it starts on page 29: http://tiny.cc/ytxuew

    • aarongmyers
      May 27, 2012 | 9:52 pm

      Gavin,
      Thanks for stopping by. I have been interested to hear from SLA folks and hear if my idea holds water – it is of course completely anecdotal. I’ll take a look at the study. Thanks for sharing it!

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