Being bilingual in the professional world gives you a great advantage, but unfortunately “balanced bilingualism” is very rare. Although we may speak more than one language, we generally have a native language or first language that is then followed by one or more second languages. Writing in a second language is difficult because of our natural tendency to adhere to the grammatical and structural rules of our first language. This is why it is extremely common for non-native English speakers to misuse pronouns, use the wrong prepositions, incorrectly conjugate a verb, or structure a sentence poorly when writing in English. The problem is not that non-native English speakers do not understand grammar, it is that their brains are naturally applying the rules of the native language to the second language in which they are writing.
Despite these challenges, writing in English has many benefits. It will allow you to reach a larger audience and connect with more people around the world. That being said, you want to make sure that any content you write in English is error-free and flows naturally. This article not only describes some of the most common mistakes, but it also provides resources for how to improve your English writing so that you can convey a professional, reliable, and knowledgeable image to your target audience.
In this article, I provide five tips for writing optimal content in English even if it is your second language.
1. Brainstorm in your native language, but write in the target language
Studies have shown that we are more creative when we write, create, and brainstorm in our native language. According to the Spanish psychologist, Albert Costa, speakers make more rational decisions when speaking their second language, but emotion and intuition are often inhibited. This is because, “when we speak a second language, we need to inhibit our native language. And when we think rationally, we need to inhibit our natural intuitions” (Ludden). What this means is that emotion and creativity is harder to tap into when we are speaking our second language. Because of this, it is important to brainstorm and develop your key points and ideas in your native language.
That being said, it may be tempting to then write your content in the native language and later translate it into the target language. After all, writing in a second language is tedious and takes a lot more mental effort than writing in a native language. Nonetheless, every language has a style. Your content will sound more natural in the target language if you take the time to write it in that language first.
This is why machine translation is not reliable, and why translators are such valuable assets in the professional world. Translation requires adjusting the entire style of the text to the style of the target language. Unless you are a professional translator or are hiring a professional translator, writing in your target language is the best way to ensure that your writing sounds natural and flows cohesively.
2. Be aware of the most common mistakes when writing in English
Before you even begin writing, it is a good idea to become familiar with some of the most common mistakes that are made when writing in English as a second language. A lot of the common mistakes are easy to avoid once we understand why they are incorrect and how to correct them. By being aware of the mistakes that could happen, we have a better chance of catching errors before they do happen.
Here are some examples of common mistakes in English writing from Spanish speakers:
a) Omitting the subject: In English, stating the subject of the sentence is required, but in Spanish, verb endings make this unnecessary. There is a tendency for Spanish speakers to leave out the subject when writing in English because it is accepted to do so in Spanish.
Spanish: Ella fue al supermercado. Compró comida.
English (incorrect): She went to the store. Bought food.
English (correct): She went to the store. She bought food.
b) Using the wrong preposition: In English, “in” and “on” both translate to en in Spanish, so it is common for Spanish speakers to confuse the two when writing in English. Be sure to double-check that you are using the correct preposition if you know that it should include either “in” or “on”.
Spanish: Poner la comida en el plato.
English (incorrect): Put the food in the plate.
English (correct): Put the food on the plate.
c) False cognates or false friends: There are many words in Spanish that have similar-sounding words in English, but do not mean the same thing. It is important to be aware of these, especially those that could cause embarrassment or serious confusion.
Balde – means “bucket”, not “bald”
Carpeta – means “folder”, not “carpet”
Embarazada – means “pregnant”, not “embarrassed”
Cita – means “appointment”, not “city”
To avoid making mistakes with false cognates that could cost you your reputation, become familiar with this comprehensive list of English Spanish false cognates.
It is also a good idea to become familiar with common grammar mistakes in English that even native speakers make when writing. This website provides an alphabetical database of the most common spelling and usage errors in the English language. When in doubt, refer to this website to confirm the correct use of the word or phrase in question.
3. Use automatic editors and grammar checkers wisely
Technology has come so far in recent years that we can now run our writing through automatic editors and grammar checkers. These resources will not only catch mistakes that we might have missed, but they can also detect errors we would never have even noticed. As well as that, they have also developed to the point where they can analyze the writing and determine its readability, grade level, tone, and flow. These are all extremely helpful tools for ensuring that we have written quality professional content. However, with so many options, it can be difficult to know which ones are the most useful. Not only that, but implementing them effectively into the writing process can also be a challenge.
Here are some of the most helpful and easy-to-use automatic editors:
- Often overlooked, but extremely useful is the automatic grammar and spell check that exists within Word, Pages, Google Doc, or whichever platform you use to write. It may be simple, but it is a free and useful tool for making sure that there are no obvious mistakes in your work.
- Grammarly: This is one of the top digital writing assistants that exists for the English language. The free web-based editor detects spelling and grammar errors, run-on sentences, awkward or hard to read text, incorrect word choice, punctuation, and passive voice misuse. It also gives suggestions on how to correct these errors. Not only that, but it analyzes the correctness, clarity, engagement, and delivery of the text.
- HemingWay App: This is another free web-based editor that analyzes your text for hard-to-read sentences and passive voice. It highlights the sentences that need work and allows you to edit within the web-based software until you get it how you would like it to be. It also gives you a grade-level goal to try and reach as you are editing.
Also, your headlines are an extremely important part of any writing that you produce. CoSchedule can reassure you that your headlines are engaging, powerful, and optimized in the target language.
Learning how to use these automatic editors is an important step in ensuring that your content is of the best possible quality. My advice is to write your content in full before running it through any kind of grammar or readability checks. This will help make sure that the content flows naturally, and that you communicate everything that you want to say before getting caught up in the details. Once you have written your content, use the automatic translator within your writing platform to weed out any obvious mistakes. Then, choose one of the above mentioned digital editors to analyze your content for grammar and readability.
4. Stay informed and up to date on English writing style guides
Style guides are in place to guide writers on the accepted ways of writing. If ever in doubt about the correct way to deliver a phrase, style guides are a great resource to reference. Studying them and memorizing the rules can also help make the writing process easier. Once familiar with the writing rules, developing quality content will become more natural.
One of the most classic reference books for understanding the elements of the English language is The Elements of Style by William Stunk Jr. It covers the rules regarding possessive language, comma usage, grammar, paragraph structure, writing style, and more. Becoming familiar with the basic rules and common mistakes that are discussed in this book will ensure that you are on your way to developing strong and professional English writing.
Another writing guide that is widely accepted and used is the Purdue Online Writing Lab. This website has all of the information that you need in terms of English writing guides. Because it is so dense, a helpful tool is to use the search page to find the information that you need. A helpful page to explore on this website is the English as a Second Language. The column to the left of the page has a variety of tabs that provide information for different topics including not only grammar but also how to write for specific audiences.
5. Practice, practice, practice
At the end of the day, practice is what will most improve your English writing. One of the best ways to practice English writing is to regularly read books and articles in English. That being said, there are also writing exercises that you can use to improve your writing skills. Taking a couple of minutes a day to quiz yourself on grammar, spelling, and writing rules in English can make a big difference in the quality of content that you produce.
Activities for ESL Students is a website that has daily quizzes on the English language and Spanish-to-English translation. While it may seem simple, a few minutes a day practicing the fundamentals can make a big difference in your mastery of the language. Purdue Online Writing Lab also has exercises for ESL students to practice subject positioning, paraphrasing and summarizing, and more.
Another idea for practicing is to explore and participate on Quora. This is an American question and answer website that allows you to dive into various topics. Internet users, including you, can ask, answer, and discuss any question about any topic. It is a great resource to practice reading common language English in your field of interest or perhaps to explore what others are saying about your topic. Not only that, but you can practice writing English by taking the time to answer questions and going through the writing process, including brainstorming, writing, and editing using the resources provided in this article.
The difference between British English and American English
As always, keeping the audience in mind is an essential part of the writing process. Deciding to write your content in English is a great way to enhance your reputation and reach a wider audience. That being said, you want to make sure you are writing in the correct English. Did you know there are two different types of English? Check out this article about the differences between British and American English to learn more about why the distinctions between the two are important.
Getting in touch with a native speaker
If you have any questions about rules in the English language, more writing resources, or just want to double-check your English writing, Nuria Masdeu Translations employs a team of professionals who are native English speakers with in-depth mastery of the language. Feel free to reach out at any time, and one of our team members will be happy to help you!