What if English Isn't Your First Language?

What If English Isn’t Your First Language?

Approximately 20% of the Earth’s population speak English. That’s a bunch of potential readers for your story as long as you’re writing in English. Sounds good? Not for those writers whose first language isn’t English. As a writer on Episode whose first language is German, I got to experience the advantages and disadvantages of trying to write in your second language.

The Disadvantages

Let’s be honest, it’s definitely not easy to write in a different language than your first language. For some, English is probably totally different from their first language, so there’s a lot to learn. Many people around the world had an English class in school, but that’s almost never enough to really express what you want to.

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You often know what you want to write in your first language, so you “just” have to translate it. However, sometimes you don’t find the right words or you can’t even say if you found the right ones. Google translate often gives you more than just one translation for a word. How should we know which one is the best for what we want to say?

One of the most time-consuming things to learn if you want to write in English is collocations. Collocations are common word combinations. So there might be 5 different translations for one adjective that you need, but you have to find out which one’s the right one for your noun. For example, if you want to say that it’s raining a lot, you can’t say “thick rain”. It’s heavy rain! This collocation wouldn’t make any sense in German, my first language, but in English, it’s totally fine.

All of this learning, translating and looking up collocations takes a lot of time. Maybe you have an amazing idea for your story and you want to write it down quickly, but quickly doesn’t work if you need to look up a few words. That means, writing a story in English takes much longer for a person who has a different first language. You’ll even have to spend some extra time thinking about a different scene because you just can’t describe the one you had planned. Google translate doesn’t solve all problems.

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The Advantages

We have to face the truth, there aren’t many advantages. There’s the obvious benefit of improving your language skills by writing in English. Whenever you look up a word, it will stay somewhere in your brain and one day you might need it for school. The same goes for collocations and grammar in general. It will improve the more you write in English.

Another advantage of having a different first language: Your characters can speak different languages! If you care about diversity, which you should, then having characters who come from different countries and therefore speak different languages is a great idea.

It’s unexpected, but your stories will be easier to read for others whose first language isn’t English as well. You don’t use that many complicated words that native speakers would use. People whose first language isn’t English know and use mostly those words that they’ve learned at school and those are really similar around the world.

Tips and Tricks

There are many tricks to improve your English, but you’ve probably heard all of the learning tips already at school, so I won’t go through them again. However, here are some tips that you might not know yet.

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  • While writing, try to think in English: This really helps with getting into the characters to make them talk realistically. If you know when you’re going to write, you can also try thinking in English before that, so you can get into the right mood.
  • Get a thesaurus: A thesaurus can help you find synonyms and some of them also have the right collocations with the word you were looking for. If I need an online dictionary, I often use the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary because it also shows you the collocations and different meanings of a word. Here’s another helpful website for synonyms.
  • Find English-speaking friends: They don’t have to have English as their first language, you’ll both benefit from chatting in English. Ask them to correct your mistakes if they find them in your messages and offer to do the same. Both of you will improve your English and it’s in a safe environment. If you’re looking for some cool new friends online, maybe you want to check out the ShanniiWrites Forums.
  • Ask others to read your stories: Sometimes you are blind for your own mistakes, that’s totally normal. You can read a word a thousand times and still don’t find a mistake and someone else reads it and finds the mistake right away. This can also happen in your first language, so don’t get frustrated.
  • Watch some movies: Watching English movies will help you with grammar and collocations because you get used to them if you hear them all the time. Additionally, you’ll get a feeling of how people use the language. Trust me, it’s not as strict and sometimes weird as you’ve learned it at school.

In the end, you just have to keep working and improving your skills. There’s no reason to feel bad for having to look up a word or two. I had to look up more than 10 words for this blog entry, although I’m in a class at university which should get me to the same level as a native speaker.

Sure, it would be easier to write in your first language, but then all the people who don’t speak your language can’t read your story and that’d be a pity. Don’t we all like a little challenge?

Recommended1 recommendationPublished in Writing Beginners
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