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Writing: the language skill you cannot afford to ignore

By Victor - 15/may/2021 #Language and Education

As your fluency progresses, you may become a good conversationalist in your target language and even prematurely think you are nearing perfection.

After all, you speak to natives who seem to understand you well and who rarely, if ever, correct you. You’re probably choosing all the right words, conjugating perfectly, and otherwise employing flawless grammar, right?

Actually, it may be that your friendly smiles, hand gestures, and contextual clues are allowing natives to get your meaning and, in any case, to look past your serious word choice and grammatical mistakes.

When writing, this nonverbal communication isn’t available, and your language skills will be laid bare. This is a good thing: by writing you will thus greatly increase your ability to perceive your own mistakes, receive corrections, avoid plateaus, and genuinely improve your mastery.

That is just one reason why writing is important.

In fact, writing is so critical to foreign language acquisition that there is an entire academic journal dedicated to the topic. Impressively, this Journal of Second Language Writing has the second highest measured impact out of 182 journals on linguistics![1] (You can check out a free sample edition here.)

In this post, however, I’m not going to delve into academic theories on writing; instead, I will begin to provide you with practical motivation and guidance on writing as an essential component of foreign language mastery, based on my years of experience as a language student, teacher, coordinator, and finally education innovator.

 

Writing may be the most important language skill for success

First, we should consider the intrinsic importance of writing as a skill. From an academic and professional standpoint, it is arguably the most important of the four language skills.

At school or university, although reading and listening are fundamental to absorbing content, ultimately students are assessed by their output, which almost always entails writing. Put simply, if you do any type of academic work in a foreign language, your ability to write well in that language will be pivotal to your success.

Similarly, writing is unquestionably a fundamental skill for performing well at most jobs.

When I worked in international relations at the Brazilian Court of Accounts, being able to read, understand, and speak Spanish and other languages was important; but the ability to draft official letters, write emails, and prepare written reports was what truly gave me an edge.

A Carleton University study recently found that people spend a third of their time at work on emails, underscoring one of the many contexts in which writing is an integral part of one’s career.

It’s worth observing, furthermore, that writing has become more important than ever in many people’s social lives.

Making friends or romantic acquaintances used to happen almost exclusively in person, whereas increasingly it now happens online as well. Almost all of those online interactions begin in writing before progressing to voice, video, and finally in-person interaction (pandemics permitting).

In other words, if you’re interested in making friends with or dating foreigners, you’d better get your writing skills in top shape to make that all-important good first impression.[2]

 

Writing is an invaluable component of language acquisition

As an English teacher, I consider writing so critical to the language acquisition process that I ensure my students commit to writing an essay for every single class before we begin a course.

The key insight is that the writing process provides the ideal link between receptive competence in a language (comprehension) and productive competence (active communication).

Writing can be considered slow-motion speaking. It allows you to conscientiously take your passive knowledge, obtained by reading and listening, and make it a part of your active repertoire.

Reading is the best way to acquire vocabulary and an intuitive grammatical understanding of a language. Listening adds to that acquisition and ensures that you are mentally pronouncing the language correctly. However, taking that knowledge and using it to begin speaking is often daunting and arduous. It is far from an automatic transition.

In fact, people who have had extensive exposure to a language but have not had the opportunity or made the persistent effort to express themselves in it often attain perfect comprehension yet are utterly incapable of speaking.

Writing bridges that gap marvelously.

When you write, you take the storehouse of knowledge in your brain, gleaned through reading and listening, and organize it along additional neural pathways that then allow you to produce your own original output. A portion of your passive vocabulary suddenly becomes active. Your receptive grammatical understanding gets converted into the capacity to construct original sentences in the foreign language.

After going through this process involved in writing, speaking is the natural next step and will flow much more easily.

Having deliberately converted passive knowledge to productive competence, you will definitely be able to take the next step and use it in spontaneous conversation. This conversion occurs not only in the initial stages of language acquisition, but repeatedly through every level of proficiency.

A final benefit of writing is that it provides an “enduring record” of your foreign language mastery as a vehicle for your thoughts.

I love to go back to my Spanish and French essays in college to see what I was thinking and how well I was able to wield the languages back then. According to a 2012 article from the abovementioned linguistics journal, this “enduring record” can also “encourage cognitive processes and interactive moves thought to promote language acquisition”.[3]

 

In the following posts, I will explain the keys to improving your writing and thus your foreign language mastery.

I will also give you a one-time opportunity to get an essay of yours corrected for free and then use an innovative game to review and assimilate those corrections. So, begin planning your essay today, in whichever foreign language you wish to improve – English, Spanish, French, or Portuguese. It should be between 1,000 and 2,500 characters long. More details will follow.

 

[1] Journal Citation Reports (JCR) ranks the impact of journals based on how frequently their articles are cited in other journals. The 2nd highest rank in the linguistics category, attributed to the Journal of Second Language Writing, can be found in: "Journals Ranked by Impact: Linguistics". 2016 Journal Citation Reports. Web of Science (Social Sciences ed.). Thomson Reuters. 2017.

[2] It’s also curious to note that messaging and emails have made writing account for a larger proportion of one’s ongoing communications with people we already know. In Brazil, for instance, many people now consider it bordering on rude to call someone without messaging first. An enormous share of social interaction happens on WhatsApp. And don’t even bother leaving a voicemail message nowadays…

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1060374312000793


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