Writing: The Magic Skill for Better Memory and Focus in Any Language

Writing in another language is so deep, focused and beneficial - think Deep Work by Cal Newport. It can be a little difficult to build a writing habit at first, I know. But with a clear focus on fluency and a few simple steps to break down your practice, this is not something you'll want to miss out on.

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writing in foreign languages

So how should you effectively build the writing skill into your language learning routine? Let's jump right in and examine the best ways to get going.

And remember: As long as you're doing it, there's no way you're doing it wrong. (Click here to tweet this)

1. Practice At The Right Level

In case you've been focused on speaking practice and audio courses, you might not be familiar with writing routines yet. There are several levels you can use for getting started.

>>> Word Level Practice

My husband is a sporadic German learner who loves using apps, and recently I got him to try out Memrise in addition to Duolingo. The difference was surprising. Both offer a course for complete beginners, yet he quickly noticed that Memrise felt "a lot tougher, more like a challenge". There are several differences, but a key observation is that Memrise makes its users write their vocabulary words a lot more.

We cannot solve the problem of spelling without knowing something about how the rest of language works. (David Crystal)

Writing words makes you pay attention to spelling, to how the sounds connect and how pronunciation influences how a word looks. The coolest thing about core language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) is that you never practice one in isolation.

>>> Chunk and Sentence Level Practice

Done with words? Start putting them together! If you want to become that language expert who can say anything they like...if you want to break free from templates and stock sentences...nothing will be nicer than writing your own!

Start with simple gap filling exercises that you can find in any textbook, and then get creative! If you can write "good" into this gap, how else could the sentence look? What if there was a feminine word here?

Write your first small pieces, core sentences like a journalist: What happens when, why, how? Who is involved?

>>> Transcription Level Practice

Next it's time to start writing what you hear. For this method, you need a small and comprehensible audio source. Try a song, a short video clip with subtitles, or perhaps Glossika audio packages. This is important: There must be a correct (official) transcript that you can use as an answer key.

Listen to the recording and write down what you hear. Pause it as many times. Be as accurate as you can possibly be. And when you're done, it's the moment of truth: Check the answer key, analyze your mistakes, and correct what you've written.

My colleague Ron Gullekson has written a guide to transcription on Languagesurfer.com, which is worth bookmarking!

2. Use Writing To Boost Accuracy

You probably know that "fluency" is a tough one to define. For me, the following definition from Keith Johnson's book "An Introduction to Foreign Language Learning and Teaching" sums it up best: Fluency is a mix of rapidity and accuracy in another language. So your speaking practice is giving you rapidity, and you need to boost your accuracy too.

In conversation and especially in speaking practice, you can get away with a lot. The purpose of your speaking practice is to keep moving, to make yourself more flexible and recover swiftly from forgotten words and wrong grammar. Speaking practice is about developing that rapid sense of "fluency", of handling a real chat in another language.

In writing practice, there is no place to hide. This is where you train your accuracy, the linguistic skill that you need for true fluency, confidence, and ultimately for coming anywhere near the level that you dream of achieving.

3. Write By Hand, Boost Your Memory

Working with pen and paper offers you lots of extra advantages when it comes to organizing and tracking your language progress. There are the simple benefits, like tracking visible progress on paper and resting your eyes after many screen hours.

But even beyond those things, handwriting is also scientifically proven to aid memory many times over. Do you keep forgetting vocab? Get yourself a handwritten list. Need to nail down core phrases for your next conversation? Jot them on a card.

For more details on why this works, check out The Miraculous Benefits of Keeping a Language Notebook. And make sure you hop on the Fluent Newsletter today so you're the first to know when my brand new language tracker goes live and you can print & use it at home!

4. Get The Most Out of Every Error

Since writing is a practice that really brings out your hidden weaknesses, it's easy to abandon your practice after you get the first feedback. I feel it all the time when someone writes a friendly comment on my Instagram feed, correcting my Welsh. It's embarrassing!

If you're trying to learn another language, you'll already know one thing. Embarrassment is not just necessary. It is WELCOME. Start learning from your mistakes in this simple way: After you receive a correction, go back and rewrite what you have previously written. Make that text as pure and lovely as you intended. Heck, go ahead and post it online!

I find that correcting my mistakes in writing is one of the most satisfying things in language learning. It's rewarding because you can feel yourself learning.

5. Aim For Exams

Writing big, long, connected pieces of prose is a very advanced language skill. If you're able to put together a postcard, a simple letter or a short description of something, congratulations. You're a language learner who's mastered everything you need for core communication.

To grow your writing practice, my top advice is to work with the exam sets for levels B1 and upwards. These exams get more demanding for language writers, while the lower levels are too easy to master and wouldn't help you catch all your errors.

Related post: Achieve More With a Language Test (No Matter If You Need It or Not)

For corrections of advanced writing, try a good and specialised italki tutor, a translator from ProZ, or an academic proofreader.

The Bottom Line

You might not enjoy the slow pace of writing practice at first, but that's because writing in another language is a routine that delivers real focus. Focus takes effort, but in the end, you will start developing a huge sense of progress and achievement in your target language. Your core skills will appreciate the little lift you're giving them, and those new memory connections are invaluable.

For more about core skills check out my book Fluency Made Achievable> >

Do you already have a writing practice? What are some of your best tips? Share them below or hop over to our Facebook group to learn more!