This guest post is by Michael Schuermann of Easy Hiker.
English is the language of the Internet. If you are the monoglot citizen of a country like Denmark, you are—through no fault of your own—restricted to an audience the size of metropolitan San Francisco.
Even for the native speakers of a major European language such as German, English is the only available ticket to a global readership.
This is why virtually everybody nowadays blogs in English.Writing in a foreign language, however, is not an easy skill to acquire. I am not suggesting that simply by reading this article, you will become a fluent writer. But I can show you how to get there—and point out some of the most dangerous traps along the way.
1. It can be done
Every year, English books are published by authors who have learned English as a second or third language, sometimes late in life. (I myself have managed to have one such book published)—just to prove to you that any fool can do it.)
At the top end, you have authors who have produced real works of literature: Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, for example.
At the low end of formal ambition, writing factual, descriptive texts in English is actually quite easy—which is why English is not only the language of the Internet but also the lingua franca of academic discourse.
If you have something to say, the English language will always give you the tools to say it clearly, briefly and concisely. So, take your heart in both hands, step in front of a global audience—and just do it.
2. Get rid of your native accent
Accents are speech habits you acquired from your native tongue. They are most familiar to us in the form of sound, but they exist in writing, too.
You will want to get rid of them.
Thankfully, this is easier in written than in spoken language: Nabokov and Conrad, apparently, never quite got rid of their spoken accents, but I am still to hear anybody accuse either author of “Slavic” mannerisms in his prose.
Read and listen as much in English as you can, acquiring English rhythms and speech patterns through osmosis. (Get into the habit of reading a quality daily such as The Guardian or the New York Times and listen to BBC Radio 4. It’s all just a click away.)
Develop a feeling for the specific difficulties that writers from your own language have. Study English texts written by speakers of your own language—anything will do: announcements in airports and public transport, for example. Tourism brochures can also be highly useful.
Always ask yourself: is this good? And if it isn’t, why not? Where could I have improved upon this?
3. Do not translate
Always write your posts in English first, even the drafts. Resist the temptation of writing exposés in your native language.
Any such draft will always betray its origins, unless you are an extremely good translator. (Good technical translators do not “translate”: they take a sentence and ask themselves how a native speaker would have conveyed the same message in the target language.)
4. Do not overreach yourself
Keep it simple. Do not aim to produce literature. Do not try to impress your readers with the quality of your English.
See yourself as someone who has recently acquired a pair of ice skates and is still learning. For the time being, the objective is to get safely from one side of the rink to the other. Leave the triple Lutz for later.
5. Perfection may forever elude you
Writing good English is not something you either can do or can’t do. There is no single moment in time after which you will able to say: that’s it, now I can write.
Things just don’t work that way: learning is always a gradual process. The more you write, the better you will become, but there is no guarantee that you will ever reach a standard where, say, readers could mistake your copy for something they may read in the New York Times.
And even if you do, there may still be the occasional phrase over which your American or English readership will stumble. That’s part of the game, I am afraid. Live with it.
6. Understand how the English language operates
English is an informal, level-playing-field language. Like every language, it provides the speaker with opportunities of providing information about himself (by saying “loo” rather than “toilet”, for example: the old U vs. non-U use of speech) but its first purpose is always to communicate as clearly and concisely as possible.
If you now wonder: isn’t that the first purpose of any language, you have clearly never read anything produced by a German academic. In other words: some languages may be primarily designed to communicate the status of the speaker, but English is not one of them.
So keep it simple. Do not show off or intimidate. Make it easy for your reader. Use the most common word, the one that is most likely to be understood by the largest number of readers. In English, a convoluted style is considered affected and impolite. As a rule of thumb, use the Anglo-Saxon rather than the “French” word. Say “begin”, not “commence”.
Use a conversational writing style. Imagine you are explaining something to somebody at a table in a pub. Do not use your blog as a pulpit or as a podium in a lecture hall. Do not adopt a chest-thumping “me-speak-you-listen” style. In some countries, this may be the acceptable language of academic discourse. In Anglo-Saxon countries, people will pay as much attention to you as they do to the ranting nutter in the park.
And do not forget that little jokes are always welcome. Particularly if you invite your readers to laugh at yourself. A little self-deprecating remark here and there can work wonders.
7. A language is more than a set of vocabulary and grammar
Cultural references are important. They are a convenient way of telling your readers that you are one of their “pack”—because if you were not like your readers, in what way would your experiences matter to them?
Cultural references traditionally come from history and literature (particularly Shakespeare and Dickens), but increasingly from sports, Hollywood movies, and TV. This is where writers who have actually lived in England or the US (and who have kept in touch) have a clear advantage.
But you can play this game even if you have no such experience to draw on. Just be curious. When I was a young man, it took me years to find out the story of Paul Revere and his horse, all coming down to a line in a Bob Dylan song. Today, I Google “Paul Revere’s horse” and get 11,500 hits in 0.11 seconds. There are no excuses for ignorance.
What is Ruthian or Micawberish, and why do English people naturally assume that somebody who is “pining” must be “pining for the Fjords”? Read and listen with an open and curious mind, then do your research—it has never been easier.
Michael Schuermann is a German born journalist (formerly with the BBC World Service in London and was a sports commentator for Eurosport in Paris). Discovering hiking late in life, he is now blogging in English as Easy Hiker.