This post goes out to Ms Priest, my high school German teacher who I saw on the train the other day but who didn’t recognise/see me. Her legacy on my language learning is the importance I place on writing compositions. She encouraged us to write 150-200 words every couple of weeks for her to mark. They’d always come back with red marks all over them, though! How demoralising indeed.
This habit of writing has stayed with me. When I re-started Spanish last year, I wrote a lot of Notebook entries on italki. I pored over them each time I got corrections from natives, eagerly making notes of the things I’d done wrong and trying to collate everything for later reference in systems I never ended up perfecting.
The thing with writing is that, with so much time to think, you invariably come up with more and more things you want to say. Sometimes, you end up trying to write as expansively and expressively as you can in your native language. This can very easily lead you away from your existing knowledge of your target language and, if you’re not careful, you’ll soon be stressed out battling construction you’re not yet familiar with. This has been my experience, anyway.
Let’s look at the sentence “Should I assume that you’re coming tomorrow?”. Being a native English speaker, we take for granted how easy constructing this sentence is – it can differ greatly grammatically when translated into German. First, “to assume something” can become a multi-part verb attached to a dative preposition (“von etwas ausgehen”). Second, “that”, in German, causes the verb to go at the end. Third, there is no German equivalent of English’s continuous “ing” form. Then, German puts time expressions in a different parts of the sentence – gah! “Soll ich davon ausgehen, dass du morgen kommst?”
To me, this is an example of how a new or complex concept can become made more abstract and less accessible by trying to produce it right away. I was always the type of person who wants to nail down concepts as quickly as possible, form good habits, and keep improving from mistakes. However, I now find it a lot easier and less stressful to build understanding of new concepts through more ‘passive’ activities such as reading rather than ‘active’ ones like writing.
Reading brings grammar rules to life, exposing me to all the various manipulations of new concepts, and in their correct and most common forms. When I’m later trying to use the new rules in writing (or speaking), I recall the examples I encountered while reading rather than apply technical explanations from grammar books, which are usually in English anyway.
So, why write at all? And only practicing what you already know gets boring, doesn’t it? I like writing because it allows me to play around with the language. It shows me where I’m at, and what’s on the horizon – what I’m itching to learn next, and what cool new structures I still haven’t come across. Writing and making notes from my mistakes provides me with a checklist of items that I’m finding difficult, of what to look out for and notice when I’m reading.
Thanks for reading. Remember to hit “Follow”, share me with others, or give me feedback as you please. I leave you with a video from one of my favourite YouTube polyglots, Steve Kaufmann. He talks a lot about the benefits of passive activities and noticing in his videos but I feel this one in particular relates to this post.