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7 Golden Rules: Blogging in English for Non-Native Speakers

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.

Passport

Image copyright Anyka - Fotolia.com

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.

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Comments

  1. Jalet says:

    I blog in English to prectice this universal language. Good tips there, thank you.

  2. junedi says:

    semoga bermanfaat

  3. credit card says:

    I am very pleased today to read your article. As a non-native speakers in English, I have been trying to make my writing could use a native-speaker style. I also learn the terms are often used in English. With your article, I am encouraged to learn some more. The important thing, as you suggest, is that the article should use a common vocabulary so easily to be understood. Besides using native culture as a part of how I make the article. Thank you very much.

  4. This is an excellent article, Michael! These tips are really helpful for non-native speakers who loves and wants to blog. I really love Tip #4 “Do not overreach yourself”— as blogging is about exhausting your thoughts not to impress readers with the quality of your English. This may be a cliché but still “simplicity” is the key to effective writing.

    Thanks for sharing! Cheers! :)

  5. nice work a bit long too read but it´s wortht he time. And the points are clear and cover all relevant information. But some people think or believe learning a foreign language is “adding no real value” to their lives but they forgot about the globalization that is taking place. For example i know a not even 30 year old woman who only speaks german. Which i could hardly believe because even in school you learned your english and the whole internet or most pages are written in english. Thankfully i am not such a person.

    And comparing to learn is english is way easier once you understand how the grammar and senctence setup works. Yes, there might always happen a gramma typo or writing typo but that´s is also a part of the game isn´t it?:)

  6. kumo says:

    Just do it. All you need to do is start blogging and keep on blogging. Improve and correct your mistakes as you proceed. You’ll definitely see the difference and improvement after a year.

  7. gila gideon says:

    Must say I`m a beat surprised to read this post. I`m an Israeli blogger so I`m quite familiar with the need to write in English but displaying this as such an easy task is absurd. In might be easy to those who’s mother tongue comes from Latin because you can find similarities but for the rest of the world… learning to write in a proper way might take few years meaning lots of money and time spent and all that just for blogging. If your blogging for commercial reasons it just not worth it. And what about cultural and slang nuances, these take also years to learn and understand. In Israel when a company wants to communicate abroad we take a native speaker. To say the least, this is a too optimistic and non realistic post. Have a good week . Gila (blogging at effectiva.co.il ) :-)

  8. Mina says:

    I also understand the terms commonly used in English. With your article, I need are encouraged to learn some more. It is important, as you suggest, the article should use a common vocabulary is easy to understand. In addition to using local culture as part of how I made ​​the article. Thank you very much.

  9. Faizan says:

    Nice post. Very helpful. Thanks a lot !!

  10. You convinced me to start blogging in english :)

  11. Timothy says:

    Finally, this topic is discussed. One difficulty that I experienced is when I was trying to submit my articles to some websites that require the writers to write articles that ‘sound’ natural as they were written by native English speaker. I have tried my best to proofread my article, but eventually always fail. I wonder if we can somehow to reach the same writing ability like native English writers. Do you think it’s something that we should achieve as non-native English writers?

  12. Lusine says:

    As non native, since I am having the same problem myself, while writing posts in English. I liked especially what you said about the articles being written clearly and in understandable words.

  13. Sander says:

    Thank you….
    Some times I think in leave my English blog and write just in Portuguese, but now I changed my mind…
    Maybe one day I’ll have to write just in one language, but if this day arrive I’ll leave the Portuguese one.