Letter from the UK: Learning a Foreign Language Will Make You a Better Writer

Learning a foreign language is, I believe, one of the most useful ways to improve your writing skills.

The modern day English language is a flexible, ever-evolving language. It’s developed from Saxon, Celtic, Old Norse, and Norman French, with words borrowed from Arabic, Greek, Hindi, Latin, and many other languages.

Cluedo box

This diversity of influences means English sentences can be ambiguous at times. If we use Cluedo (known as Clue in the USA) as an analogy, an English sentence can sometimes leave the reader uncertain who was the victim, who was the murderer, and which murder weapon was used.

English grammar is not a strict, formal body of rules that describe the structure of expressions, but more a set of guidelines.

When native English speakers do need to write clear, unambiguous sentences, they can find it hard to learn the underlying rules of the language. Foreign languages, such as German, have a more formal grammar, so it can be much easier for people to spot and understand the key parts in a sentence.

If we use the Cluedo analogy again, in German, it’s much clearer who was the murderer (the subject), who was the victim (the direct object), and what was the murder weapon (the indirect object). So by learning the rules of German, you get to understand the underlying rules of English. The result is, you begin to spot ways in which you can make your English sentences clearer.

Learning a foreign language also teaches you that the world doesn’t always see everything in the same way that you do. For example, 10.30 AM in English is “half past ten,” but in German it’s “half eleven” (“halb elf”). We look back to the hour before in England, and they look forward to the hour that is coming in Germany.

Where the English language might have one word for an object, a foreign language might have many different words in order to distinguish between slight variations that are important in their culture. Finding out about these modalities can mean you learn to see the world in new and different ways.

So, as the Germans would put it, learn a foreign language, and become a better writer!

Ellis Pratt is director at Cherryleaf, a UK technical writing services company. Ranked the most the influential blogger on technical communication in Europe, Ellis is a specialist in the field of creating clear and simple information users will love.

0 Replies to “Letter from the UK: Learning a Foreign Language Will Make You a Better Writer”

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Ellis! I would be a much worse writer, even in my native German, if I hadn’t learned English. So in my case, it’s learning English that taught me to appreciate German and how it works.

    When it comes to technical communication, I think knowing two languages and their different contexts of saying the same thing helps me to appreciate the difference between how an engineer or developer explains a product and how a customer or user might understand it.

    1. Thanks Kai.

      I only really appreciated the order of words in English (“the manner, the time and then the place”) by learning the order of words in German (“time, manner, place”).

      The word “it” can be so ambiguous in English. This ambiguity is the basis of a great deal of British comedy, but it has its downsides when you’re communicating instructions.

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