Posted on | January 19, 2011 | 12 Comments
The best way to improve writing is … to read more.
This morning someone from Taiwan pinged me in Skype. I could not remember why she was on my contact list. I probably added her a few years ago when I was trying to improve my Mandarin.
She told me she wanted to improve her English writing skill, and asked if I knew any native English speakers who would like to be her Chinese/English language exchange penpal. I simply told her to read more, and I guaranteed her that by doing so her writing would improve tremendously.
I used to have a few penpals some years ago when I tried to work on my French writing. My writing was so poor at that time that I struggled a lot. I would basically write the text in English, let Google Translate to do the initial translation (back then it was still using the old translation engine). Then I would make corrections and polish it up before sending it out.
Personally, I am not a fan of language penpal. It is not an effective method to improve your writing. Regardless of your writing skill, there are fundamental problems with language penpal.
We cannot improve writing by writing
No matter how much you write, you cannot write better than your existing knowledge of the language. This is true for both your native and non-native languages. If you are poor in the language, you just cannot write more to improve it. You first need to read more to build your vocabulary and gain better proficiency in the language.
The alternative way is to read more. Stephen Krashen in his book “The Power of Reading” quoted scientific studies which prove that writing more does not improve writing. Instead, writing style comes from reading. Reading can also help building vocabulary.
Correcting mistakes is no fun
With language penpal, you are supposed to correct mistakes made by the other person so that he will learn from them. He is supposed to do the same for you. But correcting mistakes is not a fun thing to do, neither is reading broken sentences. You have already put in a lot of effort to write, now you have to spend time correcting. It is not a wise way to spend your language learning time. If you just want your writing to be corrected, why not try crowd-sourcing the task?
Artificial communication won’t last
If there is no genuine interest to communicate between the penpals except for language learning, you will soon run of of topics to discuss. One or both sides will drop very soon due to boredom.
Having said that, if any reader thinks that he has a “genuine interest” in becoming a penpal of my Taiwanese friend, let me know.