Tips for Writing Sentences in a Foreign Language - for Beginners
Having studied 3 foreign languages at varying degrees of intensity and success - Japanese (I flatter myself to be fluent), Spanish (I can ask some simple questions and possibly crudely insult someone), French (I can say a few well-sounding phrases and then smile & nod when you respond). When beginning studies in languages, one of the most challenging things is to jump from the set beginner phrases from the textbook into creating your own sentences (gasp).
From my own language studies, plus experience TA'ing first year Japanese, I have a few tips for beginners on taking that leap into creating your own sentences. These will probably lean heavily on Japanese because that is the language I have the most experience with, but they are applicable to other languages too.
1. Just start making sentences!
It sounds simple, but it's the best way to start. Writer's block? Write about what you are doing, what you want to do, or write an introduction. Worried about speaking? Talk to yourself about what you are doing, what you want to do, or introduce yourself to yourself. You don't have to write or say anything world-shaking, but getting started is the first step. You can start by modeling sentences you've already seen. If you have an example textbook sentence, try modifying it to make your own similar sentence.
PS. Your sentences don't have to be perfect either. If you notice a mistake later, just go back and correct yourself!
2. Don't try to translate the phrase from your native language EXACTLY into your target language.
Languages don't always translate exactly, but also, sometimes your skill isn't advanced enough to say the same things you can say in your native language. If you don't yet know the appropriate grammar, vocabulary, or syntax of what you want to say, not being able to say exactly what you want can be frustrating and lead you to feel defeated (personal experience here). Instead, think of how to put the idea you have into a sentence using the knowledge you DO have.
If you have just started learning a language, it might be too much to directly translate "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily" (thanks, Ockham's Razor). Instead, why not try to translate "Simple is best"?
3. Avoid heading straight for the dictionary if possible when there is a word you don't know in your target language.
If you don't have the vocabulary word you need in a sentence, you might be tempted to go to the dictionary and look it up and throw it into your sentence. Whilst TA'ing first-year Japanese, this led to me puzzling and scratching my head over what the student was trying to say in their homework (hey, it's not my first language either!).
While using the dictionary to learn new vocabulary is obviously a must, when you are just starting out with sentence building it can also be a roadblock. When conjugating verbs is new to you, try using the verbs you do know to explain your idea. If you don't know a vocabulary word, selecting the right one for your context from a list of words with similar definitions can be difficult. If you don't quite know how to explain what you want to say, try rephrasing it until you can compose a less complicated sentence. Or break it into several sentences - you can work on complicated sentences when you're more comfortable with simpler ones!
Another bonus is that learning to explain what you want to say in your target language when you don't know the vocabulary is a helpful lifelong skill (that I still use today in Japanese). It can be frustrating to not be able to say exactly what you want to say in your target language at first, but if you just keep practicing you will get there.
4. Practice making sentences on the fly.
Writing allows you more time to think out the sentence, go back and make changes, and work things out more slowly. Speaking, on the other hand, is more challenging because you have to make your mouth form the words you are thinking, and do your best to make the sentence make sense to your listener. While writing sentences helps me to remember how to write hiragana/katakana/kanji and reinforces grammar (I learn best by writing it out!), speaking out loud helps your brain and your mouth learn to work together in your target language.
Don't have anyone to talk to? That's ok! Talk to yourself. Talk to your imaginary friends. Talk to your pet or your houseplant or your favorite figurine or stuffed animal. Just practice putting sentences together out loud, in real time. I promise you will notice improvement if you practice daily!
5. Don't be afraid of making mistakes!
But even if you do just throw in the dictionary word and your professor/study buddy/language exchange partner has to ask you what you were trying to say, that's ok! Making mistakes is ok! That's how you learn. Don't be afraid to be wrong, to be mocked and ridiculed.. ok, you most likely won't be mocked and ridiculed. (If you are, please find new language friends.)
Language learning is about making mistakes. Even now, after YEARS of studying and speaking and even doing interpretation/translation... I make mistakes (gasp). And it's ok. Ok, sometimes I think about the mistakes I have made in conversation in the middle of the night, but I'm working on that too. One day, you'll look back, and realize that agonizing over particles and which kanji to use and whether or not you would sound dumb when you were speaking to a native speaker is not the part you remember. You will remember when you could barely write your name in katakana, and realize that suddenly you can talk about your favorite hobby in exacting detail.
6. Don't practice in a vacuum.
Practicing sentences, written or spoken, on your own is fine! It's a great way to learn and improve your language skills. But I would recommend not spending all your time studying and practicing in a vacuum. There are lots of online ways to get your writing or speaking corrected (paid or not), and I would recommend taking advantage of them. I have gotten into the habit of using certain words that are too informal or that are not correct in the context I wanted to use them in, and it took a native speaker to point them out since I had become so used to using them (and so sure that I was right). So make sure to practice your language outside of your own head, and you will be able to improve even more.
So, what next?
Get out there and start making sentences! Write them, say them, and just practice. Don't stress about being perfect or making sentences that will change the course of history... instead, just start making sentences!
i think the reason i love studio ghibli as much as i do is because it encompasses everything i love about life. wearing clothes that make you feel young and free that you can run and jump and climb trees in. the sense of peace that only comes from sitting on a train watching scenes move by the in windows, walking through the city at night, reading on a bench. the way there is so much grief and pain and hardship in each movie, and the world being torn apart but in spite of that, there is wholesomeness and warmth in bowls of noodles and dinner with your family and singing loudly without worrying about what your voice sounds like, and if you love someone enough it doesn’t matter that the world is falling apart around you. it’s about romanticising the little things in life, the hot mug of tea, that moment in the streetlight in the rain, the sunrise looking pretty through your little window; and it’s about the quiet, soft, warm moments you share with other people through those. those the things i cling onto in life, the small moments of joy that make life worth living.