6

I am a Japanese student learning English, and one of my current goals is to learn to write texts in such a way that no reader will realize I am not a native speaker. I am humbly seeking advice on how to reach that end. To clarify, I do not intend to become a great writer, but I want to write research articles, short stories, and news articles like a native speaker. There may have been somewhat similar questions on this SE, but the focus of my question is on avoiding exposing myself as a non-native speaker rather than on merely writing good.

Sure, the most important thing is to avoid making mistakes that no native speaker would make, but that's the easiest part. After all, I can simply use only those expressions and grammatical constructions that I am sure about. In case of doubt, I can always check things in Google. I know that I should take utmost care about prepositions, which are my Achilles heel at the moment, but that's manageable.

So my question is about what is beyond merely ensuring that no mistake slips in. To clarify, I find that practically all articles written in English by the academic stuff of my university in Japan read quite differently from articles and books written by native English speakers. Being a non-native English speaker myself, I see the following differences:

  • Expressions. Texts written by non-native speakers often abound in non-standard lengthy expressions that could be worded simpler as well as in repetitively used grammatical constructions. Native speakers, in contrast, are much more effective and versatile in expressing their thoughts and use idiomatic expressions more frequently. They manage to express complex things in very few words. To write like native speakers, I strive to recall and use expressions seen or heard by me before rather than to construct my own expressions.

  • Word choice. Many non-native speakers either always use very simple words or sometimes make weird word choices, choosing rare words for no reason. Native speakers mainly use simple words, but occasionally insert rare words whose flavor perfectly fits the context and the intended meaning.

  • Style and structure. Native speakers tend to carefully structure their texts, breaking them into small paragraphs and starting each paragraph with a new idea, which is then explained or commented on in the paragraph itself. Furthermore, native speakers tend to express their thoughts very precisely. In contrast, many non-native speakers choose a somewhat chaotic (or, to put it differently, more complex) text structure and often write somewhat vaguely, not caring to sharpen the picture, so to speak.

My question is primarily addressed to native English speakers and is this: What else should I pay attention to? Apart from the things listed above, how do you recognize whether the author of a text is a native speaker? I would be grateful for any advice that could help me reach my goal.

  • 4
    I read many questions and answers in several different sites. And I often notice that easily understood texts still well written contain odd sentence structure or phrases that are not used in formal English or usual slang either. So I suspect that the writers write English much better than I could write any foreign langue but are not native English speakers. So I think it is a lot easier to write English well enough that no English speaker is annoyed that you are not a native speaker than to write in English well enough that no English speaker notices that you are not a native speaker. – M. A. Golding Feb 9 at 17:11
  • @M.A.Golding : >> So I think it is a lot easier to write English well enough that no English speaker is annoyed that you are not a native speaker than to write in English well enough that no English speaker notices that you are not a native speaker << I fully agree, and this is why I asked my question. I do not want anyone to notice that I am not a native speaker. So I want to know what pitfalls that I am not aware of are there. – Mitsuko Feb 9 at 18:09
  • 1
    Being a non-native speaker is cool - props to you for being bilingual, I don't see why you are worried about this. But I will tell you that reading your question above is written very well and I wouldn't think a non-native English speaker wrote it. I think you have it nailed down – Tasch Feb 11 at 0:36
  • 1
    @Tasch : Thanks a lot for such a compliment. You are a native speaker yourself, right? I felt it is still a long way for me to becoming a writer who can pass as a native speaker. And that feeling was deepened each time I read articles written like this. One of the reasons why I want to write like a native speaker is that this ability will open more career prospects for me (e.g., an author for an English-speaking newspaper). – Mitsuko Feb 12 at 21:19
  • 1
    Mitsuko - then, by all means, go for it. I'm just saying I think you're well on your way and I can't see anything that screams "Non-native English speaker!" – Tasch Feb 13 at 2:19
4

First, what you have written is very good, similar to (and honestly, better than) I've seen coming from native speakers of the language. That said, there are some ways you could have tweaked what you've written to have made it seem more natural.

Some examples:

and one of my current goals is to learn to write texts in such a way that no reader will realize I am not a native speaker.

...and one of my current goals is to write in such a way that no one will realize I'm not a native speaker.

Here, for instance, a native writer would rely more on context. Saying "texts" and "readers" is redundant; if you're discussing writing, by default you're talking about writing text. If you were talking about poetry or song lyrics or advertising copy, something other than what we'd refer to as "text", then you'd specify it. Similarly, since you're talking about writing, you don't have to use "readers" in reference to other people. You're communicating via writing, by definition (unless they're using text-to-speech software) the others you're communicating with must be readers.

but the focus of my question is on avoiding exposing myself as a non-native speaker rather than on merely writing good.

...rather than merely writing well. That's a simple grammar mistake.

which are my Achilles heel at the moment

...which is my Achilles' heel at the moment (or Achilles's, opinions differ). In any event, simple grammar error.

To write like native speakers, I strive to recall and use expressions seen or heard by me before rather than to construct my own expressions.

What you've written isn't wrong by any means, but it comes across as somewhat stilted. Someone writing in a more natural style would probably say have written something like:

To write like native speakers, I try to remember and use expressions I've seen or heard before rather than construct my own.

Word choice. Many non-native speakers either always use very simple words or sometimes make weird word choices, choosing rare words for no reason.

Amusingly, you've nailed it here: using "weird" is something a native speaker is likely to do. In a more formal style, someone might use "unusual" or "strange", but using "weird", at least in my dialect of English, comes across as very natural.

That aside, something that would alert me is not using contractions.

I am a Japanese student learning English, and one of my current goals is to learn to write texts in such a way that no reader will realize I am not a native speaker. I am humbly seeking advice on how to reach that end.

To clarify, I do not intend to become a great writer...

...and grammatical constructions that I am sure about.

I would be grateful...

Not using I'm, I don't, and I'd would make me wonder. Even in formal settings, using I am constantly would stand out.

As to how to improve, and since you are specifically talking about writing rather than speaking, I'd say read a lot, fiction and non-fiction, but most importantly read contemporary material. Writing styles can change significantly over time, and if you don't want to seem anomalous now, you need to read what is being written in recent years, not something from decades past. Bontë and Austen and Dickens wrote very well, as obvious examples, but no one would write like that now.

| improve this answer | |
  • Wow, thanks a lot for such a detailed analysis, it is really helpful. – Mitsuko Feb 12 at 21:17
4

There are only two ways to accomplish this:

  1. Listen to and read LOTS of English to grow accustomed to how we say things. Can take years to reach the goal of being undetectable, but it won’t take nearly as long to get to where the average reader doesn’t notice.

  2. Get a native speaker who is both a good writer and has linguistic training to help you edit what you’re writing.

But like someone else already said, if your writing is comprehensible, don’t worry about it.

| improve this answer | |
2

For your point #3 (Style and structure) I found that essay writing is a very important part of "English speaking" curriculum, while in other countries it may be neglected (particularly if your major is not in humanities).

Obvious answer here is a lot of practice. You can benefit a lot if your can take an English writing class where your teacher will review your essays and suggest a number of improvements. At some point in the past, I considered myself already fluent in English (i.e. had sufficient vocabulary and grammar knowledge), yet writing even a simple essay was a very daunting task. With more practice, this had become easier, though I'm still not quite at the level of a college educated native speaker.

| improve this answer | |
1

It's going to take time to know English to the point that it's going to be unmistakable from native English. I would suggest exposing yourself to the language, and soon, the average reader won't be able to tell the difference.

It's honestly just practicing English until others can't tell.

| improve this answer | |
1

The writing in your question already sounds like a native speaker to me, so you're well on your way. Some areas to practice:

  • Find out what weaknesses people with your native language tend to have. In addition to prepositions, Mandarin speakers tend to struggle with verb tenses. Hindi speakers tend to use "reach" to mean "arrive". I don't know what mistakes are common for Japanese speakers, but English speakers in Japan probably do.
  • Read the style guide. You mentioned in the comments that you are interested in writing jobs. Almost every organization that employs writers has a style guide. The rules aren't always intuitive, even to native speakers. US newspapers have variations, but most are based off the AP Stylebook. It contains everything from the proper American spelling of words to when to use "black" instead of "African-American" to the proper term for a Mormon church. Newspapers also have their own paragraph style called the inverted pyramid. Academics, board-game publishers, scriptwriters, etc will all have different style guides.
  • If you use a thesaurus or translator, look up the definition of the word you choose. Young native English speakers also go through a phase where they choose random words to replace with fancier words from a thesaurus. They don't yet realize that every word has a slightly different meaning. Using thesauri and Japanese-English dictionaries when you think a more precise word would be useful is great, you simply need to check the resulting word means what you want it to.
  • Practice writing five-paragraph essays. You mention that native speakers tend to have strong topic sentences. A student in the US will probably write 50+ five-paragraph essays over the course of their education. College teachers complain about the five-paragraph essay all the time, but I would think of it like having a basis in Newtonian physics before learning relativity.
  • Read memes, puns, and authors known for word-play. The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket is a children's series that makes great use of word-play. Poets may be a good resource as well. These authors will show you how far you can stretch the English language.
  • Take risks. You'll learn faster if you're willing to make mistakes. Find a trusted native speaker or an anonymous online forum and try writing jokes or puns. Experiment with more convuluted sentence structure. Ask for feedback and explanations if something confuses you. This will allow you to make the leap from copying English writers to being a great English writer yourself.

Honestly, I find that non-native speakers tend to structure their writing more precisely than native speakers. Most of us native speakers are lazy. Most of us also aren't professional writers, and there are also professional writers of English for whom English is known to be a second language. There are poets who sprinkle their writing with native Spanish and novelists who write about their life growing up in the Middle East. Bilingual journalist is even its own job category on hiring sites.

In any case, best of luck.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.