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English isn't my native tongue, but I've been writing novels in English for a while. Most of the time, I can be aware of what's grammatically correct and what's not. But making sure that a sentence sounds like one written by a native speaker is a harder task.

I've been trying the following:

  • Writing everyday (I try using simple words and simple sentences)
  • Reading every day (and check in the dictionary words that I don't know)
  • I copy paragraphs from my favorite novels (I read the paragraph once, I write it, and I correct the differences.) In the process, I check in the dictionary every word I don't know (or translate it to Spanish, my mother tongue).
  • Writing everyday
  • Check my sentences on Google Books (the more results the more confident I am. If there are zero results, then the sentence is probably wrong).

I'm not sure if these are the best ways of accomplishing what I want. Any suggestions? (other than looking for a native speaker to correct my work)?

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6 Answers 6

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If you want to write like a native speaker, you should also be listening. So listen to radio broadcasts, podcasts, and TV shows. (Movies can vary; because they are shorter, they can be narratively compressed, so dialogue is often more focused on moving the plot forward. TV shows have the luxury of time, so they can afford to have people just banter.)

In particular, try to find series: soap operas, long-running (four or more years) TV shows and podcasts, radio hosts who have been on for a long time. When you have character (or real-person) relationships which are ongoing, it becomes less important to tell a story and you can spend time just enjoying one another's company. So your speech is more relaxed, more "native." The idea is that this is how people actually talk to one another.

Also, try improvised or ad-libbed shows. Search on YouTube for "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" (the U.S. cast). People who are ad-libbing aren't thinking about how they're constructing sentences, so that's about as pure of "native" speech as you can get.

Record these and transcribe what you hear, if you can. That will give you something to compare your work to.

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EXPENSIVE WAY:

I would suggest living in a country like US and A or Canada for 2-3 months (or more) and going out a lot. With native speakers, of course ;).

CHEAP WAY:

Listening to PBS radio and watching/listening a lot of native speakers on Youtube.

I don't know how your brain works, but majority of people talk to themselves (talking to yourself = thinking) when they try to formulate their thoughts and sentences. Only a few geniuses see them, but that's maybe only 0.001% of the world's population. So, at first glance listening may seem not very important for you as a writer, but I would disagree.

Learning a whole scene from your favorite movie and replicating them will help you too. And last but not least ;) is talking to other people via chat, forums, stackexchange ;) and in online communities. Ideally with more mature and intelligent people and not with teenagers (unless your books are about teenagers).

Also, talking with foreigners from US and A and Canada is helpful. I am sure there are a lot of expats in Spain, especially if you are from Andalusia or Madrid. The only problem could be that majority of them are not from US and A but from Britain.

Btw, only a few non-native English writers are successful, because it takes a lot of time and work. I would suggest watching some Ray Kurzweil videos how the brain works, especially that videos about learning new things when you are older. It takes a lot more time, because your "exclusive" areas in your brain are already "inhabited" with old stuff. Young people have these areas "free" (it's much complicated, I am just simplifying things for now). Here is a link:

http://youtu.be/IKhF--gU5c8?t=6m50s

Watch this video from 6:50 (it's already been set to 6:50 in my link)

It will help you understand how human brain works with learning new languages.

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Thanks a a lot! I'll check the video. –  Alexandro Chen Mar 30 '13 at 7:46
    
Why do you say PBS rather than some other network? –  Jay Apr 2 '13 at 14:02
    
I think that PBS tunein.com/radio/PBS-Newshour-p47926 and NPR npr.org/player/v2/… are probably your best bet when you don't want listen to squeaky jingles and a lot of advertisement . As far as I know PBS and NPR are the only networks thata are not exclusively funded by commercials (except college radio/tv stations, of course). NPR & PBS are funded by public too and not exclusively from commercials, so therefor less "agressive" and "tabloid". E.g. I cannot stand how "obnoxious" anchors from FOX, CNN are for me (I am from Europe). –  Derfder Apr 2 '13 at 15:08
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The only authors I know that have mastered writing in a language not their native tongue have been living in the countries of their secondary language. To achieve a native level, you have to be immersed in the language continually for a significant time. If you spend most of your time in your own native tongue – even if you live in a foreign country but speak your native tongue with your family and friends at home –, the grammar and vocabulary of that language will remain dominant and always influence your secondary language.

If you want to know a language on a near-native level, you should keep that language apart from your mother tongue in your mind.

  1. Do not use bilingual dictionaries, do not translate text, but use a monolingual dictionary or sources like Wikipedia, and try to understand the meaning of the words you don't know from the context of their usage. This is really the first and most important advice: use English to understand English. Because if you use Spanish to understand English, your production of English will always originate in Spanish thinking or, even if you begin to form thoughts in English, continue to take the detour over Spanish, and in that way you will continue to inject Spanish grammar, vocabulary and style into English.

    Think of how children learn a language. They do not need to have it explained in another language, yet they learn it well. Learn a secondary language like a child learns its first, without the first-language crutch, and, I would say, even without grammar books. Your grasp of English must become intuitive, you should avoild congnitively constructing it.

  2. The internet is full of colloquial and secondary-language English. For example, I am not a native speaker, and I'm not writing English like a native speaker would. Yet, by reading my answer, you learn from me, if you want to or not. Other forums my be full of native speakers, but as you know from your own language, not every native speaker speaks their own laguage well or on a standard level. So expose yourself you the kind of English your want to learn and avoid bad English. Read books (fiction and non-fiction) and newspapers (subscribe to an English newspaper and read it every day), watch English tv and movies, listen to English radio and radio plays, etc. (English here means the language, of course, not the part of the UK.)

  3. Immerse yourself as completely in English as you can. Swith everything that you possibly can into English. Use an English operating system and the English versions of software. Spend your holidays in English speaking countries. I already mentioned newspapers and media.

    Our university hires native speakers as language teachers. They have a fixed-term contract limited to three years. After that the university hires another native speaker directly from their home country. The idea is, that if a native speaker of for example English lives in Germany for three years, his English will have begun to adapt to German and they will become unable to speak and teach English on a native level. Think about this, and implement the consequences in your strategy.

  4. Do not believe that age will hinder your learning. I know many adults who came to Germany as adults with no knowledge of German and they speak it fluently and without accent after a few years. The only difference between adults and children when it comes to learning a language is that children do nothing but learn the world through a language for the first years of their lives, and that as an adult you don't have the same level of motivation and dedication, because you already know the (relevant aspects of) the world and have other things to take care of like earning money. But if learning a secondary language becomes important enough for your survival and well-being, you will learn it easily enough despite your less flexible brain.

  5. Why don't you write in Spanish and hire a translator? Two large markets.

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If you want to write like a native speaker, try to read a variety of texts and learn to use phrasal verb and idioms. Most of the time, we are exposed to the formal English language in news channel and always use it as a formal language in our workplace. But native spaker won't speak in this way. They will use more informal language in daily conversations and informal writings such as diary. Try to get one or two friends using English as their native langauge and start to write to them using phrasal verbs and idioms in the format of diary or some casual online chat. That would improve your English a lot.

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I have three suggestions for you:

  1. Read what you write out loud. I'm a native speaker and sometimes just saying what I've written aloud helps me decide if it "sounds right." Because "sounds like" a native speaker is easier to hear when you say it aloud and actually hear the sounds.
  2. Read newspaper articles out loud. It will help you get used to reading out loud and you'll remember some phrases from it. Same goes for music. Sing along with the lyrics and you'll benefit as well.
  3. Use Google to search, not just Google books. I'm a native speaker and I do the same thing when I decide on word choice. I search the two phrasings I'm debating and then go for the one with more results if there is a huge difference. This is also how I decide if a phrase is American or British - by the URL.

This is based on my experience as a native speaker, editor, English teacher, and writer. Here is some more advice on how and why to read out loud: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/reading-aloud/

and here is some more on why saying things help you remember them:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201005/say-it-loud-i-m-creating-distinctive-memory

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There's no easy answer to this question, but tips, certainly.

Live in an English speaking country

This is the best tip. You'll be immersed in the language: people speaking it everywhere you go, newspapers, magazines, television, billboards, signs, and so on. I spent three years living in Germany and picked up more of the language "casually" than I ever did when I studied it at university.

Speak English as often as you can

If you're living in an English speaking country, then this should be no problem. The more you use a foreign language, the faster that language becomes your own.

The Internet

The Internet is a vast repository of the English language: newspapers, books, articles. From the complete works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, to today's news about what's happening in your city or town.

Read the Internet for pleasure, too. I imagine you have a few hobbies outside of writing -- let's say, for example, you're into art history. There are hundreds of websites in English devoted to the history of art: museums, art galleries, art appreciation sites, personal blogs. Enjoy.

In addition to reading, listen. Many news websites have video feeds (e.g. CNN, BBC) and Youtube is swamped with movies and TV programs, and countless homemade videos of everything, from explaining how to defrost your car to packing a suitcase.

Which English?

As a speaker of Spanish, you'll appreciate that the Spanish spoken in Madrid is different to that spoken in, say, Buenos Aires. Likewise, the English spoken in the United States is different to that spoken in England, or Australia, or India. So, if you're writing your novels in, say, London, it's probably not a great idea to bone up on the sentences of Australian English. Mate.

Books

You're doing this already, and continue to do so: Read, read, read.

Copying sentences out is actually a great idea. Getting forensic with a language, although time consuming, will not be time wasted. The closer you study something, the more you will learn.

What if you're not living in an English speaking country?

It'll be harder, for sure. Use the Internet and read books. And seek out native English speakers in your city -- if you're really lucky, find a bunch of them who hang out together (maybe they get together to play sports, put on plays, or have a book group).

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