I only endorse software, books and other websites when I think that they are truly excellent in some regard. I’m always hesitant to review what other people send to me for the simple reason that it might influence my judgement of these products, and even if it doesn’t, you as a reader might still think it does. Thus, the recommendations I publish are few and far in between. Today, it’s time for another recommendation, this time to help you improve your Chinese in general and your writing in particular.
The basic problem: Lack of correction
There are numerous reasons why, but most students lack people who correct what they write when they learn a foreign language. Sure, we have friends, teachers and so on, but if you write a lot (which you should do), it’s not easy to find people who are willing to correct your texts, at least not if you care the least about not overburdening your friends (see this article for more about this).
Writing is in itself helpful to learn, but if we receive no feedback at all, we have no way of learning from the mistakes we’re making. This is a missed opportunity. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to remedy.
The solution: Enter Lang-8
The basic concept behind Lang-8 is simple and brilliant. It’s a language exchange system, but instead of be reciprocal (i.e. I teach you Swedish, you teach me Chinese), you fill in your native language and target language when you register. You will then receive corrections on texts you write in your target language, while you help people learning your native language to improve. That means that there is no shortage of people willing to help you.
Lang-8 is excellent mostly because it will give you almost instant feedback on what you write (I typically receive feedback within a couple of hours, never later than one day). No articles are left uncorrected and you don’t need to ask your friends if they have time to help you every single time you have a question.
Of course, you need to help other people to study your language (otherwise people will stop correcting what you write), but I find this surprisingly pleasant and I have corrected far more articles than I have been corrected myself. Also, correcting short articles or sentences in your native language is quite easy and goes very quickly.
Lang-8 is free and can be used as much as you want without paying. There are several features that are available only for premium members, but I’ve been using the site for some time with a free account and it works just fine. The extra features look good, but aren’t at all necessary.
Users can colour words, cross out and in different ways highlight things they think ought to be changed. The original author can then ask questions or discuss word usage and other native speakers can comment.
Some words of advice on how to use Lang-8
- Start with sentences rather than longer texts, especially if you haven’t studied Chinese for very long. Writing a few sentences a day is very easy, but regularly posting long diary entries in harder to keep up. Make sentences based on words you’ve learnt recently or words you find difficult to use.
- Short articles are corrected more quickly than long ones. This means that you can and should break down long texts into smaller parts, simply because this encourages more people to read what you’ve written (avoid walls of text). If you include questions for the reader, you can also start conversations, find friends and so on.
- Spread the website to Chinese people, because the more native speakers we have, the better the system works. If you know anyone who is learning English, for instance, let them know about Lang-8. This will help both your friend and yourself (and me for that matter).
- Reward people who help you. Do this through the built-in reward system (you can give stars to people who correct your articles, give more stars for more ambitious corrections, give extra stars if people answer your follow-up questions). Remember that being corrected is an art you need to master.
- Avoid correcting people who have huge amounts of written entries, but refuse to help other people. This means that they are leeches, exploiting the system for their own advantage without being prepared to give anything in return. Check their stats and see if they look okay, then go ahead with correcting and encouraging them.
- Translation is an excellent way of practising if you don’t know what to write. Simply translate something from a book, an article or a song. Try to avoid very long texts and texts that require much knowledge that isn’t included in the text itself. If possible, provide the original English.
Native speakers and native speakers
As I have argued elsewhere, there is a huge difference between native speakers and native speakers. Some might be language teachers, others might have dropped out of school. Some are from Beijing, some from Shanghai and others from Taiwan. Some read hundreds of books every year, others nothing. Some are sloppy, some are meticulous. I’ve had people who say that an article is extremely good, better than something some native speakers would produce, only to have 50 corrections in the same article by another native speaker five minutes later. Oh, well.
What I want to say is that just because a native speaker corrects your texts it doesn’t necessarily imply that the corrections are justified or that the remaining text (the non-corrected text) doesn’t have room for improvement. However, in a vast majority of cases, any native speaker can still help you, especially if you’re a beginner or an intermediate learner. More advanced learners will still benefit, but should be a bit cautious about taking every single correction at face value.
This is your goal for the coming week: Write at least one entry every day. It can be anything from one sentence up to several paragraphs, it’s up to you. I refuse to believe that people are so busy that they can’t write one sentence per day, so you have no excuse for not doing this.
If you feel that it’s difficult to come up with good ideas for articles, then fear not, I have an article scheduled dealing with that very problem. In the meantime, here are some topics/questions you can use for your first seven articles:
- Why are you learning Chinese?
- Write about where you live
- Write about what you did this morning
- Something that made you sad recently
- Something that made you happy recently
- Translate something from your native language
- What are your plans for the weekend?