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Writing essays in a foreign language

languages essayTeachers set students essays to ensure that they understand the topics they are studying, and test the ability to formulate a coherent argument. For language students, essay-based assignments are designed to test the student’s competence in writing formally and academically in a foreign language. Read on for University of Southampton modern languages student Elizabeth Grant's top tips on writing a winning essay.

When writing an essay in a foreign language, the student needs to show that they can do the following:

  • Use a wide range of vocabulary to communicate ideas
  • Use a wide range of vocabulary to communicate ideas
  • Understand the academic conventions of the foreign language
  • Show an understanding of the themes and key issues of the subject the essay is about
  • Use formal and/or academic language appropriately
  • Find appropriate and authentic sources in the target language
  • Write fluently using the correct grammar and sentence structure

Many of these points also apply to general subject essays in English, but many are specific to foreign language essays.

  • Make sure you understand the essay question. Ask your teacher to clarify if you are unsure. Once you have a clear understanding of what is required, break down the title, highlighting the key instruction (usually a verb e.g. ‘describe the effects of…; Analyse the importance of…’) so you know what you need to be researching. Make sure you know what the question is asking you to do: if it asks you to analyse, then don’t describe; if it asks you to compare and contrast, then don’t evaluate.
  • Use authentic resources in the target language to research your topic. Try using google.com/scholar and newspaper websites to find authentic sources, rather than using resources in English and translating them.
  • Draft a set of ‘research questions’ related to your essay to focus your research. Many things may be interesting, but not all of them are relevant. This will help you to ensure that you are answering the essay question clearly.
  • Look at other academic and formal pieces of writing in the target language. How they are structured? What sort of words do they use at the beginning of paragraphs and sentences? How do they introduce new ideas or contrasting concepts? Do they write using the first person ‘I’ or use the impersonal pronoun ‘one’? Try to emulate their style in your own essay.
  • Look up key vocabulary. For instance, the word ‘said’ is used very often in written text and it can get quite repetitive. Try to find five or more synonyms for words that you are bound to use over and over again (e.g. ‘said, good, bad, advantage, problem, disadvantage, people etc.’) For example, instead of using ‘said’ 100 times, you could use ‘she alleged; he admitted to; they claimed that; he described; she outlined etc.’ Also look up bridging phrases like however, therefore, nevertheless, in contrast, ergo, on the one hand, on the other hand etc.
  • Look up the writing conventions of the target language. In English, for instance, essays generally have a INTRODUCTION-BODY-CONCLUSION format. However in French, essays are structured as INTRODUCTION-ARGUMENT-COUNTER ARGUMENT-FURTHER COUNTER ARGUMENT-CONCLUSION. German, Spanish and most other languages have their own specific structural conventions that should be followed when writing an essay.
  • Try use more sophisticated language. Rather than saying ‘People do not like the fact that there are no jobs…’ find ways to say ‘The current lack of employment is causing distress among many people…’ for example. This will mean using more varied vocabulary and possibly more complicated grammar constructions.
  • Do plenty of reading in your target language. In other languages, sentences can be longer and more punctuated than they are in English. Equally, what may seem colloquial in English may in fact be acceptable in the academic forms of your Target Language. Reading in the target language will help you learn to identify and appropriate these differences as need be.
  • Try to think like a native speaker when developing ideas and arguments. When writing about Mussolini’s dictatorship, don’t just read about it as if it were a tale from history; imagine what it must have been like for the thousands of Italians living under such repression. Imagine how it felt to be a French Jew in Vichy France, or what would happen to the youth in Spain if the Spanish Film Board began banning the screening of any foreign film. Engage in the subject as much as you can to develop your own informed opinion and feelings about the issues.
  • Organise your arguments by paragraph. One paragraph per argument. Write your key arguments on post-its and rearrange them to find the best structure.
  • After writing your essay, leave it for a day or two and then come back to it. Read through it again. correcting grammar mistakes or things you think you can improve. If you haven’t already, try adding some more advanced constructions, such as the subjunctive or the conditional

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