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If English Isn’t Your First Language – An Open Letter To Writers

First, I only speak and read one language, and that’s American English. It’s my native language. I grew up with it.

lots of languagesWhile I have a smattering of Spanish and a few words of French, I’m a typical American, with only one language.

I live in San Diego which is close to Mexico and sometimes I’m embarrassed I don’t speak more Spanish, but so far, not enough to really do anything about it.

Although the majority of visitors to this site come from countries where English is the native language, a surprising number come from India, the Philippians, and Africa. In fact Google Analytics tells me people from 135 countries visited this site in the last 30 days speaking some 66 languages.

I know many of you speak and read at least two languages and often more than that. I’m impressed, really.

I occasionally get email from you. Often I can hardly tell that you’re not a native speaker and writer of English which means you can compete for freelance writing jobs in the U.S.

But sometimes it’s so obvious you don’t speak and write English well. Sure, you speak and write it better than I do your language, but not nearly well enough to get paid as a writer here and in other countries that publish in English.

Here is an example:

Hello Mam

I read many guiding articles for writers and I really found them interesting. I am a dental student in India and I am interested in freelance writing as I want to become financially independent to some extent. So mam please guide me how can I start as I am not getting any oppurtunity despite of searching for couple of months. Waiting for your guidance. Thankyou.

While the English here is good enough for me to understand what the reader wants, it’s very far from being a sample of writing that’s good enough to sell.

I really didn’t at first know what to do or say when I got this email. It touches me; I want to help. So I thought for a moment, then I tried something I’ve never done before.


I googled hindi writing opportunities. (I had to first look up languages in India to even know what language to try – blush.)  There are almost two-million pages. Now I’m sure only a handful or so, have jobs that a native writer in Hindi land and get paid for, but they’re their if you dig.

Next I tried spanish writing jobs. There are millions of pages. Yes, native Spanish speakers can get paid for writing in that language.

And so it is with every language I can think of.

Then I noticed translation which is a whole industry of it’s own. It may well be you don’t speak and write English well enough yet to publish here, but you can start doing some translation.

In other words, look beyond the United States and England for work. Look to your own country and language. Keep working on your English if you want, but don’t overlook writing jobs in your first language. There are lots of opportunities for writers in languages other than English.

Come back here to learn the ins and outs of the writing business, then take those tips and suggestions and become a star in the language you speak best. When your English is really good you’ll be able to write and get paid in both languages.

What languages do you write in?

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Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by woodleywonderworks

{ 23 comments… add one }
  • paul

    you know not all indians speak hindi right? instead of googling hindi writing opportunities why dont you google rudyard kipling and educate yourself?

    • Paul, yes, I do know that not all Indians speak Hindi. The approach of googling job opportunities in whatever your native or best language still works, or can.

  • Cellene

    Interesting topic! Dutch is my native language, yet I am writing my memoir in English, having lived in Australia and the USA over the last 20 odd years. The question that now pops up for me, which language am I really writing in, English, Aus or American ? A little scary as I have been “penning”away for some years now 🙂 I also realise, that I make words up that fit within the English context of what I am writing about. Perhaps before I submit anything to a publisher, should I run my copy past a manuscript editor? Would this not “sterilise” the content, hence the intent of the copy?
    PS. Anne, there is a “typo” in your opening letter – In the para – Hindi writing opportunities – ” but they’re their if you dig.” English is a pedantic language at times:).

    • Cellene, yes you should definitely run your manuscript past a freelance editor who is either a native speaker of the version of English your intended publisher(s) use, or at least is very experienced in editing in it. If you were writing something other than a memoir, a publisher might accept the manuscript and either have the editing in-house or outsource it to a freelancer (I’m working on a book right now for a major academic publisher where authors whose native language is Hindi are writing in English for an American audience); publishers will do that to get authors with particular expertise. But as a memoir is more something you’d be selling to the publisher than the other way around, you don’t want the publisher passing on it just because the English isn’t spot on.

      A good editor won’t “sterlise” (or as I would say, “sterlize”) your content. Unless you want a higher level of editing that goes to style, just ask the editor to check that the writing conforms to whatever version of English you need.

      Here’s an additional tip: if you’re aiming for a particular publisher, find out what style guide that publisher follows (e.g., in the United States it’s almost always the “Chicago Manual of Style”). An already copy-edited, correctly formatted manuscript is more likely to get favorable consideration not only because it is an easier read for whoever is evaluating it, but the publisher won’t have to invest as much of its resources getting it publication-ready as it might another project that hadn’t been through the editing process.

      • Anne

        Right on, Brooke – I’d also comment that breaking a style is okay if there’s a good reason to do so.

    • Anne

      Ahhh, what a great question – what ‘English’ are you writing in!

      A good editor won’t deaden your writing at all. But you’d have to be sure they were comfortable with your various Englishes as it were.

      And yes, you busted me on the typo… and I would never have seen it. Thanks.

  • Allena made an excellent point with regards to translation. You need a very good knowledge of the source and targeted languages. That also includes cultural nuances, idioms and features that often only come from an actual living experience in a foreign locale.

    If your native tongue is Hindi or Spanish, you should focus on Hindi or Spanish to English. Not the other way around. Many assume that bilingual ability denotes the ability to translate the written word, or interpret the spoken word, in both directions. Translators usually focus in the direction of a targeted tongue to their native language. They are called language pairs.

    A suggestion for those with English as a second language who would like to explore the translation market: Focus on a specialty area or genre. Most likely, your English literacy will be higher in an area of expertise. It also will help your translations for the target audience and simultaneously increase your written English fluency. For example, I focus on Italian and Spanish to English translations for international soccer. I am more proficient with Italian to English; however, a focus on Spanish has increased my literacy with that language.
    Steve Amoia recently posted..About My WorkMy Profile

    • “If your native tongue is Hindi or Spanish, you should focus on Hindi or Spanish to English. Not the other way around. ”

      Correction: English to Hindi or Spanish if your native tongue was not English. One usually focuses on the foreign source language translated to the tongue of your target audience. For example, Italian to English for someone from an English-language country. Or English to Italian for those from Italian-speaking countries or primary backgrounds.

      Please excuse the error that was lost in translation. 🙂
      Steve Amoia recently posted..About My WorkMy Profile

  • Do most of you all skip English and Canadian writing jobs? I do. I want to turn it absolutely pitch perfect work for my clients and I know that I don’t have a grasp on their colloquialisms. I did some Australian English work at the beginning of my career and it was a nightmare.

    Love the translation suggestion. There’s a lot of money in SPn-Eng translation but you MUST have a firm grasp on both languages.
    allena recently posted..I Made $800 Bucks…That We Won’t See Til SpringMy Profile

    • Anne

      I’ve actually done a spot of writing for a Brit or two 😉 But you’re right, Allena, they hired me knowing they were going to have to translate at least some into their own idiom. When someone from Canada, England, NZ or Oz contact me we talk about the fact that my English is American – then it’s up to them to hire me, knowing that, or not.

    • Do I skip the alternative English jobs? Nope. I’m forthright about being US born and bred, though I’m fairly familiar with the punctuation rule differences between US and UK/AU English.

      I’ve had clients all over the place. They don’t mind. 😉

  • Anne: I love how you discovered possible solutions. I’m not sure I would have come up with the idea of what to research.

    I don’t know if this would work or apply, but I have worked with several individuals where English was not their native language, but they spoke perfect English. However, when it came to writing in English, you’d never know it was the same person. I don’t know why, but it was a very common occurrence.

    Perhaps if that applies to someone, they could try the recording software to create their English documents. Just a though. Again, I have no idea how effective it would be.
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Posts in Friday Lite ReviewMy Profile

    • I am quite the opposite of what Cathy describes.
      I enjoy writing and I like the fact that I have the time to go over the manuscript and edit it. Typos, prepositions (as much as I study these, they always tend to trick me, lol), word choice, etc.
      When speaking English, I often find myself at a loss for words and wishing I had a dictionary at hand, because I like expressing myself accurately. Plus I have this somewhat heavy Greek accent that makes me sound like a naive country-girl trying to communicate with the civilized… Dreadful! 😀

      Speaking in absolute sizes, the English-speaking market is huge; the Greek-speaking market, on the other hand, is tiny. The choice is obvious, I think.

      • They trick all of us, Helenee! 🙂 You really have done a masterful job. I’m like Anne, English is it for me, and for that, I’m very, very sorry. I took Spanish in high school and could conjugate, but not speak it. I loved in San Diego, too, for 20 years and was always sorry I wasn’t fluent – not even close.

        I have a feeling you are a bit hard on yourself when it comes to speaking English. In any event, take pride in what you have accomplished. It’s a whole lot more than I can say – in any language. 🙂
        Cathy Miller recently posted..Posts in Friday Lite ReviewMy Profile

        • Make that lived in San Diego – typos in any language are just as harsh. 😀
          Cathy Miller recently posted..Posts in Friday Lite ReviewMy Profile

        • Well, when it comes to speaking English, I have embraced the principle that says, ‘Turn your weaknesses into strengths’.
          Meaning, I have accepted it and, furthermore, I have come to l i k e being perceived as a foreigner who knows how to write well in English, who has grown in a different culture and has, consequently, a different point of view sometimes, etc. I have turned it into a card I can play. 😉

          • Anne

            Where are you from, Helenee – what’s your native language? I admire people with more than one language.

    • Anne

      Good thought, Cathy, and see, you’ve come up with a solution I’d not thought of. I wonder how much of what you describe is what I call ‘fear of a blank page’ which so often results in poor writing – ooooo another post idea..

  • That’s a great example of thinking outside the box Anne! A great suggestion for non-native English speakers, & kind of you to suggest it to them. On a similar note, it’s funny you should discuss this today – I do a lot of scientific manuscript editing for authors who do not speak English as their first language. This morning I received an email that floored me – an author telling me that their paper was rejected for its English content after I’d edited it! Having been writing and editing scientific journal articles since 1993, this was a first for me. I sat down to tackle the comments from reviewers, and when I brgan reading the manuscript submitted by the author, it became immediately obvious as to why it was rejected for its English content. The author had barely accepted any of my edits, and additionally had added some new ones of his own as extras, to boot! I’ve already spent a very frustrating few hours addressing a problem that I shouldn’t be addressing. With more hours to come this weekend….I’m now trying to remain calm!
    Nicky Parry recently posted..Take Your Vitamins?My Profile

    • Anne

      Nicky, great story although I’m sorry the author was so arrogant to fail to use your suggestions. I hope you’re getting paid for some of those hours! I probably should do a post on either arrogant clients or arrogant writers… or maybe two.

    • Nicky, I feel your frustration. I stopped freelancing for self-publishing houses in part because they’d let the authors undo my work. The most memorable one involved someone rejecting almost all my spelling and grammatical changes to revert to sentences that didn’t even start with capital letters. I had to go through and not only change everything back, but explain to the author why his version was wrong, which meant giving him page numbers for Strunk and White, CMS, and of course all those words in Merriam-Webster. This was because the publisher didn’t really have control over the author because the author was paying for publication.

      I now work almost exclusively for traditional publishing houses, who have much less fear of telling the author that in matters regarding spelling or grammar in which reasonable people could not differ, the editor’s changes will be incorporated. My favorites lock the manuscript so that the author needs to discuss why he or she doesn’t want to accept one of my changes instead of just rejecting it.

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