Someone once asked me how I knew that they were writing in English but it wasn’t their first language. I didn’t really have to think about it, but at the same time I did. What I mean is that I knew instinctively that English wasn’t their first language, but I had to think about how I knew it.
Many of the things that tell me a writer is ESL (English as a Second Language) are things that just blare out at me and seem obvious, but could just as easily be really bad grammar or sloppy writing.
Things like inaccuracies in tenses, or mixed tenses, are a common error that many writers make – but mixing them consistently, even in the same sentence, is one of the signs that the writer is not used to using the vagaries of English in daily life.
Another error that is often seen with ESL writers is a lack of articles – not the articles you write for magazines or newspapers, the articles you use in grammar. These are the common ones: a, an, and the. The more articles that are missing, the higher the chance is that the author is ESL. Why? Because, in general, unless we write more formally than we speak we tend to write as we speak. We rarely write less formally than we speak unless it is a writing tool that we are using for a specific project. And English speakers may slur their articles in speech (for example, my husband using d’man instead of ‘the man’), but they usually remember to use them in some form or another when talking. On the other hand, many other languages not only don’t always use articles – they don’t even have them.
Then there is the whole pronoun thing… Some languages imply gender with the word itself, unlike English which has to add a whole other group of words to indicate I, me, we, he, she, it, they, them, her, him, you, etc. When an author never uses pronouns or is not using them correctly, that is one more arrow pointing to the likelihood that they are ESL.
Then there is sentence structure. English tends to be noun-verb in the simplest of sentence forms. Most other languages follow a different placement of sentence structure. Or use words that combine the noun and verb into one word (an example from my extremely rusty Spanish: Vamanos!). This tends to create confusion in the ESL writer’s sentence structure when it is translated into English, either by them or by a translation engine.
There are likely other things, more subtle cues that I pick up on in punctuation and grammar, but these are the ones that get me wondering. English is a horrendously complicated and difficult language to learn to write in, even for those who speak English as their first language. For those who are writing ESL, it can be a quagmire of complications!
Oh – and ESL applies to those who speak a language other than English as the language they grew up with, as well as to individuals who use sign language in one form or another, and those who are computer geeks (after a while, computer geeks don’t really speak in English anymore, even if they are English speakers – they speak in an abbreviated shorthand and coding in a language that is only known to them and which transcends any language barriers that used to exist).
As a copy editor, I need to be aware that an author is ESL for one major reason: Knowing what to watch for means I won’t make mistakes in the edit, or have to start over partway through as I realize what is going on. As a writer who is trying to write in English when it is not your first language, you can learn to look for these things yourself and improve the final product you produce to increase your ability to target an English speaking population in addition to your own. Or, you can at the least be aware that translation engines do not always give very good results if you rely on them to create your English version of the written product.
I once stuck a bit of Chinese into a translation engine, trying to see what an online Facebook friend was trying to tell me. It came out as something like: the sweet petals of the carrot sat on the fence. This made no sense at all, and when she translated it back to her own language she sent me a very crooked looking not-smiley face and tried again, putting it through her own translator to get something like: fences are carrots sit. We were not talking about carrots, or fences…