If there is only one thing a journalist does, it should be this…

Note: This post was written in April 2018. It has been slightly updated.

When I was growing up, there were clear divisions in the world. In apartheid South Africa there was the big divide between black and white. On the white side of that line, though, there was another division – between English-speakers and Afrikaans-speakers. And one of the consequences of that division was inevitable, at least on my side of the fence: school children hated learning the “other” language. Afrikaans lessons were dreaded and derided, exams and tests were got through as best we could.

And then came Mrs Visser, the high school teacher who made Afrikaans cool. She was thin, edgy and glamorously dressed (and given to smoking in the corridor whenever she could). She was passionate about Afrikaans and an inspired teacher. Suddenly I was reading stormy Afrikaans romances, and ploughing my way through Raka (an epic poem by NP Van Wyk Louw), newly in love with a beautiful language.

And that reading paid off – I managed an A in Afrikaans in my matric exams.

I often think of Mrs Visser when I am training young journalists. She understood one of the fundamental building blocks of learning another language: that you have to read as much as you can in that language. That, of course, goes hand in hand with hearing that language and immersing yourself in the spoken word.

My trainees are almost always second- or third-language speakers of English, yet they are expected to write in that language. However hard they work on the technical and other skills they need , they are still going to have to tell a coherent and organised story in a language other than their own.

My top tip to all aspiring journalists – whatever their home language – is simple: to get to grips with the language in which you ply your trade, read, read, read – and read some more. The more exposure you have to the language, the more your ability to express yourself will grow.

Books are expensive but there lots of ways to get round that:
  • Join a library
  • Borrow books (and return them!) – share what you have with your colleagues, and get them to share their books
  • Join or start a book club
  • Find sources of free books for a reader app on your phone
  • Read things other than books – here’s my post suggesting all sorts of other, cheaper things you can read.
Think you don’t have time?

Read on the bus, read on the taxi, read while waiting in a queue. American writer Ryan Holiday has some great tips for finding time to read here. As he says: “If Napoleon, commanding an army of 40,000 men, could find time to read on a march over 1,600 miles from home, you can find it.”

Finding the book you are reading to be a challenge?

Look up the meanings of words you don’t understand (Collins Online Dictionary is very handy for this, and works well on a cellphone).
Ask mother-tongue speakers for help.
If it’s just too difficult, put the book away, read something else, and come back to it later.

No excuses. Just read.

Main image: Gift Habeshaw, Unsplash

More: Why I love poetry (and how you can too)

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