If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Monday, 15 August 2016

Happy Independence Day!

In the new apartment complex I live, it has been the first Independence Day and the residents organised a flag hoisting ceremony. A nice initiative to remind ourselves that we all belong to a free country, that we have been fortunate to be citizens of India, and not of Syria, Pakistan, or even Bangladesh. But the function also restated that the concept of freedom is not absolute. Although it was a microcosm, I the general pattern was not very different.

First, it began with Ganesha Vandana, and the compere announced that we would begin with this invocation as we do in every auspicious occasion. Which “we”? The 80.5 % Hindus alone? What has independence got to do with religion? Do we realise that the moment we exclude one out of five Indians from our concept of freedom, we turn on its head the idea of a pluralistic India which was at the core of our freedom struggle? In fact, if India is very different from Syria or Pakistan today, it is primarily because it is pluralistic.

A resurgent Hinduism is fine as long as it doesn’t try to encroach upon the social and political space. But this is precisely the new malady of India in the 21st century. And it spreads its pernicious tentacles through benign invocation of a sectarian god.

If this is a new addition to our bag of problems, the old one remains, and we have done practically nothing about it. In the function, there were about 80 residents, but only one domestic help – who happened to be a Muslim – and she was cringing in a corner a little away from the well-dressed people. So as Indians celebrated their independence, while the world slept, a significant number of its population washed pots and mopped floors.

If the lone representative from the “Other India” had got an opportunity to go to school, I am sure she would have recalled this line by Rabindranath Tagore: “Those you are leaving behind are pulling you back.”

Happy Independence Day!

Bengaluru / Monday, 15 August 2016

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A memorable journey

[I am sure that in school, you wrote an essay on this topic. I did, a number of times. Here is the last piece that I will ever write with this heading.]

One of my most memorable journeys has happened just today. No, I didn’t go to see the sun rising on the Kanchenjunga, nor did I see any canyon, nor the Taj. I didn’t even drive through a fascinating countryside. I just took a flight from Kolkata and came to our second home in Bengaluru.

Let me begin at the beginning. If you are a frequent flier through the Kolkata airport, you would know that most of their trolleys are physically challenged. So the first stroke of good luck was that I got one that had all the four wheels.

As I was approaching the tail of a longish queue at the Jet Airways counter, a young girl who was womanning the farthest counter – which no one seemed to have noticed – came out from behind her desk and asked me and a few others to move to her counter. She needn’t have. I felt that she was not just doing a job, she was actually “serving” people. If all the employees in the service sectors believed that they were in the business of serving, life would be so much better! It is a shame that I didn’t read her name tag.

There was no queue at the security check, and unlike a few other times, I didn’t forget to collect my laptop on the other side. I bought a handful of magazines and newspapers and settled down in a cosy chair. As I was debating with myself whether I should buy a coffee for a hundred bucks, I was stunned and mesmerised. Deepika Padukone was pulling a trolley-bag and was walking right in front of me. She was in a striped top, black jeans, and a light blue jacket casually thrown around her shoulders. As I watched her carefully trying my best to look disinterested, I realised she was actually not the diva. But she could have been Deepika’s twin sister lost in a fairground. Or at least, she was an excellent carbon copy of the beauty, taken when the carbon paper was fresh and new.

On the plane, a had an aisle seat and was watching the Bengali mom seating next to me combing the hair of her twelve-year old son. As she was going through the procedure, she loudly complained that the boy hadn’t even learned to comb his hair. (How on earth would he, with such a loving mother? No wonder lots of Bong boys never grow up! They just move from under their mother’s wings to their wife’s and the two women fight over their possession till the cows come home.)

And then Deepika Padukone boarded the aircraft. She walked straight towards me, smiled and said, ‘Sir, I think you are in my seat.’ I had noticed that my seat number was 16 D, but somehow, it had become 14 D in my pickled brain. I always mix up numbers and dates and names and faces – my students have some entertainment on the side as I regularly call Bipasha Vikasha and Soumen Soumitro. Anyways, for a change, I thanked my dysfunctional memory as I got to get a million-dollar smile thanks to it. The flight took off before time.

The food was good. Jet Airways goes out of its way to cater to the food preferences of their finicky customers. Besides the usual veg and non-veg fare, they had low-fat, gluten-free, and Jain meals. And the two stewards, Subhashish and Saif who served us were exceedingly polite and helpful, like their colleague at the check-in counter.

It is common knowledge that the quality of service is inversely proportional to the size of an organisation. Of all the airlines I have flown, British Airways perhaps has the snootiest air-hostesses. At home, Indigo was super when they started. But as the airline grew bigger, the smile on the faces of their employees became shorter and shorter, until it vanished completely. Anyway, coming back to today, during the two-hour flight, Saif and Subhashish continuously moved up and down the aisle, bringing a paper to someone, a coke to another and so on, with a professional but genuine smile pasted on their faces all the time. And the pleasant experience didn’t end there.
My bag was the first to come out on the conveyor belt and as is usual at the Bangalore Airport, I got a taxi without any hassle.

But the icing on the cake was the unjammed roads – I covered the distance of forty kilometres in an hour, something that you usually do in your dreams in Bengaluru.

My stars chose to shine brightly on me yesterday. I ought to have bought a lottery ticket after reaching home.

Bengaluru / Tuesday, 08 August 2016

Monday, 1 August 2016

Note to my students # 15

Khizr Khan, a Harvard-educated American Muslim lawyer gave a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention yesterday. It was a tribute to his late son, Capt. Humayun Khan, who had died in Iraq in 2004, serving the US Army. He was posthumously awarded bravery medals. Huffington Post says:
The speech simultaneously conveyed a father's love for his lost child and pride in his country, punctuated by a direct repudiation of Donald Trump. “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?” Khan pointedly asked the Republican nominee, referencing the site of his son's burial. “You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing. And no one.”
Khan's speech has since gone viral, with ‪#‎KhizrKhan‬ trending on Twitter. The essay by Doug Hattaway and Zach Lowe in Huffington Post goes on to analyse why Khan’s speech has made such a huge impact.
The first reason is that the personal story of a Muslim sacrificing his life for the USA challenges what psychology refers to as “cognitive dissonance,” in which individuals hold conflicting ideas or emotions at the same time. For example, some non-Muslim Americans experience cognitive dissonance because they value the ideas of religious freedom and tolerance, but simultaneously, also fear terrorism, and suspect that American Muslims aren't always loyal to the U.S.
Beyond the power of his son's story, Mr. Khan and other speakers also used powerful language by referring to his family as "American Muslims" rather than "Muslim-Americans." While the order of the words may seem meaningless, research has shown that these two constructs evoke surprisingly different reactions.
While people associated the expression "Muslim-American" with words such as "foreign" and "strict," and “mistreatment of women”, when the order of the words is switched, the same people responded with phrases such as “came to America for a better life” and “contribute to society.”
These reactions illustrate the importance of the first word in a message, which colours the reactions the words that follow it. The experiment also showed the power of the word “American” to help counter negative portrayals and perceptions of Muslims who are part of the fabric of the diverse society that the USA is.
You might wonder what the connection is between this post and its heading. In a moment, I am going to explain the connections.
Firstly, Dear Student, once you’ve crossed the threshold of basic grammar and vocabulary, when you are able to speak and write English, what matters is not the number of words you know or how fast you can speak. The most important thing about learning a second language is getting a feel of the nuances and the idiom of the language. And the Huffington Post essay, which I have summarized above, tells you how blending language and contents and arranging words carefully can lend your language that extra mile of impact.
Secondly, the speech we are referring to demonstrates almost everything a teacher can teach you about public speaking. This is a six-minute speech and I would strongly recommend that you watch it by searching the Net with the following string:
Khizr Khan's powerful DNC speech (Full speech)
Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Note to my students # 14: How can I improve my English?

English has become the unofficial language of the world and every adult learner from non-English speaking countries asks this question sometime or other. I believe you too have. In this article, I’ll answer the question with reference to people who have to use English at college, university, or workplace. First, I will analyse your needs and then offer some practical suggestions.

Most adult learners have a simple aim: to use English effectively, that is, to speak and write clearly, confidently, and fluently. Unfortunately, after 12 years of school, where students attend say, 1,800 hours of classroom teaching in English, most people cannot speak or write English with confidence. Why?

People often don’t learn English, or any other second language in school because a language cannot be taught. It has to be learned. In fact, when it comes to skills, whether it is cooking, driving, or singing, it has to be learned by your own efforts. For example, in India, you get a driving licence typically after say thirty hours of training or 300 kilometres of practice. But do you become a driver on the day you get the licence?

No, never, not in a million years. You become a driver only after you have taken a car on your own to say Barra Bazaar in Kolkata, or Flora Fountain in Mumbai, or Mirpur Road in Dhaka. The journey between getting a licence and driving in a busy market place is a long one, and you have to travel this distance all alone. And the process of learning a foreign language is very similar. You have got to do it alone, on your own.

Let’s now move on to what you can do to achieve this. First, you must shed the fear of "making mistakes". Making mistakes is a part of learning a foreign language. So it's no big deal! No one, yes, no one has ever learned a foreign language without committing mistakes. Only fools laugh at people who make mistakes while speaking a foreign language. So next time anyone laughs at your English, pity them.

Now, let's look at two sentences:
  • Smoking is injurious to health.
  • She got off the bus.
I can bet my silk pyjamas that you won’t have a problem with the first sentence. If there is an occasion to tell someone that he/she shouldn’t smoke, you will use the first sentence correctly, without hunting for words. However, when it comes to the second sentence, most. South Asians would say:
  • She got down from the bus.
Right? Wrong! It may look like a fine sentence, but a native speaker of English is unlikely to use it. They would say: She got off the bus.

So where is the hitch? Why don’t we have a problem with the first sentence, but are unsure about the second? Please think about the answer before you move to the next paragraph.

You probably got it: we don’t have a problem with the first – despite the fact that injurious is not a common word – because we have read and heard it thousands of times.

So the Mantra No.1 is:

You learn English by reading and listening to good, accurate English repeatedly.

If you read, it will help you to improve your written language. When you listen to good speakers, it will help you speak better. So, please

  • Read books, particularly books that have been around for over fifty years
  • Read newspapers that use authentic English (e.g. The Hindu in India) or the Internet editions of the finest newspapers of the world. I am fond of The Guardian (London) and The New York Times.
  • Read magazines like The Frontline, Outlook, Scientific American, The New Yorker.
  • Watch news programmes and debates on TV. But be selective. Stick to NDTV 24X7, India Today, BBC, Al Jazeera, etc.
  • Follow English lessons and videos on the websites of The British Council and BBC Learning English.
  • Watch speeches by famous speakers on YouTube. TED Talks too are mostly excellent.
  • Watch English films regularly.

The best way to learn a foreign language is to follow good speakers and writers. The operative word here is “follow”. If you read or listen passively, if you do not make mental notes of the new language you come across, you won’t improve. You have to focus on new expressions, remember them, and use them when you get an opportunity.

A word of caution: Lots of people believe – quite unfortunately – that good English means writing / speaking long sentences with impossible-to-pronounce words like sesquipedalianism or subder-matoglyphic. It is not true, trust me! You can live happily and produce healthy children without ever using these words. In fact, language is a tool to communicate and the simpler you are, the better it is. However, you need to write complex sentences with uncommon words (with precise meanings) if you are an academic, diplomat, or lawyer. You will need long complex sentences only for two reasons: (a) to make your language more compact and complete, and (b) to hide what you wish to say.

So instead of focussing on just difficult words, look for words and expressions you are likely to use in your life. Like she got off the bus. Let me give you another example. You know what the word “look” means. But just the meaning doesn’t help. You must learn how to use the word. For example: Look at me.

Here are a few more examples of how the verb look can be used:
  • Can you please look into the problem of staff shortage?
  • Our company is looking for fresh graduates who can speak Spanish.
  • When Radhika went to Barcelona, her mother looked after her little children.
You don’t have to learn all of them at one time. The point is: whenever you read or hear the word look, note what other words go with it. And try to remember the combination.
But how can you remember those combinations? Unless you go back to new words four or five times, you are unlikely to remember them. And that brings us to our Mantra No. 2:

Record new expressions and review them from time to time.

Here is what you can do.
  1. Write down new words, their meanings, and one or two illustrative sentences in a personal word book. (If necessary, refer to a good dictionary.) You can also write down the pronunciation in your own language, although it is not the best option.
  2. Go back to every new word after a day, after a week, after a fortnight, and after a month.
  3. Most importantly, practise writing and speaking and try to use the word. First, you should use the new language in your mind! Think about them, think of a situation when you can use the new language you have learned. And then in real life, use the expressions whenever you get an opportunity. 
And therefore, our Mantra No.3 is:

You need thousands of hours of practice if you wish to speak / write a second language confidently.

Besides, keep a good dictionary and a reliable grammar book that you can refer to whenever a question arises in your mind. My favourite dictionary is The Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Oxford University Press. And here are a few grammar books that I would recommend without any hesitation. But please remember, a grammar book can only be a supporting tool. It can never become the main prop!
To sum up,

1. Read and listen to good accurate English.
2. Record the new language you come across and review your record regularly.
3. Use the new language you have learned.

Mastering a second language is not a hundred-metre dash, it is a fascinating journey that never ends.

Bengaluru / Thursday, 21 July 2016

End notes:
1. This is an expanded version of Section 2.4 of my book Learn English, A fun book of functional language, grammar and vocabulary © McGraw Hill Education India Private Limited, India.

2. Last night a young person who I have never met, Arpan Basu took the trouble to telephone and ask me how he could improve his English. I promised to give him some tips and decided to write this. Thanks, Arpan.