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

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.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016


Abhishek Sanghai
[Abhishek, a young man around twenty, is a student of mine. When I read this on his blog, I was pleasantly surprised as much by his crisp language as by the clarity of his thoughts. I wish grown up people thought in the same way. If everyone did, I am sure most of our problems would vanish. Cheers, Abhishek, keep writing.]

“Not my blood group,
Neither my grade in maths.
It’s just my favourite quote”
Most of the time people ask me “Yaar, tu hamesha itna khush kaise reheta hai?”..
Well, today I am here to answer that ….
I am not saying i don’t have any bad days or I don’t cry … Well, who doesn’t? right?.
… I just find a place inside me where there’s joy, and the joy always burns out my pains.  
“Everybody wants happiness, nobody wants pain ... But you cannot have a RAINBOW without a little rain”
Work hard for what you want because it won’t come to you without a fight. Leave all the bull-shit behind. Just remember that at the end of the day, you are solely responsible for your success and your failure. And as soon as you realize it, you accept it, and integrate it into your work ethic, you will start being successful. As long as you blame others for the reason you aren’t where you want to be, you will always be a failure.
You have to be strong and courageous and know that you can do anything you put your mind to. If somebody puts you down or criticizes you, just keep on believing in yourself and turn it into something positive … Just remember one thing: “Positive anything is better than Negative nothing.”
It’s easy to forget what an amazing gift life really is. Our lives are nothing but a cosmic blink …. Our brains are wired to find things we’re looking for – if you’re always cynical or waiting for things to go wrong, then your life will reflect that. On the other hand, having a positive outlook on life will bring you joy and provide you with inspiration when you least expect it.
PS There will always be haters, be proud to have some, it means u are already a few steps ahead of them. Just smile. It works wonders. :-) #Abhi4u :-)

A beacon of hope

Farhaz, flanked by Abinta (left) and Tarishi (Photo courtesy CNN)

Yes, and how many times must a man look up / Before he can see the sky? / Yes, and how many ears must one man have / Before he can hear people cry? / Yes, and how many deaths will it take 'til he knows / That too many people have died?

In just about a week, there has been suicide attacks in Istanbul to Baghdad to Dhaka, in which terrorists killed hundreds of innocent people, including children. In Baghdad, lots of children, who did not know they were Shia Muslims and therefore had no right to live.

A grotesque dimension of the Dhaka attack nearer home is that the terrorists had not been recruited from the backwaters of Pakistan or Syria or some other cesspool of poverty and illiteracy. All the seven attackers were from middleclass or well-off families and had been to top schools and universities. “The parents of these boys are normal and have secular credentials”, Bangladesh Information and Broadcasting minister told NDTV. According to CNN, they “seemed like normal, middle-class men” who would hang around in caf├ęs and lead “normal” lives even the other day.

What makes such “normal” young men take the lives of people they do not know? What makes them believe that anyone who doesn’t share “our faith” must be killed? What makes them throw their lives away to achieve such a thoroughly useless goal?

If I may enlarge the question, is the world losing its battle against hatred and violence?

Any attempt to find reasonably correct answers to these questions must begin with complete rejection of the stupid argument popular with our Indian Hindu Jihadists that Muslims are at the centre of every problem and Islam is a “violent religion”. (Islam is as much or as little violent as any other religion, maybe, with the exception of Buddhism and Jainism.)

The two biggest terrorists of our time are M/s Bush and Blair, who have killed – based on completely false, manufactured pretexts – at the very least 30,000 people and destroyed a thriving country. Yet no one call them “Christian Terrorists” and quite rightly so. And no one seems to remember that they virtually fathered what is known as ISIS today. Had there been no invasion of Iraq in 2003, there would have been no ISIS today. Simple, period.

Coming back to my original question, what makes ordinary people like you and me embrace hatred and violence? Is it a virus of our time, from which some of us have no escape? And at the end of the day, will madness win over sanity?

I certainly do not know the answers and there are fleeting moments when I feel despondent. But a young boy from the other side of death tells me not to lose hope. Let me end this chaotic piece of writing with his story which I have pieced together from a number of credible sources.

Faraz Ayaz Hossain was – as his name suggests – a Muslim. He was 20, a Bangladeshi, and a student at Emory University in the US. He was one of the twenty hostages killed in a Dhaka restaurant. But he died a hero’s death.

Earlier that evening, Farhaz had driven two of his friends, both girls, to Holey Artisan Bakery of Dhaka. One of them happened to be Tarishi Jain (19), the only Indian who died in the attack, and the other was Abinta Kabir, 18, an American who studied at the same university with Farthaz. Tarishi was at the University of Barkley.

They were caught in the terrorist attack in the night of 1 and 2 July. The terrorists let go Bangladeshis and Muslims, who they decided were Muslim enough. New York Times reports:

“Early in the morning, the gunmen released a group of women wearing hijabs and offered a young Bangladeshi man, Faraz Hossain, the opportunity to leave, too, said Hishaam Hossain, Mr. Hossain’s nephew, who had heard an account from the hostages who were freed.

“Mr. Hossain … was accompanied by two women wearing Western clothes, however, the gunmen ... refused to release them, and Mr. Hossain refused to leave them behind, his relative said. He would be among those found dead on Saturday morning.”

It would be impossible for anyone who hasn’t been through such hell to imagine how much courage one must have to accept certain death just to stand by one’s friends who were going to die in any case.

Could anything be a stronger statement of human values, values that are infinitely more fundamental than the colours of our skin and the shapes of the buildings we pray in?

Bangalore / Monday, July 4, 2016