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.


  1. Respected Sir,
    Great post Sir!! Informative and inspiring.
    I want to request you this from a long time but somehow not able to do that. Sir, I have one more request that you please start an online academy of English language through Skype or various other platform like wiziq etc. In fact I was about to join British council and then I came to know about your shifting through the post "Swansong". I am sure that many "Arjunas" have got chance to train under you, now please consider giving a chance to "Eklavyas".
    Sir, if you ever consider my request, then count me in as your first student of online academy.
    Yours sincerely,

  2. Dear Santanuda, Very interesting and informative post :) You have distilled the quintessential experience from all your years of teaching and writing into it and I am sure students and teachers alike will find it very comprehensive and useful.I'm sharing it on my fb page because I really feel it should be available to a wider audience. Thank you so much and keep writing!

    1. Dear Chitra,

      Thanks so much for this. It is really nice of you. I'm sure your FB post has given this a lot of traction. Also, I think I said this to you: I am in the process of uploading a video lesson on YouTube. I expect to get it up by the end of Sept. Actually, I wanted you to check the contents before I doing the video.

      Sorry about getting back to you so late. Somehow, your message got into the Spam folder!




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