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

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

How can I improve my English?

[This is an expanded version of Section 2.4 of my book Learn English, A fun book of functional language, grammar and vocabulary © 2013 by McGraw Hill Education India Private Limited, India

You will also find it on Linked In.]

English has become the language that connects the world, and every educated non-native speaker of English asks this question at some time or other: “How can I improve my English?”. As you are reading this article, I presume you too have.  

Let me begin by telling you – without a shred of doubt – that everyone can become an effective speaker and writer in English. In this brief article, I would try to offer you some simple strategies you could adopt to improve your English language skills.

Most adult learners have a simple aim: to speak and write clearly, accurately, and fluently. Unfortunately, after 12 years of school in the vernacular medium, where pupils attend say, 1,800 hours of classroom teaching in English, most of them cannot speak or write English with confidence. Why?

The reason is simple: A second language cannot be taught. It must be learned. Language is a skill, and it’s true for any other skill – cooking, singing, or driving. For example, in India, you get a driving licence typically after thirty hours and 300 kilometres of training. But the day you get the licence, can you say you have become a driver?

The answer is a resounding NO. You become a driver only after you have driven a car alone in a busy city road. The journey between getting a licence and driving in a market place is a long and difficult one, and you must travel this distance all alone.

The process of learning a foreign language is similar. And you’ve got to do it alone, mostly. It isn’t easy. You must work smartly and consistently, over a long time. From my experience of teaching English for 16 years, I would say if you have the basic communication skills, you will need at least two years to become fluent and reasonably accurate in English.

Why can’t I speak in English?

Let’s move on to analysing the problems. Look at the 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 easily, without hunting for words. However, when it comes to the second sentence, most South Asians would say:
·         She got down from the bus. û

It may look like a fine sentence, but it isn’t. A native speaker of English will perhaps never use it. They say: She got off the bus.

So, where’s the hitch? Why don’t we have a problem with the first sentence, although injurious is not a common word, but we’re unsure about the second? Please think about the answer and write it down before you move to the next section.

Three simple rules

You have possibly got it: we don’t have a problem with the first expression because we’ve heard and read it thousands of times. That brings us to our first mantra.

Mantra No.1: We 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. Therefore,

·         Read books, particularly books that have been around for ten years or more.

·     Read newspapers that use correct English (e.g. The Hindu) or the Internet editions of the finest newspapers of the world. I am fond of The Guardian (London) and The New York Times. The first one is available on the Net for free. (They’ll ask you to contribute from time to time, which I think is fair.) For reading the NY Times regularly, you have to subscribe to it.

·   Read magazines like The Frontline, Outlook, the Scientific American, The New Yorker, the Economist, and so on. Most good magazines are available online. And you can read some articles gratis. But it would be better if you subscribe to at least one of them.

·      Watch news programmes and debates on TV. But be selective. Please do not watch TV channels where the anchor and the participators fight like hungry street dogs at a garbage dump. English is a polite language. It is not to be spoken aggressively. So, I would recommend you stick to NDTV 24X7, BBC, Al Jazeera, and CNN IBN.

·   Follow speeches and debates on the YouTube, which is a vast reservoir. Another wonderful resource of our time are the TED talks. Visit www.ted.com/ if you haven’t been visiting the site already.

·         Watch English films as often as you can.

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 must focus on new expressions, remember them, and use them when you get an opportunity.

A word of caution: Lots of people believe – may God forgive them – that good English means using long sentences with impossible-to-pronounce words like sesquipedalianism or subdermatoglyphic. 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 incisive, or (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 the meaning alone 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:

ü  Sir, can you please look into the problem of frequent power outages?
ü  Our company is looking for fresh graduates with strong communication skills.
ü  Radhika and Ravi have a nanny to look after their children during the day.

You don’t have to learn all of them at one go. The point is: whenever you read or hear the word look, note what other words go with it. And try to remember the combination.

Also, look for brilliant turns of phrase while watching TV or reading. For example, when Iran was first given the go-ahead to build a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes during the Barack Obama regime, I watched this interview with a diplomat:

Interviewer:        How will you ensure that Iran doesn’t produce weapon-grade material in the plant?
Diplomat:           Well, we have an agreement.
Interviewer:        But is it set in concrete?

The interviewer could have asked the question in hundreds of ways, but he chose to put it in a phrase that not only captured the idea, but also captured the listener’s attention. From now on, as you listen / read, note brilliant expressions that you think might be useful in the context of your life.
But how will you remember those phrases? Language experts tell us that unless you go back to new words and expressions five or six times, you may not remember them. And that brings us to our second mantra.

Mantra No. 2: I will record new expressions in a personal wordbook and review them from time to time.

Here is what you can do.
1.       Write down new words, their meanings, and a few illustrative sentences in a personal word book. If necessary, refer to a dictionary that gives lots of illustrative sentences. For example: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/. Listen to the pronunciation of the word. Write down the pronunciation in your own language.

2.       Go back to every new word after a day, after a week, after a fortnight, after a month, and whenever you can.

Most importantly, practise writing and speaking and try to use the word. First, you should use the new expressions in your mind. Think about them, think of a situation when you can use the new language you’ve just learned. And use the expressions whenever you get an opportunity. So, our next mantra is:

Mantra No.3: I will imagine situations where I can use the new language I’ve just learned and frame sentences in my head. I’ll wait for an opportunity and use the new expression the moment I find one.

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 (Oxford University Press). 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 regularly.
2.       Record the new language you come across and review them.
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. But the good news is: you can teach yourself to become a fine speaker and writer. Cheers!

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri
Bengaluru / 14 March 2017

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