09 October 2017

How Do I Improve My English?

I get asked this a lot.

I am an English teacher.

There are two assumptions people make. One, my English is good because I studied in an English medium school. It was a CBSE school. From 4th to 12th standard, I studied there. Before that it was state syllabus. Two, my English is good because I did my Masters in English. Both these are true; but only partially. CBSE education by itself doesn't guarantee good language skills and nor does an M.A.
I can cite plenty of exceptions for both scenarios. I have seen it with my own school classmates and I see it now with the class mates and friends of my daughter. Those who studied with me, many from better backgrounds, suck at the language. Their grammar is pathetic and so is their sentence formation, even basic sentences and comprehension skills are non-existent. And if M.A in English guaranteed good English, my batch of 20 students would have produced writers and bloggers. There are none that I know of. Not yet, at least.

Wait, doesn't CBSE education ensure greater English fluency? Not necessarily, definitely not equally among all learners. But it helps. These students can navigate daily, mundane social interactions in English with greater ease. They are only slightly better than the others. But what makes the actual difference is the individual student's efforts.

How did my English become better? My parents were not educated; neither of them could speak or write English. We never spoke English at home, I did not go for tuition. Nobody in my immediate family is a doctor or an engineer to have their language skills brush off on me. Here's what made the difference:

       A.      Reading.
In high school, I spent a lot of time in the library. I finished Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys - the whole series. I had read all the classics. I didn’t know meanings of simple words like gasped, shrieked, and yelled. I still continued to read. I searched my big, fat Oxford dictionary and wrote the words and their meanings in my notebook. By the time I finished one library book, I had so many words whose meanings I didn’t know! These words, slowly and gradually, crept into my language. Over time, I graduated to reading a wider variety of books without being fazed by the difficult language used in them.

B. Talking.
Conversing in English, with as many people as possible, as many times and as often as possible is one of the best ways to improve your English. Many of us whose parents didn’t speak the language, had to work extra hard at it. And we did. Hard work didn’t scare us nor were we lazy. We did all we could to improve our fluency. It paid off - many years later. 

      C.  Liking the language.
I scored just about 60% in my 10th and 12th in English. Those were the lowest marks on my mark sheet. I had scored more than 80% in other subjects. But I was passionate about the world that knowing English gave me an access to. I loved the myriad stories and was fascinated by characters whose lives were so different from my own. I liked learning, reading and speaking English.

When I joined Mangalore University, and sat through the lectures of Parinitha Mam and R. Shashidhar Sir, I was transfixed. Their depth of knowledge and way of articulating a thought had me spell bound. It was not an inborn talent. It took years of reading to reach that level of excellence. I spent my two years in the University mostly in the library - picking up random books, reading them, making notes. I devoured the pages.

It also helped that, by then, English had become my linguistic anchor. Growing up in Bombay, I was fluent in Hindi and Marathi. But for class 4, when I came to my village, I had to pick up Kannada. I learnt Kannada alphabets at the age of 12 and over the years completely forgot Marathi. At a time when I was rudderless, English became the language I thought and spoke in, in my mind. Does that help? Yes, it does. When you “think” in a particular language, you express yourselves better in that one. Even today, I can’t express myself very well in either Hindi or Kannada or Tulu. I don’t have the bandwidth needed for it. Sad but true.

 D. Applying.
So, passion for the language, willingness to put in hours and hours of reading, and talking are 3 main prerequisites for language development.

Next, is the application. Reading will throw at you many words, styles of writing, sentence structures, grammatical usage, idioms and phrases. But if you don't consciously, I repeat, consciously use those words in the sentences you speak and write in everyday conversations, they will stay dormant and you will continue to know and use only the few 100 words that helps you manage everyday language transactions.

Let me give you an example. Here are some phrases I came across during my recent reading:

Twice the trouble for half the price
By the time we got back to her, I was about to throw up a lung.
What he doesn't have in brains he makes up for in speed.
A heart on two legs... a good person
Turns turtle (slow) and crashes
That stinks like an eight week old pile of fish guts
Super stealthy silence
Quiet as a ghost walking on cotton balls

I have not yet used them in my writing or conversation. They won't be a part of my active vocabulary until and unless I actually use them. As a student, I religiously used the words I learnt. I almost forced them into sentences so that I could remember them.  But now my vocabulary has stagnated because I have not been  applying the new words learnt with as much devotion as I did earlier. If I had continued the practice of learning at least 5 new words everyday and actually USING them, my English would have been even better.