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. 

22 comments:

  1. Hari OM
    It is one of those peculiarities of life that one either has an innate ability for language - or not. I agree that it is important to apply what is learned; and your skill matches my own, for whom it is the first tongue! Having learned several languages in life (including Hindi and Sanskrit) I struggle simply from lack of use! YAM xx

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    1. Hari OM

      agree. linguistic intelligence is one of the factors as well in being able to attain fluency in a language.

      HIndi and Sanskrit - that calls for a WOW from me :)


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  2. Two separate comments. First, I don't know why people are obsessed with English language. People in Russia, China, and Japan do not speak English. Second, people have problem with conversational English. The remedy for that is "think in English". Our mind constantly think about something. We all usually think only in our mother tongue. People who want to improve their conversational English, should start and develop the habit of thinking in English.

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    1. people are obsessed with English because in a country like ours it opens up opportunities for higher education, job etc. I am an example for it. I am sure your professional success has a lot to do with English too - education, career opportunities, career growth.

      Agree...we think in our mother tongue, convert the thoughts into English and speak English with a touch or style of the mother tongue. But I have seen from my many years of teaching the language that it is not easy to "think" in English

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  3. I studied in kannada medium from rural area. It was very difficult to speak in English as I simply did not had an environment. Of course was bit aversion to it too as fond of reading kannada books. Once I moved to Bangalore it was a drawback. To start cricket commentary and articles helped me as cricket was my passion. But medical transcripton training helped me a lot. I was able to break the word and understand the meaning of it. Icfai stint helped me a lot as I have to give lots of presentations. Beginning from Jyothi mam, jyashri mam, Soumya mam, baisaki mam and ofcourse you built the confidence in me. I did not act in English drama as i was feeling inferior. But at Icfai I wrote English drama and enacted too. I rate it as one of my achievements.Thats my story. Probably, one day i will write in detail.As usual yours nice article.

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    1. yes, you must pen your thoughts on this topic.

      writing the play and enacting in it - that truly is an achievement considering where we all started from

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  4. I feel my vocabulary is mostly sub-consciously developed. I did not take any efforts to consciously learn words and apply them. I read a lot and had many opportunities to listen to people speak English. Many words from my reading/listening automatically found themselves in my vocabulary.

    I feel, reading made the maximum difference in my case. I too was an average student of English until 8th Std. But in the following two years I read many novels and I guess it was not an accident that I got a merit certificate in the CBSE 10th Exam for English.

    But I am a person who doesn't like rules. Any rules. Grammar rules, for example. I hate editing also. But when you have to learn something you mostly end up doing it. So will to learn is a major factor.

    Destination Infinity

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    1. hehe...yeah grammar rules can be very taxing especially for new learners. its what puts them off the language learning path

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  5. Some very good tips that would be a boon to students!

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  6. Such a lovely post that says so much about the love for language! I think good teachers, the environment and early inculcation of the reading habit goes a long way in improving diction and reading/writing skills:)

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    1. you have put it all together so well in a few lines! :)

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  7. so you are not an English teacher!???

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    1. ?!
      I am. But now mostly do retail training.

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  8. Hello Sujatha

    As you rightly pointed out this naturally comes for someone who has love for language and words....When you have that the steps you mentioned become an enjoyable activity...For some it is a chore they do simply to better themselves at work or in social circles...

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    1. Yes agree...it can turn into a drudgery...

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  9. totally agree with you and i would add, thinking in English is vital as well..

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    1. yes. many of us think in our mother tongues and then translate the thoughts into English.

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  10. Awesome work.Just wished to drop a comment and say i'm new your journal and adore what i'm reading.Thanks for the share

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  11. Sujatha, it true that people have an obsession with English. It does do a lot of good to job-seeker and working people. That is so here in India that we have not uprooted fully what the British people had planted here. I had an affinity towards the three languages I learned,
    my discipline was science though. My schooling was in Malayalam. But somehow I could improve my English. Every person has a special liking towards certain things, that they acquire or try. Impressive topic

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    1. Yes Sarala. You are right there is no denying the fact that knowledge of English helps in the jk on sector

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