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That dragon, English

One of the saddest things about India is that we have a whole lot of technical skills, but very poor communication skills. We can blame a hundred people, starting from our own parents, to the horrible teachers we had in school. But no matter who you blame, or don’t blame, your life may finally hang in the balance of this one subject: English. It is almost a universal language, and so, not excelling at it can drastically affect the prospects you have in your career.

At work, I write proposals. And that is what I have been doing for the last 5 years, ever since my first day at work.

Being a proposal writer means that your English must be top notch, void of typos and grammatical errors. And so, my profession demands that I go beyond the ordinary Indian English (that is often grotesquely butchered), and write something extra-ordinary. I need to make my writing empathetic, considerate, interesting and cause a shift in my customer's attitudes to favour my organization.

Once in a while, I get to hire people, and often, I am hugely disappointed because only 1 out of 10 candidates interviewed have decent linguistic skills.

A few months back, I interviewed a lady who was once an English teacher. Soon, I realized that her grammar, and her spelling was a reader’s curse.  There may be many reasons for this. She might not have had a good education.  Maybe her parents only spoke the local language, or maybe, she only had friends who only spoke in the local language….

However, I don't think any of the above reasons justified her pathetic linguistic skills. 

My conclusion: I think she never STUDIED English.

“STUDY English? But of-course we have English medium schools and colleges! This is humbug!”, you may say.

But think about it. A lot of us have READ English textbooks without STUDYING them. We hurried through the acclaimed Wren and Martin Grammar book before our examinations without spending time with it. But really, Wren and Martin, is the last place you should go to for better grammar. No one wants to spend time with Wren and Martin.  

There is some place else you should go to. 

I had the wonderful privilege of going to and living in Ethiopia during my childhood. Since most of my friends there were from north India, the USA, and the EU, I had the delightful pleasure of learning English the right way: by speaking to the right people. I also had very few people of my age that I could interact with, and hence, I started reading books. It started with simple Disney storybooks and ended with Collins’ Concise Encyclopaedia. And the only movies I watched were English, and back then, I even listened to plenty of BBC on a broken radio since we did not have cable TV.

Learning a language is not child’s play. It may be likened to becoming a scientist. It involves almost all the conscious faculties that you have in your body. It involves speaking, hearing, writing and reading. When you do all four, you are no longer just reading English, but you are “studying” it.

You need to peel the English language like a botanist who would peel a banana, examine it for consistency, bite into it for taste, savour it's fragrance like a good memory that may die if you don't intentionally preserve it!

Each of these steps is equally important. Not doing one may leave your English malnourished and without wit. I can assure you that reading Norman Vincent Peale’s books during my childhood helped me improve my speaking skills. Listening to BBC helped me hone my pronunciation. Studying C.S Lewis as I grew older, I realized that my speech was being seasoned with wit and gentlemanliness. In the last 10 years I know for certain that my overall English skills improved by 200%.

If you want to try improving your English, I would suggest you don’t go to a class where they teach it to you. Instead, follow the below advice :

  • Buy a small story book written for children and read it. Books written for children are interesting, polite, witty and bright! Start with the most simple book you can find. Never choose a subject you are not interested in. Do you like cats? Buy a book about cats!

  • Next, listen to a podcast that you will certainly find interesting. I find the Freakonomics podcast to be very interesting. It is two economists discussing everything from pets, obesity, traffic, space travel and politics.

  • If you already have decent linguistic skills, you may want to take a leap into Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, or C.S Lewis. C.S Lewis is my favourite. You will love reading The Screwtape Letters.

  • Hang out with someone who does not speak the same language you speak. That will force you to speak in English.

  • Never be in a room where there is no one more intelligent and eloquent than you. Spend your time with people who think big and can articulate their thoughts well. Make friends with both encouragers and critics.

  • Write a letter to yourself. Write a letter to your school teacher, or pen a note in your diary. Attempt a poem. Scribble an essay about the wisest thing you’ve heard from a friend. Keep doing it, and you will see your vocabulary glow!

  • Learning English in small sequential steps may not work. We may need to take drastic, huge and purposeful strides. Stop wanting to improve in small steps. Dream big. Desire to improve in leaps and bounds!

  • But know this: The minute you lose your curiosity is the minute you will stop learning. A lot of us hate mathematics because we are not curious about it. The same can be said about learning and “studying” English

It is totally human to lose interest and curiosity. Why, even husbands complain about that regarding their wives and vice versa!!! No one is immune !

So here is a story from my own life which may be of some relevance to you, in case you have been drained of your creative juices.

I was recently writing a book (as a personal project) and I hit a dead end. My mind was not able to articulate, or be curious about things. The reading, listening and writing I was already doing was not helping. I even took a trip to a hill-station to see if I could find inspiration. Nothing worked. I needed something radical to happen.

This went on for two months until one day, I was walking by a small government school and watched kids march in their uniform. The next day, I went by the same place, and decided to sneak into the school, and if possible check out one of their classrooms. I was lucky to find one open and empty and I walked inside. I sat on a bench, stared at the walls, smelt the chalk and felt the wood on the desk. In that moment, my mind was opened. The block was gone. The curiosity of a school going child flooded my mind and I was able to dream like a child again. I was able to start writing, reading, speaking and listening with curiosity again.

I’d like to end by saying this: If you want to improve your eloquence and English, be curious about it. Be excited about it! And if you lose interest, no one will kindle it for you, except yourself

There's only two ways this dragon, English, can affect your life: It can work for you, or it can work against you. You better shackle the dragon before the dragon shackles you. 

Now that you know that, go, tame your dragon!

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