Hereâs a question sent to my Personal Messages box by Ian T., new Forum member, last February 7, 2014:
Hi! Mr. Joe Carillo,My reply to Ian T.:
I am a teacher and also a student of English. It has been more than five years since I started studying English; however, my grammar has not improved in both my spoken or written English. I have read every grammar book that I know from Cambridge to Oxford, but I have not really seen any big improvement in my English skills. I have been reading your Forum to find an answer to my problem, but for now, I just want to express my gratitude to you for this website, which is helping me a lot. Thanks!
Youâre most welcome, Ian!
I must say at the outset that youâre not alone in your predicament. Many nonnative speakers of English who want to become more proficient in English get into the same fix because they think they can achieve that objective by simply reading one English grammar textbook after another. That isnât the right way to do it. Becoming good in English grammar may make you get good grades in school and score high in grammar proficiency tests, but it wonât dramatically improve your spoken and written English.
Grammar and usageâalong with vocabularyâare very much like carpentry tools; they wonât make you a master carpenter if you keep them unused in the toolbox and make very little effort to use them in actual carpentry work. To realize a big improvement in English proficiency, you must assiduously make use, hone, and internalize your grammar and usage skills. You can do this by regularly reading and listening to good Englishâmind you, not just the kind you read in local English-language periodicals or hear on local TV and radio broadcasts, but good English-language fiction and nonfiction as well as outstanding foreign English-language TV talk shows and news programs. Then you must make every effort to speak good English yourselfâwhether practicing in total privacy or in the company of friends and acquaintances.
You can consider yourself adequately skilled in English only when you are able to think or speak or write in good, straightforward English rather than mentally translating your native-language thoughts into English every timeâand I must tell you that nothing less than a continuing, rigorous self-improvement effort can make that quantum improvement happen.
Over the years, a good number of readers of my English-usage column in The Manila Times
and, later, members of this Forum as well have similarly asked me for advice for improving their English. I have distilled my thoughts about that question in âAdvice to the English-challenged,â an essay that I wrote for my Times
column in 2003. I later used that essay as the epilogue to my book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Todayâs Global Language
, and I am now posting it in this weekâs edition of the Forum as a suggested general action plan for you and for others seeking to improve both their written and spoken English. Advice to the English-challenged
Scores of readers of my daily column in The Manila Times
have asked me by e-mail how they can improve not only their written but also their spoken English. The two notes below are typical of their plight about their proficiency in the language:
Arkie Manny: âCan you please give me advice on how to converse in English more effectively? I am working here abroad and there are times when I stutter when talking with my colleagues.â
Abby B., who studies in a prestigious Philippine university: âWay back in high school, we were not trained to speak English well. So now that I am in college, it is proving to be a very big disadvantage. I have a problem communicating with people. Sometimes I fail to answer my teacherâs questions during recitation not because I donât know the answer, but because I donât know how to deliver it. I get scared that I might not say what I really want to say and that my grammar might be wrong. I find it hard to deal with the problem. It affects my self-esteem. I want to become competitive. I want to become fluent. I hope you can give me advice.â
Arkieâs and Abbyâs woes are actually very similar, so I gave them the same advice. Of course, I offered it neither as speech therapist nor speech improvement expert, but only as one who, many years ago, suffered from both problems mildly and had decently managed to cope with them.
I know of at least three reasons why some people find it difficult to express themselves in social, business, and classroom situations: a minor congenital vocal defect, an inferiority complex, or a deficient vocabulary, bad grammar, and bad pronunciation. To have any of these problems is, of course, excruciating enough. But worse is that many people just give up and blame their genetics, their upbringing, and their schools for it. Few bother to look deeply into their problem and find ways to surmount it.
In the case of a vocal defect, like the legendary stutter of Demosthenes of ancient Greece, personal initiative can make a lot of difference. Every day, the Athenian sword-makerâs son would do a solitary marathon and huff and puff through the city streets to the beach, stuff his mouth with pebbles, then start orating to the waves at the top of his voice. In time, the stutter disappeared and he went on to become the greatest orator Greece had ever known. Today, of course, you need not even do such an excruciating routine. You can simply get hold of a good English-language book or magazine and start reading aloud in the privacy of your bedroom. You can even do audiotapes of your readings to check your progress. If you do this for at least 20 minutes each night for a month, it just might do wonders to your recalcitrant tongue and diction as it did to mine.
If you have inferiority complex, there should be two or three personality development centers in your area that can help. I have not gone to one myself, but I had observed first-hand how their specialists make people see clearly the nature of their speech problems. The simple assisted routine of watching yourself speak in front of a mirror, or of being videotaped to capture your bad pronunciation as well as your tics and mannerisms, can be a painfully revealing but liberating process. A young secretary of mine many years ago suffered from an exasperating shyness; when spoken to, she would slur her replies and her right eye would blink rapidly without her even knowing it. I sent her to one such center and she became a self-confident, more refined woman in eight weeks, the slur and blinking gone.
Finally, as to deficient vocabulary and bad grammar, I actually know of only one appropriate course of action for that: a methodical self-review of English grammar, reading lots of good English-language books and magazines, and checking the dictionary for the meaning and pronunciation of any new word you encounter. It is sad that many schools and many teachers these days cannot be trusted to help you in this; their own problems with English vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation may be even worse than yours. You can easily see this in the incomprehensible, tortured English of leading Philippine educators who make the mistake of publishing their work in newspapers. Also, if you can help it, avoid tuning in to the Taglish morning programs of the local TV networks; listening to their fractured English and Filipino can set back your self-improvement efforts a few days each time.
As one who was similarly English-challenged in speech and who suffered from a mild stutter until third year in high school, I can tell you that there are few better therapies than the three I have described. Of course I must say one more thing: good English diction, as with practically all art forms, is simply the result of patiently cultivating the quality of oneâs mind and of practice, practice, practice.
-----------This essay first appeared in my âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ column in
The Manila Times in the early 2000s and now forms the epilogue to my book
English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Todayâs Global Language Â© 2004 by Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.FURTHER READING:Writing well in English no guarantee of being able to speak well in English