How Anyone Can Improve Their Spoken and Written English

What every Indian must understand: Good language skills go a long way in furthering your professional career, personal life, and self-grooming. Poor skills betray the value and credibility of your education.

Over the past five years, have noticed a rather alarming trend in India. Literate and well-educated people can no longer speak a single, proper sentence in English. They suffer from terrible mistakes in grammar and pronunciation. What is more embarrassing for them, is many of them have spent a fortune and have devoted two or three decades of their lives in acquiring their education. Yet almost anybody I meet or interact with, sounds illiterate and uneducated the moment they open their mouths.

How Deep The Grammar Rabbit-Hole Goes

Students and professionals from engineering seem to be the worst hit. To most of them, English has always been an unimportant subject, and reading books a waste of time. Thus, intelligent and highly-skilled professionals in India find it difficult to find jobs, or move ahead in their careers. The IT and BPO industries find it especially hard to find people with even a basic level of business-communication skills. I recall that through my school days, I never met a single teacher of Science subjects such as Physics, Biology, Chemistry, or Maths, who could speak English properly. Sadly, many children laughed and mocked their teachers’ abuse of the language (“Hush! Children! The Principal is vibrating in the corridor.” Or, the odd “Open the window, let the climate come in.”)

In the last ten years of my work as a journalist and editor, am dimayed to note graduates in English-literature from top universities, some armed with additional qualifications in Journalism and New Media, are quite insufferable. Sub-editors, who are normally in-charge of correcting spelling, grammar, and style, are themselves quite terrible, too.

The Rot Seems to Have Set In

Web-search to discover how many bookshops have shut down in Delhi alone. The few surviving ones augment or even support their business with in-house coffee-shops, or by selling music, movies, stationery, and knick-knack. I seldom find people browsing through bookshops, or once inside, browsing through books. The writing-style of popular books today is a subject for another discussion.

The English in our daily newspapers is appalling. This is even more ironic when you realize one of them claims to hold the record for the world’s largest circulation among English newspapers, while others contest closely for this top position. Mainstream English TV channels have presenters who should be pulled off the air and sacked, but it’s apparent there is a genuine problem in finding good people in a country with a population of over one billion. While I send my child to one of the best play-schools in Delhi, am distressed to note that some of his play-school teachers can’t speak English correctly. How do I shield his ears from imbibing their language?

Hiding Their Incompetence

Most people have found clever and sly methods of hiding their incompetence. They all mix English with their local language, such as Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil or whatever else. This bastardization is deliberately made to sound ‘cool’, and Radio and TV jockeys heavily indulge in ‘Hinglish’ or other corruptions. The second trick is to use as few words as possible, and to be repetitive, all this to hide the sparseness of their vocabulary. They all tend to speak rapidly, as this hides their ignorance of pronunciation, tenses, and other inaccuracies. While speaking, only key operative-words are emphasized. In particular, the sharp consonants of some words are spoken loudly, while the rest of the words are merely mumbled. For example, “CARReer” or “CARRier” to hide their ignorance of the distinct pronunciation of each word. Some words are abbreviated, such as “congrats” instead of “congratulations”, and “vocab” instead of “vocabulary” . Eye and hand-gestures compensate for the rest.

Writing-skills

This deserves special mention. Graduates in their twenties and thirties cannot write, not even to save their skins. Many companies, sensitive to their image, enrol their staff into what I call ‘re-education crash courses’ to get them to send an email in comprehensible English. I often groan when I find PowerPoint or OpenOffice Impress slides beamed on big screens and to large audiences, with glaring spellings and other mistakes. As important speakers and guests-of-honour butcher the language on public-address systems, have often wished someone would invent technology to run live and subtitled-text for the audience. People I know, who speak fluently and once wrote nearly flawless English, have today sent their writing skills to the dogs. They never realized when they deteriorated to SMS-English in their formal letters and published words. I rarely find someone who remembers to spell ‘you’ as ‘you’, for instance. Indian authors may win the Booker prize and other international recognitions for their literary outpourings, but nobody seems to address the reality in every street, school, office, and home in India.

Wake-Up Calls

For a few years in my profession, I foolishly imbibed the Hinglish-style of speech, and freely spoke in the incorrect English of my clients, thinking this would help me get my message across better. The worst thing I could possibly do to myself professionally and personally, was to discard my English and imbibe the atrocious language-style of my students in New Media and/or Graphic Design, especially from 1998 till 2007. This I did even when I was merely working as a visiting-faculty from time-to-time at a few institutes, and despite being a prolific writer, journalist, and an editor.

The first metaphoric stinging slap across my face, came from my dear friend, and one of my gurus, Raj Mathur, who publicly admonished me in 2000, for typing in sms-English, on the linux-delhi.org mailing list. I immediately noted how I had to struggle with myself to break away from that habit and get back to proper spellings. Am so glad linux-delhi.org, a hub of obviously educated people, insists members use proper spellings in their public posts. This also helps web search-engines to accurately tag and index the often valuable information shared on the list. I appreciate Raj for correcting me, and am often disappointed when otherwise educated people on the linux-delhi mailing list make weak excuses, cite laziness, or even argue, for using sms-spellings in their posts. Little do they realize the negative impression they generate for themselves in the eyes of prospective clients and employers, as well as friends and peers.

The second wake-up call followed almost immediately. I re-examined my professional writing and noticed my style had deteriorated drastically. It took me, and is still taking me, great effort to get back to my initial command over the language. Try this yourself now: Take pen and paper and see if you can spontaneously write two pages of text without sms-spellings, deletions, and other errors. Chances are you can’t.

The third wake-up call happened in 2007. While chatting with a dear friend over the phone, she pointed to me how I had grown into the habit of using rather abusive language. I felt rather ashamed of myself, and promised to drop the habit completely, though I love to use the ‘F’ word, out of love for Osho. Am not embedding the video-extract of Osho’s remarkable speech, but you may view it here: http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=6D7rWLzloOI

The fourth and final wake-up call came from Dr. Ramesh Biswas, from Austria. I frequently appear on television, usually, but not limited to, being interviewed for insights and recommendations on technology. While flipping through some TV channels one evening, Ramesh was surprised to catch me on-air and dropped by the next day, to tell me quite clearly: “You come across as an educated, well-groomed, and an intelligent person, until you spoil your own credibility and impression by suddenly mispronouncing words that you shouldn’t be, given your background…. You should find a teacher or instructor who actually raps you on your knuckles, and firmly deals with you until you get your presentation right.”

That was it. I suddenly remembered that for ten years of my life as a child, I did indeed have a private mentor who taught me English, and a love for poetry, literature, and books. Her name was Muriel Wasi, and with each passing day I fondly remember her as an old battle-axe. More about her in another post. Meanwhile, on receiving my Bachelors in English Honours from Delhi University, had enrolled for my Masters, and at one time, was all set to work towards a Ph.D in English Literature, until life had other plans for me. Twenty years forward I took a good and hard look at what I had done to my command over the language. I needed no further prodding.

Top Tips

Here are details of how I personally improved my deteriorating command over English. I further refined my techniques so people who have always suffered from poor English-skills may also significantly improve themselves within a month.

  1. Stop using sms-English: All it takes is just another 50-paise, or even a rupee, for you to type a slightly-lengthier message in proper English. Consider it a valuable investment to make each time. For recurring messages, consider creating templates of pre-typed messages in your phone. I often insist friends and colleagues who sms me regularly, to only use proper spellings in their messages.
  2. Read at least one good book a week: Reading newspapers, magazines, brochures, and business and technical documents, is like trying to nourish your body exclusively on junk food. Just think: Have you read at least 52 good books in the last twelve months? If not, you know why you’re suffering. I threatened to hold back salary-increases for writers in a publishing team assigned to me during a consulting project, if I did not find them reading a book a week. I even threatened to fire them if they defaulted twice. Within a month of this stern condition, I noticed a dramatic improvement in their quality of writing. If you work with writers, consider implementing similar rules.
  3. Run every paragraph you author through a free online spell-check and grammar-check tool. You may try my favourite one here: www.spellchecker.net/spellcheck
  4. Be more evocative: Quickly describe or write a review of your favourite movie or music. Chances are you might just have used the word ‘awesome’ somewhere. Consider using a free online thesaurus to find other words for almost everything you say or write. This will help you increase your vocabulary and also make your expressions more evocative. Here’s one: thesaurus.reference.com
  5. Conduct a readability test: Nobody will ever tell you whether they found your written English easy or difficult to understand. Raj Mathur has developed a free and opensource web-application, that grades your text against various readability metrics. James Joyce would find it quite Useless, but this may just help you catch the Achilles heel of your writing-style. Discover it here: English Diction and Readability Tests.
  6. Speak slowly: You might find this difficult at first, as you try hard to distinctly pronounce each word, and watch out for mistakes with definite and indefinite articles such as ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’; with prepositions such as ‘of’, ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘at’, and more; and with your tenses.
  7. Learn correct pronunciations with howjsay.com: Just pay attention on how to correctly pronounce words you often take for granted. Try some words that most Indians tend to get wrong: ‘Career’; ‘Europe’; ‘Executive’; ‘Wednesday’; ‘Pronunciation’; ‘Project’ (there’s a difference between the noun and the verb with the same spellings); ‘Florist’; ‘August’; ‘Spectacles’; ‘Form’ (as in admission-form. Most people tend to mispronounce this as ‘farm’ or ‘pharram’); ‘Director’; ‘Invalid’ (the noun is distinct from the adjective).
  8. Stop using ‘Hinglish’ or freely mixing English with any other language. You will soon find you can’t speak the other language properly either.
  9. Stop using ‘arrey’ at the beginning, and/or ‘naa’ at the end, of each sentence. Most otherwise well-educated Indians have taken on this rather deplorable habit. Examples: ‘Please come here, naa’; ‘Don’t you think, naa?’; ‘Arrey! What are you doing?’; ‘Arrey! Using English like this is not good, naa?’
  10. Avoid speaking in abbreviations: ‘Congratulations’ is better than ‘Congrats’, unless you do wish to make someone feel like a rodent.
  11. Correct, or else avoid, people who refuse to improve their language-skills. Why? You tend to imbibe their language. If i meet a client or colleague I can’t avoid, I silently correct all language-mistakes made by him or her, just so I can fence off the rot that may otherwise set in on me. Also, choose to spend more time with those who speak fluently and you’ll eventually notice a change in your style as well. It’s just human nature.
  12. Switch off from TV and radio stations that butcher the language. Choose instead, to watch at least one hour of good English TV programming, while paying more attention with your ears than your eyes. Tune in to a quality radio station, whether local or international, where your ears can soak up to abut an hour of good English.
  13. Avoid abusive or offensive language. It makes you sound rather uncouth.

As you may see, the deterioration of your language has actually taken considerable effort and fortification of wrong habits by you, but what if you feel none of the above tips improve your English? I’ve successfully used the following technique with Hina Khan and Anshuman Kumar, two students am individually mentoring in various creative disciplines.

Niyam’s Audacious Technique for Improving Your English

Before Your Begin: Download and install, audacity, the free audio-editing software, on your desktop or laptop computer. You may get it from audacity.sourceforge.net. Buy yourself a reasonably good-quality microphone, or else a headset with a built-in microphone. Plug it in to your computer, and make a test recording in audacity, to ensure everything works.

Step 1: Take a good book or magazine. Flip open a random and unread page. Record yourself reading that page aloud, for about five to seven minutes. Take care to speak slowly, clearly, and distinctly.

Step 2: Close the publication. Playback the recording while keeping your eyes closed, so you can focus on what you said.

Self-Test: Launch your favourite word-processor, like openoffice.org for instance, and type in a paragraph or more in summary of what you think you read, without consulting the publication or your recording. You might just feel quite disappointed or even aghast with your summary. Do this self-test just the first time you follow this technique.

Step 3: Launch your word-processor, and while listening to and pausing audacity phrase-by-phrase, transcribe everything you read back into its written form. This step may be tedious, but it will help you a great deal. Once done, compare it with the original. Once more, you might just find yourself surprised at spellings or even words you thought you had read and uttered.

Step 4: Close your eyes, listen to your recording one last time. Then open a fresh document and write a summary. Compare this with the original.

Step 5: Finally, make a second recording, this time looking up the correct pronunciation of words on howjsay.com in advance.

When you close your eyes and listen to this second recording, you may notice with increasing satisfaction, how much your spoken English may have improved within just thirty minutes of this exercise. Follow the above five steps daily, for about three months, and you’ll observe a startling and positive change in your diction and style.

Why Does This Technique Work?

Deep down, we’ve learnt to forget to pay attention to, and listen to, what we say. When we read with our eyes, we tend not to listen to the words being read with our ‘inner ear’. When we speak, our ears tend not to listen to our own voice speaking. Our mind switches off and wanders off, or merely listens to words, without paying much attention to meaning. Hence all the errors made the first time anyone goes through this exercise.

This technique is highly effective, because when you do get down to carefully listening to yourself reading that publication, you sub-consciously hear yourself using correct grammar and style. That re-inforcement goes a long way in spurring your speech towards correct English.

So ultimately, only you could have paved the way out from your own deterioration, without requiring direct intervention or ongoing instructions from any other person. Amazing Fascinating, isn’t it?

[ends]

8 thoughts on “How Anyone Can Improve Their Spoken and Written English”

  1. This is a much needed eye-opener, Niyam.
    As I read it, I noted down the sites you mention and will certainly access them to improve my written and spoken English.
    You could have mentioned that Indians use more abstract and Latinised words rather than simple, Anglo-Saxon words in their writing.
    A real treat for my ears was the pristine English spoken by educated Indians living in Britain, during my recent visit. I re-live this everyday by watching and listening to BBC News.
    Thank you and bless you, my son!

  2. Dear Niyam,

    Thanks a ton for sending me the information.Will forward the address of this blog to my students and colleagues.
    A very pertinent and much required intervention on English language and its usage.I congratulate you on your detailed suggestions on improving the written and spoken skills of English language.

    Most of us who teach English literature in colleges of Delhi University find the going tough because the basic skills in language are missing among students.Their reading ,comprehension, pronunciation skills are non-existent.We need to attack the problem at the school level before the students take their 10th board exams. However the situation is similar in Hindi and other regional languages.A similar threat is seen among many ethnic world languages world over.The politics and hegemony of English language is such that we suffer a Brahminical angst and get scared when it gets polluted.

    The linguists who see usage of mixed codes in language as a prerequisite to language growth, and evolution of new creoles,would not be so particular about purity of language.A multicultural, post-colonial existence makes mixed codes inevitable. However none of the above can be a legitimate argument against the sincere initiatives to correct usage of English.All the best.

  3. Wonderful post, Niyam! I, however, was truly surprised to find such a long piece of writing on your blog 🙂 I would have expected you to say it in 100 words, considering that one of your recommendations for good writing used to be – “Keep it short!”

    Nonetheless, every word you have written is valuable. Thanks.

  4. Hold on self-proclaimed English Guru, there are several issues with your writing, in this post, as well as throughout the entire blog. But I have neither the time, nor the inclination to edit the whole post, but to justify my claim of you being a person with average writing skills. I thought I should edit at least one sentence.
    Sample this:
    “This I did even when I was merely working as a visiting-faculty from time-to-time at a few institutes, and despite being a prolific writer, journalist, and an editor.”
    ISSUES
    1. For one, “time-to-time” is redundant because visiting faculty itself means that you did this occasionally.
    2. Why use “merely”
    3. If I am not wrong, via this sentence you are conveying that despite your experience and skill sets, you continued to use incorrect language. Here’s how I’d write this particular sentence:
    “This I did despite being a visiting-faculty to a few institutes, a prolific writer, journalist, and an editor.”
    Practice what you preach Niyam.

  5. Thanks Manu for pointing out that awkward sentence and offering me a fix. I freely admit my spoken and written English is not even half as good as it used to be in college. It takes a lot of effort to constantly be on my toes, especially when we are all surrounded by poor standards of English all around us, including in the media. Alas! You too are impacted with this. Consider your sentence: ” But I have neither the time, nor the inclination to edit the whole post, but to justify my claim of you being a person with average writing skills. I thought I should edit at least one sentence.”

    The first sentence uses ‘But’ twice, only to end abruptly in a full-stop. Maybe you wanted the second sentence to start from the second ‘But’, which would mean that full-stop needs to be changed into a comma, for all of it to make sense.

    I agree with you Manu I should have re-phrased my sentence more accurately. What I meant was, that when I worked as a visiting faculty, I only had to work two or three days a week, for not more than five to six months in a year. This too was not regular, as sometimes I would not work as a visiting facutly for perhaps two or three years in a row. Hence the ‘from time-to-time’.

    Thanks for the heads-up, Manu.

    regards
    niyam

  6. I was wondering if you ever thought of changibg the layout of your site?Its very well written; I live what youve
    got to say. But maybe you could a little more inn the way of content so people could
    connecxt with iit better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only
    having 1 or 2 images. Maybe yoou could space it out better?

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