The journey of how I taught myself English — and no, it does not only involve books.
As an Indian from the north-eastern part of the country, English is my third language. Everyone in my neighbourhood converses in Assamese. There were a few friends who spoke Hindi, but they were few and far between. As a child, English was a language that existed only within the boundaries of my school and ceased to be the moment I stepped out of the wrought-iron gates of the school premises. But, as I grew older, I found that I needed a good command over English in more and more spheres of my life.
And so, I taught myself this language that is spoken by more than 20% of people in the world. I am not a linguist and I did not take any special classes. But today, I am an Amazon India-bestselling author of three books (two novellas and one collection of poetry) — all written in English.
In this article, I am going to share with you the step-by-step process of how I learned English from being a beginner to having mastery over it. There are no secret ingredients. The only things you will need to be fluent in English are a good internet connection and lots of patience and determination.
For someone who barely knows beyond a few words here and there, you might find these tips useful (starting from the most basic and moving on to advanced ways)-
Most people will tell you that cartoons are for kids. But when you are trying to learn a new language, you are no less than a kid. The best thing about cartoon shows is that they depict the characters dealing with scenarios that you will easily come across in real life. One of the best examples in this regard is Spongebob Squarepants. In every episode, the characters do simple tasks like cook, board trains, attend classes, and interact with the people around them. The biggest reward of watching Spongebob Squarepants is that you will get to learn the English words for a lot of everyday things you encounter in real life.
Reading books can be difficult for people not well-versed with the language. But comic books or graphic novels can come as saviours. Because there are eye-catching illustrations alongside the text, one can easily understand what is going on by looking at the pictures. Co-relating the words with the action being depicted will automatically develop the reader’s vocabulary and help them learn simple words and sentences in the English language. Some of the best comics to start out are-
- Tinkle Digest: With lovable characters like Suppandi or Shikari Shambu, the Indianised situations and stories in this well-loved series of comics can definitely help one learn simple English sentences.
- Chacha Chaudhary: The well-loved Chacha Chaudhary with his famous red-turban is a childhood favourite of mine. Him, along with Chachi, Rakka (dog), and Sabu, his tall assistant from Jupiter go on adventures that are interesting as well as educative to read about.
- Champak: The colourful illustrations and gripping stories make Champak one of the most interesting comics in India. In addition to stories, this one had puzzles, jokes, and other activities — which you can attempt while reading in order to test your grasp over the language.
While you are watching cartoons and reading comics, don’t forget to pay attention to the words and sentence structure. By learning the way words fit in with each other in everyday conversation, you can teach yourself the basics of English.
Building a vocabulary
Once you have mastered the basic level by learning simple words and sentence structure, you can build a solid vocabulary by reading newspapers. If you weren’t aware before, vocabulary consists of two components — active vocabulary (the words that are a part of your speech that you use on a daily basis) and passive vocabulary (the words you don’t actively use, but, can recognise when you come across them in context). Usually, a person’s passive vocabulary is much larger than their active vocabulary. But, there are ways you can make new words a part of your active vocabulary-
- Whenever you come across a new word, write it down in a journal along with its meaning. If possible, also write a sentence in which the word was used so you can remember the usage.
- Use the new words in your speech or writing whenever you get a chance. Using a word in context helps you remember it faster than any mnemonic technique the experts might suggest.
- Repeat and keep using the words until they become a part of your speech.
Getting Better At Spoken English
As I was learning English and had reached a fair amount of expertise while understanding it, speaking out loud was a different ball game. I found myself fumbling a lot. There were gaps in my sentences and a lot of “ummm”s where I took a breath to look for the right word. But over time, I kept learning, and today, I don’t stammer or get nervous while speaking in front of a crowd. Here are some of the things that helped me improve my spoken English-
Speaking in English with friends
There are no two ways around this. No shortcuts. The only way you can improve your spoken English is when you talk in English with your friends. I know, this can be pretty intimidating, but it is possible, especially if you are in a college campus with students of your own age. You can dedicate three days of the week where you will only speak in English with each other — no excuses. What worked for me was that when I studied at IIT Guwahati, there were students from all over the country and many of them (including me) were not well-versed in Hindi. Talking in English helped me gain confidence and fluency over the language. Of course, this was a process that took two years and not something that happened instantly. Like I said before — you have to put in conscious effort.
That being said, what to do if you don't have friends who are willing to converse with you in English?
Watch news broadcasts
I would have suggested movies, but the actors tend to exaggerate their sentences depending on the emotion the characters are going through. A better option is watching news broadcasts as the presenters keep a very neutral and emotionless accent while speaking. You need to pay attention to the way the presenters pronounce the words and which parts of the sentence they lay emphasis on.
Once you’ve done that, pick a news segment of 2–3 sentences and try to speak like the presenter. Record yourself while speaking and then play it out loud and observe which parts are different: what mistakes you have been making or what syllables you are missing out, etc. This is the simplest way to know your mistakes if you don’t have anyone to point them out.
Watch TED Talks and speeches of well-known orators
Apart from news broadcasts, TED Talks and speeches also have the speaker talking in a very neutral accent. One of my favourite orators of India is Dr. Shashi Tharoor. You can go through this TED talk of his and practise the same steps as above: speak out a portion, record yourself, and try to see in which aspects you are differing from his way of speaking.
Some other speeches you can listen to and practise yourselves speaking are-
- Priyanka Chopra’s “Full Power of Women” speech
- Dalia Mogahe’s TED Talk on “What it’s like to be a Muslim in America”
- Shah Rukh Khan’s TED Talk on “Thoughts on humanity, fame and love”
Take the help of an app
The Elsa app is an excellent resource if you are not able to spot errors in your speech. All you have to do is upload a sample of your speech and the app’s built-in AI will help you identify the places in which your pronunciation is wrong. Some other apps that help you better your pronunciation and speaking skills by identifying errors are — Pronunroid, English Pronunciation, Say It, and Sounds.
Avoid local influence
A major problem non-native English speakers face while speaking English is that whether we want it or not, the way we pronounce our first language makes its influence felt while speaking in English. For example, the sound “ch” does not exist in Assamese and that’s why, many people from Assam pronounce English words like “chair” as “sair”, “Chicken” as “siken”, “Chips” as “sips”, etc. Every regional language has its own peculiarities and one should make a conscious effort to avoid letting the influence of their mother tongue seep into the way they speak in English.
Getting Better At Written English
This is one of the questions I get asked a lot: what is a book that I can read to improve my English? Coming from personal experience, there is no book in the world that will magically help improve your writing skills after just one read. For that, you need to read, rather, devour books like there is no tomorrow.
Don’t just skim through the pages; get into the mind of the author. Feel the emotions portrayed in it as the main characters do. Live in the make-believe world for as long as it takes you to finish the journey, and revel in every detail, every minute brilliance of writing displayed in the story.
When you are done, you will feel like waking up from a beautiful dream; as if reality is merely a poor substitute for the happiness that the world the author conjured up had given you.
Then, perhaps, you will be left with an urge to write something similar too, something as powerful; something as beautiful.
It is that urge to write that comes to your heart after finishing a good book, that helps make you a better writer. That urge, and practice of course.
Apart from reading, here are a few tips that can help you become a better writer-
Steal from the books you love
I do not mean to encourage plagiarism in any way, but it’s no crime if you like a sentence so much that you want to mould it accordingly and make it your own. I’d like to cite an example of a beautiful line I’d come across in ‘Gardens of the Moon’ by Steven Erikson -
…her eyes, which held the dull glint of weathered onyx — they looked ancient, every emotion eroded away into extinction…
I liked the line enough to memorize it. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when a slight variation of the same made an appearance in something that I wrote today -
He regarded me with his pale blue eyes that shone with the dull glint of weathered sapphire; they looked upon me with a yearning that I found disturbing….
You see, this is not blatant plagiarism; just a way to ‘steal’ something amazing that you read, add your touch, and claim it for your own. Some instances leave the readers spellbound, trust me!
Write more and write daily
When you make it a habit of writing something each day, the language becomes a part of your body, your blood. It flows in easily from your fingertips as if it belongs there. But, what shall I write about? you ask.
Write about your day, the mellifluous voice of the one you love, that game of tug of war that you observed the street urchins engaged in while driving to the office or that deep longing to be with her that fills you up from inside as you lie on your lonely bed, watching the hours tick by — write whatever comes to your mind, but write from your heart. And your soul — put your very being into the words you’re penning down, and watch it weave literary magic on its own. An Ernest Hemingway quip comes to mind while talking of this -
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
You can write in your personal journal, or you can write a social media post, an email to a friend, a newsletter — it doesn’t matter whether you publish or not. What is important that you write daily, no matter what.
Proofread — spend more time editing than you do writing
After you believe you’ve done your best with a piece, keep it aside for a while. Often, writers are blind to their own mistakes as they tend to read out what they think they have written, rather than what they have actually written. That is why it is important to wait for at least a few hours and before you attempt editing it.
Once you have gotten it out of your system, read through the length of your piece again, and be hard on yourself. Edit out parts that make it drag, and change words that sound bland to more imaginative ones. A thumb rule of writing that I follow religiously is this: do not include a single line in your story that doesn’t serve either of the two purposes:
- Takes the story forward,
- Helps in defining the depth of the characters.
Don’t be satisfied with proofreading your piece just once. Ask a fellow writer to proofread for you and pay attention to what they say. Those bits and pieces of constructive criticism you receive may well turn out to be the deciding factor in whether your story is just okay, or breathtakingly beautiful.
Bonus: Getting Better At Creative Writing
The most important thing you need to write about things you have never experienced before is Teleportation.
Yes, you read that right. Try to imagine new locations — places you’ve never been to but only seen on TV.
For instance, imagine standing on a high cliff from which a person can look down to see the world panning out below him. Imagine the morning sun painting the distant snow-capped mountains in shimmering golden hues. The feeling you’d get when a moisture-laden cloud softly caresses your skin with a touch of its ice-cold droplets. Think of the chilly air giving you gooseflesh as you hug yourself tighter and stand there to marvel at the beauty of nature — at the softness of the moist dewy grass beneath your feet, the lush green cedars and pines carpeting the opposite slope face and the road paved with big concrete blocks that have turned green after so many generations of moss growing on them.
And as the night’s mists slowly burn away, the town below takes form in front of your eyes, emerging like a ghost from the predawn gloom. Oh look, there’s an early riser — an old man with a bundle on his back, probably off to sell his wares in some nearby town. And look at the fumes coming out from some of the chimneys in the houses below. Seems like the world is already waking up to a new day. If you stay there long enough, you might even get a whiff of tea — a smell so heavenly, it would make you want nothing more than to cup your hands around a steaming hot tumbler and sip to your heart’s contentment.
Transported to a hilly town, weren’t you?
That is how you get started with writing fiction. Create a mental picture of the things and places you want to write about — and describe them just as you would want your readers to picture them. You need not have felt or seen these things, but imagining them is enough.
Tools & Resources Mentioned in This Article
- Learning basic words and sentence structure: Spongebob Squarepants, Tinkle Digest, Chacha Chaudhary, Champak
- Spoken English learning samples: Shashi Tharoor’s TED Talk, Priyanka Chopra’s “Full Power of Women” speech , Dalia Mogahe’s TED Talk on “What it’s like to be a Muslim in America”, Shah Rukh Khan’s TED Talk on “Thoughts on humanity, fame and love”
- Identify errors in spoken English: Elsa app, Pronunroid, English Pronunciation, Say It, and Sounds.
- How Many People Speak English, And Where Is It Spoken? by Dylan Lyons