Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
That’s one of my favorite poets, Kamala Das, talking about why she chose to write in English most often, instead of her mother tongue or all the other languages she knew.
I, too, have been asked this question often.
I, too, choose to speak and write mostly in English despite being a non-native speaker.
In this post, I’ll tell you my story.
I’ll answer the question “how did you learn English?” with specific, practical steps that you can follow.
You don’t necessarily have to become an English-language writer, but these tips can make you a confident English communicator and even instill a new love for the language learning process.
Why Did I Choose to Learn English?
The short answer is: I didn’t have much of a choice.
My country, India, remained colonized by the British for almost 200 years. When India became independent in 1947, many of the institutional structures that the British had created remained, and still remain to this day. Those included schools like the one I attended where English was the medium of instruction (the language used in classrooms).
Being educated in a private, English-medium school was expensive and seen as a marker of privilege, as opposed to going to a public school where regional languages were the medium of instruction. Studying in an English-medium school didn’t mean that you thought the other languages were inferior (of course they aren’t, although colonialism did try to ingrain that feeling in the natives) but was a strategic choice to ensure that you had wider exposure to opportunities in the future.
And given the fact that English has over one billion speakers and is the language of international business and communication, that’s a pretty practical decision to make—whether you’re studying English in school or independently at home.
As I’ll discuss more below, my school had strict rules about speaking only in English (except in specific classes or circumstances). Over the years, I grew increasingly comfortable in expressing myself in that language. My love for writing stories and reading books led me to take up English literature classes in college. At the same time, I decided to share what I learned by volunteering to tutor underprivileged kids in that language.
It was while teaching children from diverse backgrounds that I realized an important truth: knowing a language opens up a whole universe for you to explore and to live in. And the more languages you know, the better.
But yes, English is one of the easiest and most practical languages for many people to master, and knowing it well does have its fair share of benefits.
How Did You Learn English? My Story in 7 Practical Steps You Can Follow
I’ll talk about my school days, about the different ways my parents and my teachers instilled in me a love for learning, and how you can use or modify these techniques to learn English at your own pace.
1. Drawing Associations Between English and My Native Language
As I stated before, my school had some strict rules about speaking only in English during classes. This meant that although I knew three languages (my mother tongue, Bengali, my national language, Hindi and of course, English) I mostly spoke in English at school.
I took advantage of this by turning Bengali and Hindi vocabularies into an English learning tool. I picked up a lot of English vocabulary by looking for the English equivalents for words and phrases I used all the time in Bengali or Hindi.
You can do the same thing by finding English equivalents for the most common words you use in your native language and vice versa. This makes your English vocabulary more meaningful to your daily life, therefore easier to remember. You can also practice translating back and forth between the languages, and that’ll help you express yourself in any situation.
Knowing more than one language also helped me see the same things from multiple perspectives and encouraged me to have an open mind and be curious about the diversity of this world. Cross-cultural communication is becoming increasingly important in our world, and the more languages you’re fluent in, the better.
And if you’re proficient in two or more languages, just remember that providing translation and transcription services can be a full fledged career in its own right!
2. Making As Many Mistakes As I Could (with Supportive English Teachers)
I was lucky to be blessed with teachers who encouraged us to make mistakes. We took part in elocution competitions, debates, group discussions and class presentations in a safe and supportive environment. Our initial attempts at speaking in front of the class of course didn’t go as planned, but gradually we got the hang of it.
Moreover, our teachers were there to guide us wherever we went wrong. They helped us choose the right word for any particular context, allowed us to participate and ask questions freely and corrected us whenever we mispronounced a word.
In other words, we made over a thousand mistakes when we tried to learn something, and those mistakes became a crucial part of our learning process. We weren’t shamed or punished for being wrong and we always got points for trying, because practice is the most important way to become fluent.
If you’re going to learn English, you have to share this attitude. Be prepared to initially fail and make lots of mistakes.
Self-learning is great, but if possible, look for a personal language mentor or tutor. You can easily find one online if you don’t have local options. Teachers can identify and correct your mistakes much faster than you would on your own. Direct feedback on your learning progress is very important, and one-on-one interactions will help you learn faster.
Alternatively, if you’re already part of a class or study group, make the most out of it by participating in class talks and interacting with everyone. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Both your language and social skills will dramatically improve once you let go of inhibitions and immerse yourself in learning.
3. Investing in a Good Dictionary
Often while reading a book, I’d come across words that I didn’t understand and would ask my father to explain them to me. Sometimes he would, but usually he’d encourage me to consult an English dictionary. He said that it was the most important book in the house.
He had a battered Chambers dictionary and he showed me how the words are alphabetically arranged and how to search for a word and find its meaning. He explained that a dictionary does more than just explain what different words mean—there are also pronunciation guides, word histories, synonyms (words with similar meanings), antonyms (words with opposite meanings), example sentences and other extra information.
There’s so much one can learn just by reading a dictionary!
So, investing in a good dictionary is one of the most beneficial and practical things you can do to improve your English. I suggest you keep a dictionary on your bookshelf and have a digital version on your phone for quick reference. Refer to it whenever you come across any unfamiliar term.
You can also use it to develop your vocabulary. Choose a random letter and learn a new word or simply open to a random page and choose a word that catches your fancy.
You can even come up with fun exercises. Choose five random words and try writing a story or a poem using them. Your aim shouldn’t be to create something perfect, but rather to get words on paper and to write grammatically correct and logical sentences.
4. Finding Fun Ways to Study
In school, we learned grammar and the fundamentals of language, but that wasn’t everything. We watched movies to study a text, had lots of quiz sessions, played games with our classmates and completed lots of fun exercises and activities while learning.
Taking an innovative and creative approach to language learning is very essential. Constant grammar drills or essay writing won’t work for most people. Everyone needs to break things up when studying a difficult topic like English, otherwise it’s too easy to get bored and quit.
Most teachers now use some form of audio-visual material in the classroom. Learning something new in the form of a game has been shown to have marvelous effects.
As an independent learner, this is very easy to achieve thanks to all the fun English learning tools out there. To start, play language games by yourself or with study partners. Make it a habit to solve English crossword puzzles or have a Scrabble session with your family every week. There are also a number of word games that you can look up for ideas.
Check out English YouTube channels in areas you’re passionate about. For instance, if you like cooking, follow a chef who speaks in English and the next time you look for a cake recipe, you’ll pick up some new English words as well.
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FluentU has a variety of engaging content from popular talk shows, nature documentaries and funny commercials, as you can see here:
FluentU makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you'll see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It even reminds you when it’s time to review! Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning with the same video.
You can start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, by downloading the app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
5. Acting and Writing English Stories
One of my favorite games as a kid involved pretending to be other people and talking to my imaginary friends.
During free periods at school, my friends and I would take turns to role-play (act out a specific scene) as our favorite fictional characters. Much later, I would even get into role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons as well as collaborative storytelling. Similarly, like many people, some of my favorite childhood memories involve my parents reading bedtime fairytales to help me fall asleep.
My love for stories later helped me to write and even narrate on my own. This not only improved my imagination, but also prepared me to face presentations and interviews.
When I teach kids, I often encourage them to talk about themselves and the things they like, and they’re typically glad for the chance to let elders hear their point of view. And they’re even happier when they’re allowed to be as dramatic and emphatic (expressive) as they want.
Storytelling and language learning may initially seem a bit far off, but they’re actually not very different. To be a fluent speaker of a language, you need to be able to express yourself and communicate efficiently. So try writing your own stories in English and even act them out. Form a study group offline or online, and meet up regularly to role-play your stories in English.
Maybe you can even create a persona (character) of the confident and charismatic speaker you’d like to be and practice in front of the mirror.
Take advantage of activities that require teamwork. You can even try joining a local theater group to improve your body language and expressiveness skills.
6. Reading What I Loved in English
I always loved learning and exploring things on my own. I often read chapters before they were taught in class and I liked doing extra reading to get a better perspective on the course. In middle school and high school, when I seriously began to focus on my writing, I would read books about creative and academic writing techniques, as well as vocabulary-building books such as “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.”
Similarly, my love for reading naturally improved my vocabulary and sentence construction. With the dialogue in fiction, I could understand the finer nuances of English conversation. And by reading nonfiction, I learned lots of new and interesting facts and figures, as well as how to express them accurately and appropriately in English.
Of course, not everyone is a bookworm (someone who loves reading). But it’s still easy to find English materials that you’ll love reading, to boost your comprehension skills in an enjoyable way like I did.
For example, you don’t have to start with huge English novels. Try an English comic book or funny English books!
You can also check out English children’s books and start from there. If you want something short but more mature, try these easy English short stories.
Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced user of the English language, it isn’t difficult to find interactive reading material about things you’re interested in. Plenty of educational websites have comprehension exercises that you can check out and practice for free.
Remember, if you can develop a love for reading, it’ll benefit you for life.
7. Immersing Myself in English
What I learned over the years is this: if you truly want to master something, you should immerse yourself in it (become completely surrounded/absorbed by it).
I didn’t master the English language in a day. Indeed, it took me years. And it wasn’t just the result of my schooling, parental support and the techniques I discussed above. English immersion played a huge role in pushing me to fluency, too.
I remember tuning into BBC during the afternoons to be up-to-date on world news—without anticipating it, I improved my own pronunciation and accent just by listening carefully to the news presenters. Similarly, reading English newspapers on a daily basis later helped me write reports and express myself clearly. My history lessons in school focussed a lot on western civilization, and before I knew it, I was pretty well-versed in English culture.
And finally, when my parents got bored of my constant demand for new storybooks, they enrolled me in the local British Council library. I had a new book to read every week, and I took part in events and workshops that helped me develop my social, speaking and writing skills in English.
Looking back on these days, I realize I didn’t do these things to specifically learn or improve my English. Rather, the mastery of the language was more of a by-product that came from being genuinely curious about the world and being eager to surround myself with English materials.
English immersion can be just as easy and effective for you, too. To get you started, both the BBC and British Council have helpful language learning content on their websites that you can access for free.
Try to think of English immersion as an organic (naturally growing) process. Don’t think of it as a part-time study activity. Watch English language TV shows or English movies in your free time, first with subtitles and later without. Listen to songs by English bands while paying attention to the lyrics. Discover the amazing world of English-language podcasts.
It’s up to you to figure out which techniques work best for you.
Nothing can stop you from learning if you’re committed enough. With the internet at your fingertips, there’s a lot of educational material that’s free and available to all. So even if you’re facing learning difficulties, try your best to remain optimistic and put in your maximum effort.
It may take time to get there, but once you do, success will always follow you around. Soon enough, you’ll have your own incredible advice to offer when people ask you, “how did you learn English?”
Archita Mittra is a freelance writer, journalist, editor and educator. Feel free to check out her blog or contact her for freelancing/educational inquiries.
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