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Wednesday, March 10, 2010



One of my friends once said to me:
“See, I want to improve my English. Hereafter, we will talk only in spoken English”

I couldn’t help giggling.

For me, It is like asking for “egg omelet”.

I feel there is something cardinally defective about the way ‘Spoken English’ is understood and it needs to be discussed in clearing many of the misconceptions about learning a language.

‘Spoken English’ is a popular term familiar to all of us. Many are after it, as it is always in the case of all popular things. What does the term mean? It means ‘The English spoken’. Does it mean that it is different from the English that is ‘written’? Or if someone says that it is and it is so because here grammar is not important, then let me ask how he/she would correct a student who says that “I am going to school” and “I went to school” are the same in meaning. He/she has to make the student aware of Tense and the change in form of verbs in each Tense. It has to be understood that English is not separate from spoken English. To speak a language, we should learn it. Learning does not mean only reading books or learning passive and active voice, gerund etc. Learning requires skills like listening and observation. A waiter in a restaurant may be seen speaking English well. He may not know grammar as we learn it from books. But he has observed and listened to people speaking English and has interacted with them. Yes, he has put in lot of effort.

When my students ask me,
“Sir, how to improve my English?”
My reply is another question,
“How did you learn your mother tongue?”

Let it be Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam or Telugu, the methods to learn are the same. English is not an exceptional language just because it is a foreign language and whatever foreign need not be exceptional. I am afraid that the term ‘Spoken English’ has created, at least among a few, the idea that only English needs such special concern and importance. I have never come across a board saying ‘Spoken Malayalam, Spoken Telugu, Spoken German or Spoken French’.

Learning a language is a long process. In learning a language, we are once again becoming like children. Everything around us starts attracting our attention. For example, when we come across a centipede, we start asking how it is called in English. Or when we eat, we ask what each dish or vegetable is called in English. Otherwise, we take these things for granted. That is why elders are usually annoyed when children keep asking questions about minute and taken-for-granted things.

It is an arduous process yet beautiful as it is natural. At the same time, it is to be noted that language is subjective unlike science. The law of gravitation is the same for Newton, you and me. But the way I speak a language is quite different from the way others speak it. Or, each one has got a unique way of expressing oneself. This uniqueness has to be discovered and polished through constant reading, writing, and speaking, listening and similar practices. This is how a language has to be learnt. I don’t want to say ‘mastered’ because language being subjective and relative in expression always finds ahead of it an infinite horizon to be reached. As Tennyson writes in “Ulysses”,
“Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move”.

Language is subjected to fluctuations too, depending on its use. Language is not something to be mugged up like the names of the parts of a computer in a computer theory class. I have never attended any ‘Spoken English’ class as I found the very concept or the way it is understood, quite absurd. We used to speak English. And that was it. If you speak English in any class, it is an English spoken class. Then, why that tag “spoken”? I can speak Tamil, Hindi, Kannada and Bengali other than Malayalam and English. All of them were learnt by interaction-talking to people, asking them to correct, listening to them, watching movies in these languages. In fact, the subtitles of film dialogues and songs are really interesting and make learning an enjoyable experience. I still do it as learning is a process that has no end. I remember having written a lot of letters to my friends and relatives in English when I was at school. I remember, the first two or three letters were written with microscopic scrutiny and yet with misgivings. The letters written later carried repetitions. Still later, I found myself quite comfortable and at ease when I was writing letters in English. I always tried to incorporate in my letters all the new words and phrases I had learnt by reading or listening. This helped me not only in improving my vocabulary but the effectiveness of my expression. The same I could carry forward in speaking too. The centers for spoken English too are not places where you can learn it without any effort within a limited time. This is where the misconception comes. These centers expose you to different situations and the way English has to be spoken in these situations. But the basic skills and constant effort to polish them cannot be replaced by any short cut.

I would like to mention here a similar problem. I have found in many places boards displaying ‘transcendental meditation’. Meditation itself is transcendental. Or to be precise, what is there to transcend? Or who is there to transcend? We often miss the Obvious.

The following simple and interesting methods can help you improve your learning of a language:

1. Interaction, which includes careful listening and observation.
2. Reading books that interest you, news reports that interest you.
3. Watching movies in English
4. Subtitles of films (For example, a film in Hindi with subtitle in English can help Hindi speakers. Same with any other language). You will come across many new ways of expression. Note them and try to use them in your speech or writing. It is like using a bilingual dictionary.
5. Writing letters to friends or relatives in English even if both of you usually use your mother tongue or a common language. There is lot of mutual learning here.

Try to use the new words and phrases that you have learnt from this. Writing improves your expression the most. And when you are writing, you are speaking too. They are inseparable. Unless one does any of these, improving language and expression are almost impossible. Mere reading of books like “Learn English in 30 days” will not help without a practical knowledge of language by its use. SPEAK IT instead of SPEAKING ABOUT IT and the whole problem is solved.

I am not against centers for Spoken English or Meditation. The misconception that they are end in themselves needs to be dispelled in order to promote a right attitude towards learning a language. If they help you in making your language learning intense, your pursuit serious, then go ahead.

But remember, to learn a language, you have to live with it.


Anonymous said...

its true sir!!!!!!!!
ur articles r really very helpful to me....though ur not with us n i really miss u during our english classes....but wen i browse over ur blog it makes me feel that am back to santhosh sir's english class!!!!!!!

shobha said...

Ur methods were really very helpful...
Thank you sir...
Please be guiding us always like this...
---Shuchitha Sharma