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How to improve your language communication, both written and spoken

I’ve always been a slow learner when it comes to languages. When I was in Form 5- I took the 1119 English and you know what I scored? C6- I just barely passed. Previously, the teachers and me all believed that I was stupid and an underperformer in school.

It took me a long time- but I realised that I was not stupid- I just learned things differently from others. I cannot memorise things and then ‘vomit’ them out in exams. In order to remember, I need to connect and understand. And I dread to think how many more ‘unfortunate’ kids out there who don’t seemed to be able to grasp languages and are judged to be an underperformer.

In fact, if a child grows up excelling in school by following the system of memorising and producing the facts in exam, there would be a real cultural shock in the working world. Because in working world, things really don’t work that way.

Recently, it’s been the news that the level of English mastery in the new generation of graduates are appalling- both spoken and writen.

How to improve one’s ability to master a language- especially spoken if it is not your mother tongue?

In this article, I want to share with you some unconventional ways to learn a language. It’s what I apply to be able to eventually write well in both English and Malay.

To master a language, you must learn to love it

The school syllabus of the English language is sheer torture to already overburdened students. The content bores the daylights out of a person because it’s all theory, theory and theory. If you are learning English through only the school textbooks alone, you’ll NEVER master it. That I can tell you for sure.

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How do you make yourself love a language? Well, you can learn through activities that you love- okay, I know the generation now is very high tech. But those days, I learn a lot through reading lots and lots of books. My mom bought us to library to enable us to read books (no internet, and not much money to buy books). And we did not have Astro (cable TV) so we watched English shows through RTM 1, 2 & TV3. And the English songs- a lot of these songs are very nice and once you can sing along to them especially the expressive ballads, you would be able to express yourself well to.

I remembered that even though I went for about 6 years of weekend classes to learn Mandarin- I could never speak well and seemed to only remember to write my own name in Mandarin (forced by my parents to at least learn to write my own name). Totally just forget everything once I stop the classes in Form Three. But there was just one year that I had been motivated to learn Mandarin because of a very kind hearted teacher who knew how to encourage us through using little ‘rewards’ and teaching us ancient profound Chinese poems. Else, the rest of it was sheer torture. I had dislike Mandarin because I was bad at memorising- so I can understand the predicament for those had to struggle with English (the second hardest language in the world after Mandarin 🙂

How I’ve to finally force myself to speak is when I stayed in Penang and that time most of the people can only speak Mandarin or Hokkein (I could not speak Hokkein). Else, I would not be able to order food easily. But eventually, I grown to like the language becasue of my exposure to Mandarin ballads song and friends who love to listen to them- singers like Jeff Chang, Jackie Cheung and Emil Chau motivated me to speak in Mandarin. The time spent on the beach and up the hills listening to these songs and having them transcribe the songs for me….

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My point is, you have to find something in the language that bridges a gap to something that you love. English is used as a medium of communication in so many things- perhaps songs that you love (sing along to them often) or books.  But bear in mind that you need to read many, many books and listen to songs for years before you can see improvement. And when you improve, it’s not just a small change- it’s more like a catterpillar suddenly transforming into a butterfly.

And write often- like in blogs-don’t run a blog with ‘bahasa pasar’ (broken English) in ‘Singlish’ or ‘Manglish’. There was about 18 months in my life where I do nothing but communicate to customers via email everyday. After that ‘training’, I find that I can think better when I type than write and the words sometimes flow out effortlessly.

Some of you may be like me- bad at History on memorising useless facts. So you need to learn creatively- so you may not know about grammatical rules or tell the difference between a verb and adverb- but you’ll learn to use them and patch the words up naturally through reading and writing on your own. Also make yourself speak English as often as you could. My best friend used to be weak in English- but she could now write well because she wrote me long English letters (since I could not read Mandarin) and when she goes out, she would speak to waiters in English even though she was constantly laughed at by others. Today, she speaks and writes reasonably well….so I wondered who has the last laugh 😛

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By the way, I only realised few weeks ago what does a consonant and a speller meant. Granted, I still make grammar and spelling mistakes here and there- nothing’s perfect. So we really don’t need theories- we need to love the language and make it a part of our lives. Then, we would be able to eventually master it.

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  • Ben April 16, 2011, 7:02 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. There is no question that English has become an international language. English is a tough language to learn, especially for Thai people. Thai language (mother tongue) is used as the medium of instruction from Kindergarten to University. In Thailand, I hardly use English my everyday life.

    At first, I thought that my English would improve automatically if I had spent sometimes in an English Speaking environment. That is partially true, but one of the most important things is your self-confidence. Personally, it is not easy to overcome this problem. I’ve also found that reading is a fun way to learn English. I’ve taught myself English by reading travel books and blogs. Your blog is one of my favourites. Basically, I’ve tried to get myself addicted to reading, but it needs a lot of willpower.

  • Yin April 17, 2011, 11:39 am

    Ben, I am amazed that you have learned English on your own. Your writen English is very good. Thanks for your ongoing support for my blog.
    Now I am trying to learn Thai language. Initially, I really cannot remember the 44 alphabets in the Thai language. I practice and practice writing each word but when my teacher asked me, I just cannot remember how to write. So last week I figured out to learn via reading and writing my favourite Thai reading materials. By having those little alphabets- consonants and vowels coming alive in sentences, it become so much easier and fun.

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