Alleviating the trauma of speaking in English

Posted by Ranjeet Menon
May 16, 2017

English, probably the most intriguing language in the world. Quirky, yet nightmarish. One word can have multiple meanings based on context and even a comma or a semicolon can turn the intent of a sentence upside down. Even then, unofficially the language of our planet. According to Trevor Noah, a superlative comedian from South Africa, English is the best outcome of British colonization done right. His laugh riot on the British and English is worth listening to (https://vimeo.com/130619176). Plenty has already been written in English and about English, yet when it comes to speaking in English, people go through brain freeze and paralysis especially in India.

India became a hub for outsourcing, especially in IT primarily because of our skills in English. Educated from schools in English as the primary medium of language in the British system of education, we are ideally expected to breeze through anything in English, be it in writing or talking. The best part is, even students who learn subjects in their mother tongue in schools pick up English and start writing well in no time. So the question is, if we can write in English why can’t we speak in English? What I find ridiculous is, a thriving business environment exists in the name of teaching people how to speak English. Why would anyone have to “learn” to speak in English when they are already good in writing in English? There was a time when the BPO industry had started to flourish in India and there was a massive demand to speak English the American way so that BPO employees can speak to clients in the US.  I met a couple of people who were working in BPO companies and was left bewildered. These people must have had reasonably good English speaking skills before they were trained to speak in American accent. Why would anyone want to lose their natural speaking ability just to earn some money? Then came a time when I was part of a training program for improving communication with clients and we were advised to speak English without accent. Made perfect sense to me.
So what is holding us back from speaking in English? We grow up listening to our mother tongue language at home and that language becomes the easiest way to express our needs and emotions, just like kids who are born in homes where English is the mother tongue language would learn to express themselves in English. Even in schools where children are forced to converse in English with each other and with teachers, they would relapse quietly into their mother tongue language in their personal space. One simple example is, watch yourself as you count a bunch of currency notes. Do you count in English or your mother tongue language by default? The problem rears it’s head only when we enter a professional work environment. The first reason why speaking in English becomes tough is, we are thinking what to say or respond to questions in our mother tongue language and translate that directly into English when speaking. So thinking in one language and speaking it out in another language will never work, it will only stifle and stunt our conversational ability. I had a colleague who was working as a Dutch translator. The documents she was translating always used to have some words that had no direct translation to English words. I used to tell her to interpret the meaning or intent of the entire sentence in Dutch and then frame the sentence in English. This was something I came across when I was in the Netherlands. My Dutch colleagues would suddenly stop talking in between and start thinking. I quickly realized that they were searching for words that were English equivalents of Dutch words they were framing in their minds. This is far more pronounced in China.
The second reason is more stark and visible. We all have this inherent need to drive every conversation we have in the way we want it to go, even meaningful discussions and friendly banters. Job interviews are the best example. The first thing that the interviewer and the candidate will try to do implicitly is to take control of the flow of conversation. I know many cases where people who are skilled in their jobs are not really good communicators and are short on confidence because of this, so when they are being interviewed by people whose English is better according to their perception, they start trying to mimic the speed at which the interviewer is speaking. Thinking and analyzing in the mother tongue language, translating that into English, trying to match someone else’s rate of speech, all of this together can become an excellent recipe for disaster.
There is a problem with the educational system as well. Too much emphasis is laid out on grammar which prepares people to write well but does not guarantee to make them good speakers or good communicators. I don’t know anything more than what a noun and a verb is. I couldn’t wrap my brain around anything else in grammar. Then I realized that as long as I am able to frame sentences correctly while speaking and writing, I am good to go. The gap between the education sector and employment sector is widening now. There was a time when educated people were less so the employment sector was ready to take them in and train them in the aspects of effective communication. With the rapid advances in technology, availability of internet and an exploding number of qualified candidates available in the job market, companies do not have to bother anymore to train people to communicate well. This is one reason why we see unemployment rising among fresh graduates.
So, how do we overcome our draconian fear of speaking English? By speaking English. Simple. But primary to that and of utmost importance is to realize that no one in the world is perfect in English. The proof of this is, no one gets a perfect score in any English language exam. If we listen to David Lloyd or Geoffrey Boycott (both are cricket commentators from England) or the way some of the Afro-Americans speak, we won’t even know at first if they are speaking English at all. English, without the influence of an accent will be very hard to find, anywhere in the world. I was working on a project for a Norwegian client a few years back and there was an urgent task that had to be done at 5 am IST which meant 1:30 am local time in Norway. We had to call up someone at the client’s office to inform about the task and get his approval. The way he used to speak English during normal hours was in itself hard to understand and what he mumbled in his sleep none of us in the team could figure out. So contrary to popular perception, Indians speak much better English and can improve significantly if we consciously work on reducing the effect of our mother tongue language on our English. So in a nutshell, to become proficient in speaking English,
1) Start speaking in English, especially in professional environments. Do not develop the habit of keeping company with only those colleagues who belong to our own state/city or with whom we share our mother tongue language.
2) Do not get bogged down by anybody’s expertise in English. Rather, take it as a challenge and focus on improving our own expertise in English.
3) Work towards eliminating our default method of thinking and analyzing in mother tongue language and trying to translate that into English during speaking. Start thinking in English, frame the sentences in our mind and then speak.
4) Do not get worried about how fast someone is speaking English and if that person is trying to control the conversation. Think well, form the sentences and speak slowly. The objective is to present our opinion or give an answer with maximum clarity.
5) Work diligently and consciously on reducing the influence of our mother tongue language from the way we speak English. Do not try to ape anyone’s way of speaking. Be unique in the way we speak and express ourselves. It will help us in creating distinct personalities as well.

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