In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a famous quote: “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” This refers to the fact that the British Empire was so far-flung across the Earth that at any point of time during the day, a territory colonised by the British was facing the Sun. One could say that the English language also shares such a reputation.
English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It ranks third, next only to Mandarin and Spanish in the total number of speakers around the world. Spoken by the major educational and professional destinations as a native or second language, learning English is now a priority for everyone across the world.
Having been a major focus and eventually a major part of the British Empire for nearly four centuries, Indians harbour a love for the English language in their subconscious. Almost all official communications and documents in public and private organisations, media and information for public circulation and important scientific and non-scientific literature are predominantly in English. Thus, it makes it even more essential for Indians to have a good grasp of English.
Just like learning any other language, English has two basic aspects to cover: vocabulary and grammar. The skills to be acquired while learning the language are reading comprehension, listening comprehension, written composition, and speaking (composition). Currently, conventional schools cover all these in a systematised syllabi based manner. However, most students graduating from school and entering the spheres of higher education or employment aren’t fluent in English.
There are a few basic methods or practices when followed regularly, are sure to produce positive results in the long run. This article is non-exhaustive in terms of the possible methods available.
Lack of a strong vocabulary is usually the primary reason for inadequate fluency. To increase the vocabulary base and understanding of grammar, schools have prescribed books which follow a trend of an increased number of new words and complex sentences in every subsequent year of schooling of a child. This gradually builds the child’s vocabulary as well as a deeper understanding of complex sentences. But this need not be the only means of learning.
Reading books in English outside the syllabus is a good way to start. This will familiarise the student with words and phrases not commonly used. It is recommended to start reading books of genres interesting to the student. Additionally, reviewing the book in English, both vocally and in written forms, along with a group is even more helpful. Library membership subscriptions would make excellent birthday gifts in this context.
Reading newspapers is not just for news updates but also to understand the contextual meaning of words. For those not interested in reading the newspaper, reading articles from their favourite sections (such as sports or cinema) and eventually reading more and more to cover the entire newspaper is the finest modus operandi. It is even better for a group of students to discuss in English the news they read with each other.
Another everyday trick is learning a new word or phrase from the dictionary and using it appropriately during conversations. Potentially, one can learn the meaning and usage of about 360 words/phrases within a year if practised alone. When a group does the same, the numbers get multiplied by the number of students and the development is phenomenal.
It is common for schools to impose a strict language-speaking rule. In English medium schools, children are punished or berated for the use of a native language on campus. Students must understand that speaking in English or at least trying to do so will help them correct their mistakes and eventually get better at speaking English. In non-English medium schools, it is necessary for students to at least try speaking in English during the English class.
A fun way to learn new words is by playing word games. Some games require mere creativity. “Word-builder” is a game played by a group where each player says the word starting with the last letter of the word said by the previous player. “Name-Place-Animal-Thing” is another common group game where every player has to write down nouns (obvious from the name of the game) starting with the letter selected by each player. Both games have a time limit for each turn and impose ‘No repetition’ rules. There are several local variations. There are other two somewhat related group games involve building sentences (word by word) or words (letter by letter). Each player has to add a letter/word to the previous player’s letter/word before the time runs out.
The obvious word game that comes to everyone’s mind is Scrabble. Scrabble is played with small tiles printed with individual letters of the English alphabet on a tabulated board. Each tile has a specific point, and a player has to build a word (usually non-nouns from an accepted dictionary) on the board using the tiles. As the game is limited by the number of tiles in hand or space on the board, the winner is the one with the maximum points when all the tiles are, or the space on the board is used up.
“Boggle” is another similar game. The letters of the English alphabet are printed on the six faces of a cube, and several of these cubes are shaken in a box. After shaking, the cubes fall into a square and the player with the most number of word combinations from the letters seen wins.
Solving crosswords is also a very good way to learn English. Cryptic crosswords, commonly found in leading newspapers, are unlike regular crosswords. They require a creative and fun approach to solving and can help understand several phrases and words.
Another game/practice in high schools, colleges and universities, is “Just A Minute” or JAM. ‘Jammers’, or the players of JAM, are required to speak on a given topic in flawless English while other players try to point out the speaker’s mistakes correctly if they want to speak. The speakers can also argue based on the rules of the language to defend themselves. All this with a time limit of a minute. Each player is awarded points based on the total time spoken or the number of mistakes found correctly. Though this is a complex game, it becomes easier progressively.
Listening to and interacting with native speakers of English is the best way to learn the vernacular language. However, it is impossible for most Indians. The best alternative is to turn to cinema or television. Most movies and TV series now display subtitles (or ‘subs’) at the bottom of the display. Instead of always reading the subs while watching, students should try to listen to what the characters are saying and occasionally glance at the subs when the sound quality is low. This helps understand the accent and context of the words used. As most of the visual media in India originates in the U.S., the students may likely learn the North American vernacular and accent of English. This is why listening to British TV channels such as the BBC News helps in understanding the British accent and context. It would also be of help to watch videos with subs on PCs or laptops at slower speeds.
English, being more recent than Indian regional languages, is still a growing language, borrowing several words from other European and Asian languages. The English dictionary is constantly revised, and several words are added every year. Hence, it is fairly beneficial to learn a non-English European language. Languages such as French and German have contributed a lot of words to English. It is usually advisable to learn these languages to learn English better. Understanding the etymology of words is an interesting pastime in itself.
Added to this, active online communities constantly cook up new words to suit their needs and these cannot be ignored forever. Words such as ‘selfie’ and ‘tweet’ may have been overlooked initially, but as the number of people using these words has grown, the dictionaries have come to include them. Interestingly, being moderately active on social media seems to help learn some new words though it is largely not beneficial for learning spellings and grammar.
With the advent of modern technology, there are now newer methods to learn English easily. Dictionaries are now available on phones and hence make it easy to learn the meanings and context. There are a few ‘apps’ which lock the smartphone’s display. To unlock the display, the user has to answer a question. These questions can be of any kind chosen by the user. By choosing the right answer, the phone is unlocked. This is an interesting way to learn a lot more than just meanings and etymologies. These apps may be a part of phone alarm apps as well.
These different methods and practices, though in the context of learning English, can be useful for learning other languages as well. As one method alone may not be enough, several methods, when followed together in combination, will yield the desired fluency much sooner than expected.
To summarise, reading, listening to, speaking and writing more in English is sufficient to learn English better. But this can be done via means such as games to make it more enjoyable. Furthermore, as English is a language of foreign origin, a student must not be shy to make mistakes and learn from them. This is all that will make learning English easy.