(Published at Rediff.com)
We generally associate language with communication. However, the repercussions of having language skills, or lacking them, go way beyond communication. Our command over the language we communicate in everyday determines how confident we are about presenting ourselves. It even reflects in our body language and self esteem.
Being fluent in English is important, considering it is the universal language of business communication. For those looking to improve their skills, here are a few tips.
As a baby, you began learning your mother tongue simply by listening and observing. This is the most natural method of learning a language. If you think grammar and rules of syntax bog you down, go back to the primal mode of learning — listen and observe.
Be alert when you listen to someone speaking English, be it at your workplace, at a party or on television. Watch out for common expressions and usages. If you are able to grasp regularly used ways of greeting and small talk, you will be able to initiate speaking more confidently. Start noting simple things: If you meet someone at a party, do you always end up saying, ‘Hi! Nice meeting you…’?
How about introducing variations here? Observe how others talk and try varying your greeting. Why not try saying ‘How do you do?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ Greetings and introduction lines may seem trivial, but if you are not fluent in a language, you often tend to avoid even these, thus ending all prospects of communication. If you can break this barrier, you can take your first step into the realm of English speaking.
While listening to English speakers definitely helps, it is important to read if you wish to expedite the process of improving. Most people are put off by this because they associate reading with big, literary books. However, what we are talking about is reading anything and everything written in correct English. Therefore, your range of choices could extend from comic strips to newspaper articles, gadget manuals to movie reviews.
While reading, try and get a feel of the language and usage of words. More importantly, note the use of articles (a, an, the) and prepositions (in, on, at, from, into, over, under, etc) as these are areas where the most common errors are committed.
Improve your vocabulary
We are not asking you to learn the dictionary by rote! Can you commit yourself to learning two new words a day? You could come across these anywhere — while reading, on a news channel, on a sign at the shopping mall, on a billboard, etc. Make the effort to look up the exact meaning of the word in the dictionary, instead of adopting the easier route of understanding the meaning from the context.
If possible, maintain a book where you can note down the new words everyday, along with the context, so you remember them better. Write down the dictionary meaning and also frame a sentence using the word, so it is now registered in your memory. Go through this book periodically to refresh your memory and use the words in your conversations, emails and letters. A few minutes each way, coupled with an eye for observation and an ear for new words is all it takes to improve your vocabulary.
You could also subscribe to services like dictionary.com that will e-mail a new word every day; this mail will include both the dictionary meanings and usage in sentences.
Prepare for small talk
Speaking English fluently is not just about making corporate presentations and giving long speeches. It is about expressing your views on the most mundane of things. How often do you meet a new person and face an awkward silence after the initial greeting because you don’t know what to talk about? Worse, you may wish to initiate a conversation but may not be confident of putting something across correctly.
The ability to make small talk is very important in business and social conversations. Topics for casual conversation could include the weather, sports, current affairs, arts, hobbies, travel, etc. Read up on your area of interest and try framing sentences expressing your opinions. Talk about it with someone close to you so you can check for grammatical accuracy.
Then, gradually build up on your repertoire of conversational topics and start using them whenever you get a chance. Of course, when you talk, do not make it sound like a speech you have learnt by heart. Induce a casual tone and adapt to the occasion.
Can you learn swimming by standing at the edge of the pool? You have to take the plunge, right? It is the same with language. Unless you use the language, you will never know how good you are at it.
Ask a few people close to you who are good at English to help. Make them interrupt you whenever you make a mistake and ask them to correct you. Be open to feedback. Do not be embarrassed to make mistakes, for that is the only way you will learn. That is how the process of acquiring fluency a language occurs. As a child, you may have made a lot of mistakes before getting a good grasp of your mother tongue. The only difference now is that you are conscious of the mistakes.
Books on grammar are a good supplement to strengthen your command over the language. The good old Wren and Martin for grammar and Word Power by Norman Louis for vocabulary should also help. A lot of web sites including EnglishPage,Grammar Book, Better-English, etc will help you augment your skills.
Finally, all you need is a will to learn and the initiative to begin. That done, it is simply a matter of time and effort!