Grandma's Tales

June 9, 2007

How can I speak well in English?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:28 pm

Reader Sunandan wants to know.
Now Sunandan, that’s a dicey question. We all have our unique capabilities and being able to speak well, speak efficiently (if not sensibly) is one of them. Who is a good speaker? One
[1] who thinks clearly. That is, thought A followed logically by thought B and so on.
[2] who can translate those thoughts into words quickly. That is, there is perfect synchronisation between thoughts and words. For example, if someone tries to hit you, almost automatically you put your hand out to protect your eyes. Even as your hand rises, the words “Hey, that’s wrong! Don’t do it!” should flash in your mind.
[3] who can convert emotions into appropriate words. For this you need a good vocabulary, ability to string words into meaningful sentences. You know there is a “he” and there is a “hit” and there is a “wrong”. Can you put them together to make a sensible sentence?
[4] can creatively play with words. This helps in coming out with interesting, effective replies in a conversation. Say “yes” or “no” for all sentences, your conversation closes in two seconds flat. Don’t be surprised if people avoid you.
[5] who knows the art of asking questions. Your questions should be pleasant, must encourage the listener to talk and should be non-intrusive.  You don’t expect a person to respond to you if you come up with, “How did you become so fat?” Personal remarks are a big no-no in any conversation. Try, “Hey, you’ve changed a bit since I saw you last!”
[6] who understands the value of listening well. Most times, you could simply trigger a conversation with a smart remark and get the other person to talk. You need to show interest with remarks like, “Really!”, “You don’t say!”,  “Wonderful”, “Great!”, or “I’m sorry”. I bet he will go away saying, “Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed that conversation with you!” One of the people I interviewed said, “You have a genuine smile. I really liked it!” See what I mean?
Now to speaking well in English. Most of us Indians are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to learning to speak in English.  We can read and understand the language well. But speak? We find that difficult. That’s because one learns this art by listening to others speak. How does a child pick up its first language?
If you are being brought up in a family where everyone speaks English, or where there are plenty of opportunities to listen to English being spoken, you’ll pick it up naturally. One more thing that helps is constant correction. Even as you begin to speak, make your first sentences, there are people to tell you what the right sentence is. This is a huge help. But this is not always forthcoming in our families. So what do people like us do? I’ll tell you what worked for me.
[1] I am a voracious reader. Even as a kid I’d read any English book I could lay my hands on. I would read the newspaper page in which the grocery came packed (yes, there was a time like that!). I would read every English book in the school library. This helped me become familiar with sentence patterns. For example, reading helped me absorb tricky  constructions like, “He lay on the floor, in the shade of the tree” and “He is the better of the two”. It helped me learn my question tags. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
[2] Since I had to learn to speak, I simply memorised the dialogues (direct speech) in the story books I read. Right from “Someone has tasted my porridge, someone has tasted my porridge too, someone has eaten my porridge!” in Goldilocks to “Whoever breaks the bow, marries my daughter!” in the Ramayana.
[3] Once I learned a new word, phrase or a sentence, I would go around looking for a victim. I had to try it on a listener – willing or unwilling. When I was a seven-year-old I came across the phrase “pretty sure”. I went up to a visiting uncle and said, “I’m pretty sure you don’t know this phrase.” Brash. He said the phrase was wrong. “Sure” couldn’t be “pretty”. I was so happy I knew something he didn’t.
[4] Another practice I have (to this day) is forming sentences in mind. I try to describe anything I see, hear, smell, taste or touch. I see a perosn, I immediately do a word picture in my mind. A simple one first. He is tall, he gesticulates as he talks. He has a gruff voice. He looks away as he talks. He seems to choose his words carefully. Description, followed by an estimation, opinion. If I was asked about that person later on, I could say airily, “Oh, quite an interesting guy! He has this habit of looking away, but that may be because he’s careful about choosing his words!” Neat, eh?
[5] I also do a lot of listening. I listen to BBC news. I listen to a couple of Indian, English news channels. At my workplace, again I do a lot of listening. Even as I learn new phrases, new expressions from my colleagues, they think I’m a patient listener and come to me with problems. It’s a win-win for all of us!
So [a] read, [b] memorise [c] try out what you learn in conversation, [d] do the describing exercise, [e] speak whenever you can and if people correct you, take it in the right spirit, [f] listen to English being spoken, [g] learn at least a couple of new expressions a day.
Also, learn to modulate your voice. In English as in any spoken language, there is word stress (certainly is pronounced sur-tn-lee, with emphasis on the first part) and there is sentence stress (“I didn’t know!”). Stress on different words in a sentence can give different meanings to the sentence. “I didn’t see him!” is different from “I didn’t see him!”
There is also the pitch. A speech delivered at one pitch, a monotone, is a big yawn. You don’t have to be dramatic, but you need to raise and lower the pitch according to what you say. A question has to be delivered to sound like a question. “How are you?” cannot sound robotic. Many English words have sounds that convey their sense. We need to be aware of that and speak them to bring that out. Say “SPLASH” and you’ll know what I mean.
Beyond all this is our natural ability to speak. Some people like Amitabh Bachchan are not inclined to talk a lot. They are men of “few words”. Not all of us can become great orators and go, “Friends, Romans and countrymen!” But we can all learn to speak calmly, put across our thoughts coherently without fillers like “um”, “er”, you know” and “like”. Yes, with practice, constant practice and a lot of listening to, we can do it. So try!
Final tip: form the sentence in your mind before saying it.  Take a few seconds to check it for accuracy.  It is better to speak less than to blurt out a lot of nonsense. 



  1. Watch English language TV, listen to English-language radio, watch English-language films, read contemporary English-language novels and journalism, seek out and seize every opportunity to speak to an anglophone. With this program, I guarantee you will gain confidence.

    Comment by Jonathan Miller — June 9, 2007 @ 10:42 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks! Yes, all this should help! Getting pickled in the language. And I forgot, the riddles. I love English riddles.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — June 9, 2007 @ 11:31 pm | Reply

  3. ‘Getting pickled in the language’ – now there’s a lovely phrase!

    Comment by Jonathan Miller — June 10, 2007 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks, Jonathan Miller! The Federer – Nadal battle is going on, and listening to the commentary should help too!

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — June 10, 2007 @ 6:18 pm | Reply

  5. I see from your blog you are interested in grammar. Please look at my recent blog post on Nicostrata… I hope you enjoy it!

    Comment by Jonathan Miller — June 11, 2007 @ 2:07 am | Reply

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