May 22, 2019

How I Got Better at English as a Non-native Speaker

India has dozens of languages and countless dialects, and English serves as a necessary tool to bridge the linguistic gap. No matter where you go, you can expect at least someone around who can understand and speak it reasonably well.

Ten years back, I was terrible at it. Grammar, punctuation, choice of words—everything about my writing was poor (Exhibit: an old post of mine). But gradually, I improved. I started having fewer and fewer doubts about my grammar and composition. I started to sound less amateurish and pretentious.

Of course, like every skill there is an element of struggle involved, but it could’ve been easier for me had I known where I should spend my effort. So partly, this post is about knowing the pitfalls and partly, about steps you can take to get better.

Receiving my education in English definitely helped, but I realized soon that being somewhat fluent is very different from native-level fluency. It takes time to internalize all the grammar rules—and it takes much longer to get the sentences right. Too often they end up being clumsy and verbose; or use words that are visibly out of place. Few problems that can bite you:

1. Clumsy Sentences

Take, for instance, this sentence:

The new Software doesn’t fulfil our requirements.


The new Software doesn’t have all the things we need.

The first sentence is overly formal and awkward. The word “requirement” is more fitting for a business document than a conversation. It’s not something I would expect a native speaker to say. The second sentence is simpler. And, for me, that has been the hardest part of learning English: forming sentences that sound natural.

2. Correct Usage of Words

Using words correctly also takes time to get right. Dictionaries often give a simplistic picture of what the word means and where it may fit. You might see the word “invariably” in Oxford and conclude that it’s synonymous with “always.” Well, yes, to an extent it is but there are cases where it’s just a poor fit.

I have invariably loved you.

The word usually applies to processes and objects (rarely people) and has a negative connotation. Understanding where the words fit takes time and a whole lot of reading.

3. Awkward Composition

Another problem, which might be more pronounced in written English, is composition that might not flow smoothly in the mind of the reader. Compare these two paragraphs (the example is directly lifted from Strunk and White).

Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (55 words.)

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words.)

The first sentence has too many interruptions and gives a feeling of being written by a fifth-grader (or a beginner in written English). The latter is not just succinct, it’s far easier to read—it uses fewer pronouns and helps the reader avoid context-switching.

Overall, to attain the native level fluency, one needs to cover four grounds. I’ll cover them by listing down things you can do to get better at them.

  1. Getting grammar right: Perhaps, the most important part. You can get away with writing stilted sentences but never with getting tenses and verbs wrong.
  2. Knowing words and their appropriate usage: Unfortunately, early learners often hold a terrible misbelief—that vocabulary is about knowing a lot of words. And as I have frequently observed, it creates a room for using words poorly. Good vocabulary, as I wrote earlier in the essay, is about using words that are a good fit. (When in doubt, use the simplest word possible)
  3. Composition: If I had one word to describe good writing, it’ll be “effortless.” A good piece is a breeze to read, and causes fewest interruptions in the reader’s mind.
  4. Expressions: This is kind of optional; no one would notice if you don’t use phrases. But expressions are an important part of the vernacular. It’s important to know and understand the phrases that are widely used.

I think once you realize that you need to get better on these four levels, it becomes easier to understand what needs to be done.

How I did it? These are things that helped me.

  1. Read: This might be boringly obvious, but it’s just impossible to get better without reading everyday. Books and articles, debates and discussions, everything adds to your knowledge of how words can be used, and sentences can be formed. I believe discussions were a major factor in helping me avoid awkward sentences as I was able to see how people actually talk. If books are too much for you, start with articles. Grab a respected online magazine and start perusing their columns. Or get involved in a community (like a Hacker News, or a subreddit).

    It’s okay if you don’t understand everything. Initially, I had problem understanding more than 30-40% of what I read. But pushing yourself to do this everyday, it’s impossible to not get better.

  2. Watch: Talks, documentaries, live conversations, tutorials, they all help you understand how people talk in real life. Movies and TV shows might not be the best options here, as screenplay is often not written to mimic real life.

  3. Google: Confused about something? Google it. Again, not a mighty new trick, but few people do it. I have resolved hundreds of word and grammar questions by searching for their usage. “have vs have not,” “always vs invariably,” “simple vs simplistic.” Usually, you’ll get a good article explaining their correct usage.

  4. Grammarly: A tool to correct your grammar will help you avoid the most common errors. I haven’t explored all the available options but it’s safe to say Grammarly is the best choice currently—wide support, detects errors reliably well, and offers a handy explanation in the tooltip. The premium subscription is worth it, too. It makes suggestions that will help you sound more natural.

  5. Have people who will correct you: I was fortunate that I had folks around who would correct me if I made a mistake. Getting corrected might seem a little embarrassing (or even annoying) but trust me, it’s the best way to learn. Encouraging people to correct you is a shortcut to finding out your mistakes.

  6. Write: Write. Write. Write. It can just be a small opinion, or journal entry, or a story (if blogging is not your thing). Writing helps you lay down the idea and communicate clearly. Once you have a draft, go to someone whose opinion in writing you can trust and ask them to correct it without restraint. It could be your good friend, a partner, or a mentor. Don’t be disheartened if the mistakes are far more than you imagined, it’s only helping you level up.

The biggest mistake you can make is to a) assume you won’t get better, and b) shy away from critical feedback. I made both and it only hampered my progress. The mind is surprisingly efficient at learning if you constantly push yourself.

Good luck and feel free to message me if you need any help.

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