Why do you make the same language errors, again, and again?

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Why do people keep repeating the same grammatical and vocabulary errors, even after they have been corrected? For example, language learners learn that one should say ‘equipment’ and not ‘equipments’. And the reason behind it is that ‘equipment’ is an uncountable noun, and so one cannot add an ‘s’ to it. When I say this in a session, people nod their heads in complete agreement. But, when they leave the room, and have a conversation, they are more likely to ask: Where are the equipments?

Why are they repeating this error? The clue is in the photo of this post. The photo is of a fossil. The language errors that people make have been fossilized in their minds. This means that even if the trainer corrects you in a session, when you are speaking naturally, you are likely to return to making the error.

Can you de-fossilize your language? Yes, you can. But you have to work at it.  Pay attention to how you speak and write. And mentally note down the errors which you know you are making. (I do it to myself, all the time.) Over time, when you speak spontaneously, you will use the grammar point or vocabulary accurately and effortlessly.

 

The ignored skill of listening

listeningListen to the sound of the river, if you want to catch fish. – an Irish proverb.

In language learning there are four skills:speaking, listening, writing, and reading. Of these, the productive skills are speaking and writing. And the receptive skills are listening and reading. When learning a language, the emphasis is on the productive skills. We usually ask, can you speak Japanese. And not, can you read Japanese.

In India, English language learners are keen to speak and write the language. Unfortunately, they are less keen to engage with the receptive skills of listening and reading. In this post, let’s focus on listening.

As you may have noticed, Indians are terrible listeners. Often, we start speaking while the other person is still speaking. (I am guilty of this too: I confess!) This could be because we are so absorbed in what we feel about the topic, that we cannot wait to express our opinion. Or this could be because we believe we know exactly what the other person thinks on a particular subject. This often happens between husbands and wives.

It is good etiquette to let the person complete what he or she is saying. No matter where one is, at work or at home.

Listening can help you to improve your language and communication skills. Here is how:

  1. Listen for pronunciation

Listen how people pronounce words. Are they emphasizing a particular syllable? If so, on which one?

For example, in India, some people pronounce the word sentence as: senTENCE.

Actually, in international English, it is: SENtence.

Listen attentively when you are watching a Hollywood movie. Notice which syllable is stressed in a word.

2. Listen to the flow of speech

How is the person using intonation? Is the tone flat? Or is there a rise and fall in pitch to convey nuances in meaning and emotion?

Pay special attention to intonation when you watch the news. How does a news anchor on BBC speak compared to a news anchor on Times Now or NDTV?

3. Listen for cohesion 

When yospeakingu listen to a speech or watch a documentary, ask yourself why a particular idea or thought has been introduced. Does the next idea follow naturally from that first one? Many times a speaker begins by setting the context. And then she may make an assertion. And then follow it up with supporting statements.

Can you critically analyse the flow of ideas? Do they make sense, when placed next to each other? Could they be ordered in another way? Are all ideas equally important?Analyzing in such a manner will help you to make more effective presentations at work.

4. Listen with empathy 

When listening to someone, try to imagine their lived experience. Where are they  coming from?  What are the challenges they face? This will help you to better understand them. People will feel that you are giving them your undivided attention. Consequently, they may open up to you even more. When you listen with empathy, you are more likely to recall what was said. Your conversations will be more meaningful. And yes, your communication skills will improve.

As I said before, we live in a world which does not value listening. If we start listening better, we’ll start communicating better.

Most importantly: don’t forget to listen to yourself.

Listen to yourself when you make a complaint, when you make a request, when you give an order, when you plead for understanding, and when you make a presentation. How wide is your range of vocabulary? Are you repeating words and phrases? Are you learning new words / phrases on a regular basis? At times, do you find it difficult to express a complex idea? Are you using grammar correctly? Are you using a variety of grammatical structures? Does your grammar crumble when you are angry? Do you use different types of intonation when speaking to different people? What is your rate of speech? Are you speaking as fast as a bullet train travels?

Phew… That’s a long list of questions, I know. But it will be worth your while to start looking for answers for some, if not all, of these questions.

If you listen to yourself carefully, and over a period of time, you may be surprised as to what you will discover.

Listen to the sound of the river…

How good is your level of English, really?

stickman

 

People are not particularly good at critically evaluating themselves. Often, we are under the impression that we are more competent than we actually are. Alas! This misconception is present in language skills as well.

It has been my experience that English language skills in corporate India are in need of drastic improvement. Many engineers, managers, associates, executives, lawyers, accountants, and software programmers are unable to express themselves concisely and politely.  At times, they find it challenging to communicate complex ideas. Their range of vocabulary does not permit them to express nuances; the same words/phrases get repeated in many different conversational settings.

And yet, when people are questioned about their English language abilities, after a few seconds of introspection, they reply that their English is actually, well, quite good. Why is this happening?

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There may be a few reasons for this wide gap between perceived language skills and the grim reality. The first reason could be that people are not exposed to good language. They do not read books that are rich in idiomatic expressions and that have a variety of sentence structures. They do not have people around them who are proficient speakers of the language. They do not watch documentaries and movies which transport them out of their comfort zone and introduce them to words and grammatical structures that they would not usually encounter in their day-to-day lives. Hence, people do not know what is out there and what they are missing.

Fluency is often confused with accuracy. There are speakers who speak with confidence and fluency. When you hear them, they seem perfectly at ease with the language. They have a good rate of speech and use intonation appropriately. However, when you listen carefully, you start to notice things. They make basic grammatical errors (such as I didn’t went there) and they use words incorrectly. In a setting where the overall language level is low, these fluent, but inaccurate speakers, can be mistaken to have strong language skills. This leads them to believe that everything is okay, language wise.

At office, most people have roughly similar language levels. In general, some people are at the pre-intermediate level while almost everyone else is at the intermediate level. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This is true when someone with an  intermediate level of English starts giving language advice to someone who is at the pre-intermediate level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against one human being teaching another human being. But, this is not always an optimal solution. First, the person may be providing incorrect advice, leading to the spread of incorrect grammar and vocabulary. Poor grammar is especially contagious. Second, the person doling out the advice may consider himself to be a language guru. He may consider himself to be somewhat of an authority on the English language. Now, that is a disturbing thought. Will he ever be open to learning something new? Will he ever question his own level of competence?

So, is it varying combinations of ignorance and arrogance that leads a good person to overestimate his language level? Possibly. In all fairness, I would say that it is more ignorance than arrogance.

If you would like to have a better understanding of your language level, what can you do?

  • Start by second guessing yourself. Are your reports as coherent as you think they are? Will the reader really understand the message you are trying to convey? Are you using words that precisely convey what you want to say? Do you have wide range of vocabulary? Are the same words appearing in email after email after email?
  • Benchmark your communication skills with that of others. What language does the CEO use when she makes a presentation? When presenting, is she using intonation? If so, how well? Is there anything else you can learn from her?
  •  Test your English. You can access these online tests to get an approximation of where you stand:

https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/in/test-your-english/

http://www.stgeorges.co.uk/online-english/online-english-test

You may not be as good as you think you are. A harsh statement, I admit. But, if you take it to heart, your future-self will be the beneficiary.

When it comes to assessing your language level: be humble; be open.