How good is your level of English, really?

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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.

Learn English with your child

patenting

Learning any language takes time. And that includes English as well.

In corporate India, many people want to learn English words and phrases that are directly related to their work. They often do not have the time or inclination to strengthen their foundations (grammar, vocabulary, writing skills, reading skills, listening skills, and speaking skills).

If you focus only on the language you need for your current position, you will not have the flexibility to express yourself in a wide range of situations. You can only communicate using set phrases and limited grammar in certain fixed, routine interactions. This means that you might find it challenging to communicate subtle meaning or complex ideas. As you move into new, higher positions, there will be more demands on your communication skills.

How can you strengthen the foundations of your language when you work long hours? If you have a child at home, consider yourself lucky. You can learn with her. Together, you can practise reading and answering questions from her textbook. You can use the content in the textbook as a launchpad for further learning. For example, if there is a lesson on food, you can read articles or watch Youtube videos on the topic. When doing so, be sure to be an active reader/listener. Make a mental note of new vocabulary, grammar structures, and pronunciation. See if you can identify any of the words / grammar that you and your child have come across in the textbook.

Many people do not speak English at home. If one wants to learn any language, the secret is immersion in that language. The language needs to be around you and you need to be using it. With your child, you could set aside some time where both of you speak only in English. At the dinner table, you could revise the words / grammar that you have together looked at. Practise, practise, practise, until it becomes second nature.

It is said that the child is the father of man. I believe that the child is an excellent English teacher for man or woman. Learning with your child is a fun and natural way to learn and practise the language.

If you choose to learn with your child, make sure that it is a long-term engagement. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t see immediate results. Slow and steady wins the race!

 

Why do Indians find business English so hard to master? And what can you do about it?

 

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Many Indians in the corporate sector find it a challenge to communicate effectively and effortlessly in English.

They find it difficult to write emails that are clear, concise, and grammatically accurate.

And when they speak, there are many Indianisms and pronunciation errors. This would not be much of a problem if we were communicating amongst ourselves. So for example, if someone in the Gurgaon office is on a video call with someone in the Chennai office, the two people will, by and large, understand each other.

The issue comes when we have to communicate with someone from outside the country. An American may not be used to our Indianisms (for example: do the needful). Or a foreign client may find it difficult to understand certain words that an Indian speaker pronounces in a particular way.

So, why do Indians find it so hard to improve their language skills? After all, whether one is living in Mumbai or Bangalore, one is in a world saturated with English. At work, we communicate in English with the head office, whether that office is in Singapore, London, Hyderabad or Kolkata. Most of the documents we read are in the language. At home, we have access to American/British sitcoms, movies, and songs like never before. And yet, after all of this, English is practically a foreign language for so many.

There are many reasons why Indian adults find it difficult to strengthen their language skills. For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on two main reasons:

  1. Overestimation of one’s own language skills

Many times, people tend to think that their English skills, are well, quite good. They are unable to critically assess their own language competency. And since many colleagues are making the same grammatical errors or pronunciation errors, it is difficult for one to realise the errors one is making.

2. Not aware of  the need to learn how to learn 

Let’s face it, as adult Indians, we are not the best of learners. At school and college we memorised facts and figures. The only time I studied at university, was one month before the final exam. That is not learning! True learning is all about being genuinely curious. It’s about self-reflection and forming opinions based on analysis. It’s about understanding one’s own interests, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s about finding out things by oneself.

It has been my experience that adult Indians are reluctant independent learners.  They want everything given to them. They want the trainer to ask the question and supply the answer. In short, they don’t want to mull over things. They do not want to discover the language by themselves.

This attitude makes it difficult to learn something as wide, varied, and dynamic, as a language.

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What can be done?  (I hear you ask.) As I’m sure you know, there is no magic pill. When it comes to language learning, this is my advice:

  1. Be an active learner. 

Pay attention to words and expressions that are used, both spoken and written.  The other day, I heard a person on a business channel use the idiom — on the anvil. I wasn’t 100% sure of its meaning, so I googled it.

If you ever come across an unfamiliar word or expression in print or otherwise, do not ignore it, however simple or straightforward it may seem. Jot it down, or immediately find out what it means.

94% of people in corporate India do not check the meaning of an unfamiliar word. I just made that statistic up, but I’m sure you get the point I’m trying to make. Don’t be lazy.

I have been conducting workshops on communication skills for many years. One recurrent theme that keeps coming up is that participants say that they do not have enough vocabulary to express themselves. I understand, but there is no easy way out. I’ve read that one has to come across a word up to 21 times, before one can use it appropriately and naturally.

Be an active, alert listener and reader.

2. Do not use big words to show off.  

Make sure that you are fully conversant with the word or expression you are using. Words are used in specific contexts and there can be subtleties in meaning and connotation. If you are not 100% sure of the meaning of the last word in the previous sentence, please look it up 🙂

Do not be under the impression that just because you have read a book such as Word Power Made Easy, your range and accuracy of vocabulary has dramatically improved. I’m not against that particular book. However, that book, and similar books, can only act as a guide, letting you know about the words that are out there. You will have to be on the lookout for these words and see how they are used in the real world.

3. This is going to take time. 

Be realistic. You are not going to see a significant improvement in your language skills in two weeks’ time. It is a process. Keep your eyes and ears open to language. When you read an email, spend a minute or two analysing it. Is it clear? Can it be better organised? Are there any words / expressions that are unfamiliar? How is the tone? Is it chatty, or is it formal? Is the tone appropriate? Keep analysing. Has the person used some aspect of grammar which you are unfamiliar with? Is there anything you can learn from the email?

If you want to improve your speaking skills, compare your pronunciation with that of a news anchor. In general, the anchors on NDTV and CNBC-TV18 speak well. Compare. Self-reflect. Start observing yourself: what you say and how you say it. If you are not sure how to pronounce a word, you can go to: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/. Type the word you want to check.

Before making a presentation at work, practise it at least three times. You can record yourself on your mobile phone. When listening to yourself, be critical. For example, are you speaking too fast? (Many Indians have a bullet-train rate of speech.)

Take it slow.  And you will begin to realise that you are pronouncing a particular word incorrectly. Or that the sentences in your emails are too long winding. (Trust me, many of them probably are.)

Remember, you do not have to immediately use an expression you have come across in the company newsletter. Take your time. Let it sink in.

4. Have fun. 

When you enjoy learning, you learn better. Watch cartoons, documentaries, and movies. Read political, business, and other magazines. Read newspapers: physical ones and the other kind. I often visit: www.guardian.co.uk. Read a variety of topics and opinions.  In this manner, you will expose yourself to different ways of expression and a wider range of vocabulary. The more you immerse yourself in the language, the more comfortable you’ll be in it. It’s as simple as that.

I notice that at times, people speak Hinglish with colleagues and English with the boss. This transition could be difficult; one may find it strenuous to suddenly express all of one’s thoughts in English.

I’m not asking you to speak in English all the time. I believe that it’s an asset that there are so many languages in India. But, I do urge you to get closer to the English language.

If you can, try karaoke, especially the old songs from the 50s and 60s. They tend to be slower, and the lyrics are often grammatically correct! Here is a song I discovered the other day:

 

Of course, if you think karaoke might not be practical at office, you can always sing at home.

I’m really serious about the fun part. It makes all the difference.

 

Keep these four points in mind and see how you can make them work for you.

Be strategic, don’t be casual, when it comes to improving your language skills. For instance, you can zero in on a specific aspect of the language that you wish to strengthen, such as pronunciation. And then plan how to  improve it over a period of time.

Effective communication is a skill that is appreciated. As you rise up the corporate ladder, it will become more important. If you make a sincere, systematic, and sustained effort to enhance your language skills, it will happen.

Guaranteed!

 

 

 

4 idioms related to war

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Photo taken at the Maharaja Ranjit Singh War Museum in Ludhiana, Punjab

 

At times, it may seem that there is more war than peace in our working lives. Here are four idioms which may reflect what is happening at your office. See if you can use them.

 

  1. to cross the Rubicon

During Roman times, the modest river Rubicon marked the boundary from where Gaul (France) ended and Italy began. As a rule, Roman generals returning to Italy were ordered to disband their armies before crossing the Rubicon and entering Italian soil. Of course, the victorious and ambitious Julius Caesar thought otherwise. He crossed the Rubicon with his battle-hardened army and thus started a civil war.

 

To cross the Rubicon is take a decision from which there is no turning back.

 

By agreeing to consider the proposed changes, the Minister has crossed the Rubicon.

 

  1. to look daggers at somebody

 

Quite simply, this means to look sharply or furiously at someone.

 

“At the meeting, the production manager looked daggers at me. What did I do?”

 

  1. a loose cannon

In sixteenth-century English warships, cannons were mounted on carriages. And when the ships swayed back and forth, and moved up and down, some of these huge guns would roll about dangerously, endangering the crew.

In today’s world, a loose cannon is a person who behaves in an unpredictable way, often causing some form of disorder.  I’m sure you’ve come across at least one loose cannon in your life.

“Careful, he is known to be a loose cannon.”

 

  1. on the warpath

The warpath was the route North American Indians would take to meet their adversary.

Nowadays, the term has come to mean being in an aggressive mood and looking for a fight.

 

“Avoid Prashant. He’s on the warpath today!”

 

I used Dictionary of Idioms and their origins by Linda + Roger Flavell as a reference for this post. If you would like to learn more about idioms and their origins, do pick this book up.

 

Vocabulary with ‘the moon’

The Museum of the Moon The moon at Udaipur palace

Source: https://my-moon.org/installations/india-tour/

The moon has always evoked awe and  a sense of mystery. This photo is of the art installation, Museum of the Moon, which is currently touring India.

Let’s look at some idioms and words with the moon:

  1. once in a blue moon

It refers to an event which hardly ever occurs.

The principal visits us once in a blue moon.

2. moonlighting 

This word has a slight negative implication. It means working at a second job, which one does not declare to the authorities, so as to avoid paying taxes. One is doing something secretive in the dim moonlight.

3. moonshine

This term means illicit liquor. Again, it is related to something which should not be exposed to bright sunlight. And that is how the moon enters the picture.

4. over the moon

When you’re over the moon, you’re really happy and excited.

5. to promise the moon 

Our politicians often do this before an election. To promise the moon is to make promises which would be very difficult to keep.

6. asking for the moon 

If you want or expect too much, then, yes: you are asking for the moon.

The client is so unreasonable; she’s asking for the moon!

If you are in Delhi, you can ask for and even get the moon (well, sort of). Do visit the Museum of the Moon at British Council in Connaught Place. It’s on till the 1st of March.

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And here is a link for more stunning photographs of the moon on earth:

https://my-moon.org/

 

 

 

 

7 tips to soften your language

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In informal language, you can say just about anything. And you don’t necessarily have to be polite.

This is not the case when using language at the workplace. Here the language needs to be more controlled, structured, and polite.

Let’s look at seven words or phrases which can soften your language:

  1. Thank you 

Use this phrase as often as possible. Don’t worry, the universe is not running out of thank you’s.

When you receive an email from a colleague, acknowledge it with: Thanks, Janet!

Or, if it has to be more formal: Thank you for sending the updated file.

If you are corresponding with someone outside your office, you can use ‘thank you’ as a form of acknowledgement.

Instead of writing:

This is to acknowledge the receipt of your application dated 12.02.18,

you could write:

Thank you for sending your application on 12.02.18.

Doesn’t that sound better?

2. Please

Pulease… Is used by teenagers often. And they are right in using it. Like ‘thank you’, please should be used often. Use please with everyone: to both your superiors and subordinates. Especially to your subordinates…

Compare these two lines:

Make sure that the annual reports are printed by 2 pm.

Please make sure that the annual reports are printed by 2 pm.

The word ‘please’ softens the sentence. And makes it sound less like a command. The person reading this message would respond positively to it.

3. Can vs. Could vs. May (asking for permission) 

The most informal way to ask for permission is can.

Can I use the conference room for ten minutes?

At work, if you wish to be more formal, use could.

Could I use the conference room for ten minutes?

If you are in a formal situation, then go for: may.

May I use the conference room for ten minutes?

4. Can vs. May (giving permission) 

When giving permission, we say, ‘yes, you can‘ or ‘yes, you may‘.

May is more polite than can.

Don’t say: yes, you could. That may cause some confusion in the mind of the listener. Well, could I, or couldn’t I?

5. Would 

Would is an excellent word to use when trying to soften your language.

Would you agree?

That’s softer than: Do you agree?

Here are some expressions that use ‘would’:

Would you mind if we start early tomorrow?

Would you like to read the summary first?

I would suggest we look at other options.

  6. Shall  

This is a polite verb to use. For example:

Shall I call all the interns?

Shall we start the meeting?

In fact, the term ‘shall we’ can be used at the start of almost any activity:

Shall we start the presentation? Shall we start the conference call? Shall we break for lunch? Shall we

When starting an activity (meeting, presentation), it’s a good idea to use: we. It’s a nice way of making people feel included.

7. Let’ s 

In a more informal setting, say with colleagues who you know well, you can use ‘let’s’ instead of ‘shall’.

Let’s start the meeting.

Let’s listen to Nalini’s update.

Let’s order a cake!

 

Being polite is important. It creates a positive atmosphere at work and is a professional way of conducting yourself.  Could being polite become contagious? I certainly hope so…