In the last ten years I have been asked this question hundreds of time by students and people in general. In fact I remember a hilarious but thought provoking incident from my last assignment where as a part of the course our company used to also teach English. Most of the students joining the institute came from vernacular background and English was a big handicap. In one of the seminars that I was conducting in a remote location, this incident happened. While explaining about the institute and the curriculum when I explained that as a part of the offering we also teach English free of cost and we use a very advanced English coaching program. One of the participants got up and asked a question. “Although I attended a vernacular medium school but still I had one period of English each day right from standard 1 to standard 12. When I have not learnt in 12 years how can you teach me in three months?”
Everyone in the audience burst out laughing but the question was to the point and directly addressing the issue. Yes, indeed, it is very difficult to learn a language. I have no hesitation in saying that in most cases people joining any English coaching program, at the end of it are almost as good at it or as bad at it as the beginning. I am sure that this statement of mine will really anger the people running these institutes all over the country in thousands, but I stand by it and I have rock solid experience to prove it. I dare anyone to conduct a survey of 5000 students of these institutes and find out the result.
Well, let us now focus on what goes wrong? I don’t mean to say that these institutes do not try. Some of them are just “fly by night” operators but many are genuine and they do make an honest attempt. But the problem is deeper. The usual problems associated with learning English are as follows.
Listening environment: Let us understand that how a child who can start understanding and talking a vernacular language (mother tongue) so easily has so many problems with English? The main issue is the listening environment. Unless you are living in a listening environment of the language, it is very difficult. And this precisely is the problem with most students from vernacular mediums. They do not have an English listening environment.
In all English coaching programs it is mentioned that once one starts learning English, one should try to always speak in English. The question is, with whom? Most people joining an English coaching class do not have English speaking people in their family and friends. They have no choice but to communicate in their mother tongue once they are back in their surroundings. Even in the classroom at the coaching centre, almost all the other students are in the same boat so it is also difficult to simulate an English speaking environment there. As a result nothing much happens really. It all comes back to square one.
Lack of confidence: Most people not able to converse in English lose their confidence and hesitation takes over very early in life. Fear of speaking wrong English and the resultant fear of people making fun becomes a paramount issue. I have always advocated that unless the confidence gets a boost it will not happen.
English teachers don’t get paid well: With thousands of English coaching institutes and programs mushrooming up, the industry has become very price sensitive and on an average an English program is offered at about Rs. 1500/- to Rs. 2000/-. This results in the teachers getting paid very less and hence the industry does not attract talent. On an average an English trainer gets about Rs. 8000/- to Rs. 15000/ in most of these institutes. This also results in people coming from mostly academic field to train English and their style becomes academic and scares the students further. Surprisingly, so called personality development trainers get paid more but the sad part is that English is such a big problem that it has actually become most of personality in modern India. Almost all of the personality development programs are delivered in English and many of the students can’t even understand what is being said, let alone participating in group discussions etc which is an essential learning tool in such programs. They even hesitate to ask questions overwhelmed with the fear of being laughed at. With the explosion of call centres, English trainers get paid well there, but there the major concentration is on accent.
What you can do?
From my personal experience I can vouch that if one has the will and is willing to work hard and smart, it is actually not all that difficult. I did my entire schooling and college from vernacular medium but even when I was in standard 10, I was speaking decent English and then it kept on getting better. I would like to share tips on English language learning from my own experience which are logical and time tested and I did not invent them. I too had been told by someone else about this.
Decide and get obsessed: This is perhaps the key. One has to develop an obsession in the mind, take a challenge with self and go all out. Learning any new language is very difficult and requires a strong motivation. One has to resolve that come hell or high water, one is not going to relent.
Get prepared for people to laugh at you: I have never been able to understand why people worry so much about others laughing. Look at it this way; laughter is the best medicine. People take so much of pain including going early in the morning and laughing their heart out without reason as a part of the ritual in laughter clubs mushrooming every street corner. They do it because they have realized that laughter is the essence of life. If one can make them laugh just by speaking wrong English, nothing can be better. Think about it. Decide what is better? They laugh at you for three months, or they laugh at you for life. Decide that you will not care for the next three months.
Read English newspaper loudly: This is perhaps the most useful way to go about it. Everyday take a paper and read loudly for half hour. Does not matter if you do not understand what you are reading, does not matter if your pronunciation is wrong; all that is important is that go on reading. Understand that one of the most critical areas is to break the hesitation of speaking English. Do this for three months and you will be wiser.
Read English novels which are also translated in vernacular language: To me, this was the greatest teacher. There are writers whose books also get published with translation in various languages. My favourite was James Hadley Chase who has written many books and all of them are available in Hindi also. You may not believe it but I read about 30 of them first in Hindi and then the same ones in English. May not sound very professional but let me tell you what it does? It makes you familiar with sentences and phrases and ways of saying things. It worked for me, it will work for you.
Read English books on which movies have been made: Another great teacher. There are many famous books available which have been filmed. Read the book first and then see the movie. Nowadays it is so easy to get books from small libraries in all localities and so is the case with movie renting libraries.
Watch English news channels: Another great way to simulate listening environment. Slowly you will start understanding what is being said and if you do it with other suggestions given early one it will be of great help.
Record yourself and listen: This is a little advanced but not very expensive. Buy a small recorder and while you are reading the newspaper, record yourself. Then play it back and you will know where you are getting stuck. It will teach you a lot and will also simulate listening environment.
Try this for three months and I can assure you that you will be on your way to break this jinx of not knowing English.