In the early 2000s, I had a South Korean business associate who had rightfully earned the bragging right of getting perfect scores in every major business English proficiency test. Let’s call him Heonwoo K. An AB English graduate with high honors in his home country, he was superb in identifying the English parts of speech, in diagramming sentences, in spotting subject-verb disagreements, and in correcting grammar and structural errors in test sentences or passages.
Despite his excellent grammar and usage skills, however, his English syntax and choice of words were seriously deficient. On his own he couldn’t construct a syntactically airtight sentence, much less compose a coherent paragraph. At the time he was already in his early 30s, but his written and spoken English had remained way below average and, truth to tell, sometimes incomprehensible. It was painfully obvious that although exceptionally skillful in grammar, he had been unable to internalize English to the point of being able to effectively use it to communicate his thoughts and ideas.
The situation of Heonwoo K. came back to mind when Ian T., a new member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, made the following posting in my Personal Messages box a few days ago:
“I am a teacher and also a student of English. It has been more than five years since I started studying English; however, my grammar has not improved in both my spoken and written English. I have read every grammar book that I know from Cambridge to Oxford, but I have not really seen any big improvement in my English skills. I have been reading your Forum to find an answer to my problem, but for now, I just want to express my gratitude to you for your website, which is helping me a lot.”
In reply to Ian T., I suggested the same general action plan for those who had similarly asked me for advice over the years on how to improve their English. I also referred him to an essay that I wrote for this column way back in 2003, “Advice to the English-challenged” (http://tinyurl.com/mpkmwro), where I earlier distilled my thoughts about the subject.
Here’s my reply to Ian T.:
I must say at the outset that you’re not alone in your predicament. Many nonnative speakers of English who want to become more proficient in English get into the same fix because they think they can achieve that objective by simply reading one English grammar textbook after another. That isn’t the right way to do it. Becoming good in English grammar may make you get good grades in school and score high in grammar proficiency tests, but it won’t dramatically improve your spoken and written English.
Grammar and usage—along with vocabulary—are very much like carpentry tools; they won’t make you a master carpenter if you keep them unused in the toolbox and make very little effort to use them in actual carpentry work. To realize a big improvement in English proficiency, you must assiduously make use, hone, and internalize your grammar and usage skills. You can do this by regularly reading and listening to good English—mind you, not just the kind you read in local English-language periodicals or hear on TV and radio broadcasts, but good English-language fiction and nonfiction as well as outstanding foreign English-language TV talk shows and news programs. Then you must make every effort to speak good English yourself—whether practicing in total privacy or in the company of friends and acquaintances.
You can consider yourself adequately skilled in English only when you are able to think or speak or write in good, straightforward English rather than just mentally translating your native-language thoughts into English every time—and I must tell you that nothing less than a continuing, rigorous self-improvement effort can make that quantum improvement happen.
Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.