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Learning English the Old School way

  • Writing
  • 5 min read

I was a participant in a recent discussion on “How to learn English” on the Low End Spirit Forums. I could relate to the discussion quite a bit, because till the time I was 15 years old, my English was sub-par. Some great teachers, a school that encouraged reading and creative writing, and several novels helped me reach where I am today. Hopefully I can say that some progress has been made over the decades.

Learning English the Old School Way

I am going to tell you some “old school” ways- but they worked for me; see which of the below tickle your funny bone. Bear in mind that the type of English that is used for writing, speaking and communication (official or formal, for example) are quite different these days. Speaking is an offshoot of knowing the right grammar and vocabulary, so I will focus about writing and speaking. This involves public speaking to an extent. I am not very familiar with slangs, and the “Bro speak” that is in vogue these days, i.e. circa, 2022. If that is your intention, then below tips might not work.

My tips on learning or Re-learning English

Read to Improve your vocabulary.

Read P G Wodehouse, and BBC’s Yes Minister/ Prime Minister series. Ideally, physical/ print books that you can borrow from friends or a local library. Keep a (physical) dictionary handy. Reading Wodehouse will help you learn how to frame a good, simple conversation. Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister achieves the same, but is a couple of notches higher.These authors write predominantly in British English, and in case you are looking for some “American” English, the likes of Mark Twain are a good start.

Back home, for some good, classic “Indianized English”, R K Narayan is a great author to read and learn from.
Most Indian English authors from the 2000s and later era focus on Hinglish- might work well in the short term, but will limit your ability to gain a good command over the language. Full disclosure: In my book, NRI:Now Returned to India, I am also guilty of the same.

Watch some quality TV Shows.

I would very highly recommend watching the Yes Minister/ Yes Prime Minister series on YouTube. Most scenes/ dialogues are quite the same as the books, and this will help you understand punctuation, dialogue, and speaking in general. It is perfectly okay to leave the close captions or subtitles on for the first few episodes. Once you get the hang of things, let go of these training wheels, and you will start to enjoy the ride.

Move on to bigger novels.

Once you feel confident enough, say a year or two later, I would recommend that you move on to Ayn Rand’s books: Atlas Shrugged, and The Fountainhead are some of them. From purely a reading perspective, also take a look at Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Between the three books; you have over 3,000 pages of reading material, more than you will ever need to read for most of your adult lives. Unless, of course, you are an avid reader like myself. Reading the above tomes will help you develop a reading habit. And understand how to describe a situation, a setting, or a problem.

Continue the learning.

Subscribe to or Merriam Webster’s Word of the day. I believe they still have a daily newsletter or word of the day service.

Image of a page from Dictionary - for learning English Language

Using a dictionary to learn English Language

– On a lighter note, start following Shashi Tharoor. Other than his skills with the ladies in his advancing age (he is past 60) he is known for publishing some new and interesting words. His Twitter feed should have a few.

Practice reading comprehension

If you are eager to learn more get a book on reading comprehension. Exam preparation guides for GRE/GMAT or better yet, LSAT, are great resources.Try for a couple of months, keep a diary (again, physical) which notes how many new words you learnt in a day.

Online or learning apps

Apps or services such as Duolingo, Babbel, or Grammarly are great online tools which I have not used but have heard good things about.

Before we part ways here, remember, English language learning is not about using the latest jargon or the fanciest accent. Clarity in communication is more important than fancy words. Best wishes in your learning journey!

Update February ’23

Language learning in an era of ChatGPT

How will the rise of Bots and AI tools like chatGPT change the way we learn languages? It is too early to comment or express and opinion, but I am optimistic that it will indeed improve the learning experience. For example, I ran the same query on chatGPT. I asked,

“Imagine the year is 2020. What are some of the ways to learn English language in online as well as offline mode?”

The response included Online courses (Coursera, Udemy, etc). This is a category or tool I had completely missed in my original post. Other mentions included taking formal language classes (What’s the Good Word, and the Bollywood film “English Vinglish“?), hiring a private tutor and a study abroad program to provide a deeper experience to the student in the language.

english vinglish poster

Indeed, there are plenty of options, and I am glad that the AI generated responses augment my original blog post well.

This post was updated on 2023-02-10