Learning English The Hard Way

I am a Bicolano. I grew up and studied in the province, and being an ordinary ‘provinciano’, my exposure to the English language was confined to the classroom, the rare experience of being asked for directions by a foreigner, and to my chagrin, when I was forced to speak the language at home.

I have always hated English subjects. In fact, it had the same level of loathing I have for math, and for that reason my foundation was never strong. I never bothered to understand the basics of grammar, pronunciation, or diction, and my vocabulary was very limited. Carrying a conversation in English was impossible as I would literally shy away from any opportunity. The absence of a good foundation robbed me of the consciousness to correct myself in the event of a mistake.

After graduating from college, a local radio station had a vacancy. The radio ad became the Pied piper’s  music to my ears, and one day, I found myself preparing my resume and a five-minute demo tape where I played DJ, read the newspaper, and talked about myself. “Bahala na” I said to myself.

I waited for a few weeks after submitting the demo tape but no word came.  One day, an ad from the radio station said that five radio jocks were chosen and a contest to give them radio names was on. I decided to join the promo, went to the radio station to hand over my entry and when I was about to leave, the radio station’s manager approached me and said “Your voice sounds familiar, did you submit a demo tape?” I replied with a short yes. As I followed him to the recording booth, he explained that there will be another vacancy for the DJ post and he wanted to check if I would qualify.

Inside the booth, I was asked to talk about myself, play DJ, read from a magazine, and to introduce a song. Nervous, sweaty, and unconfident, I managed to do what I was asked.  I still remember what the station manager told me, “Your voice sounds wonderful, but I have to be honest with you, you don’t qualify for the post. You have a very strong provincial accent, your grammar is defective, you have  very poor diction, and you sound nervous, which is understandable considering the situation. If you really want to be a DJ, there is another radio station opening in six months, come back and let’s do this again.”

Six months, I said to myself. I didn’t have the luxury of time and I needed help. I went to Manila to look for a program or a school to help me, sadly though, they were all too expensive for an unemployed fresh graduate like me. I decided to work for my cousin’s business but I was determined to train myself to better my English skills.

I told my friends and relatives that I was on a self-training program and I needed their help, asked them not to laugh at me, and in fact, just indulge me since I really wanted to learn. Good thing, everyone was cooperative.

The first order of business was to study the basics of grammar. At this point, I didn’t know jack about the internet (introduced in the Philippines by PHNet in 1994) so I asked another cousin to lend me her (high school) textbooks. While studying the basics of grammar, I made the commitment that I will speak in English 24/7, and because I was bound to make mistakes, I asked my family and friends to correct me immediately – they would – every two to three minutes (being purists and obsessive-compulsive about grammar, my friends made sure that I understood the rule I broke and a penalty was set for a repeat offense.)

The work I did at my cousin’s printing press allowed me the luxury of reading the books I borrowed, plus, he influenced me to listen to 99.5 RT, Monster Radio, and NU107. Everyday for six months, I would shadow the jocks, that is, repeating what they said, mindful of their pronunciation, choice of words, and their accent and intonation. Shadowing them was fun. Part of the activity was to record my voice while playing DJ, and if I wasn’t satisfied, I would do it (over and over) again.

Shadowing the DJs made me practice pronunciation, but it wasn’t enough. Every weekend, I would rent ten betamax tapes, all American movies. I would put on a head set, play, and pause, imitate the dialogues, if I’m satisfied, I would move on to the next dialogue/line. The goal was to learn pronunciation, to neutralize my accent and learn intonation. Except for Fast Times at Ridgemont High (I watched the pool scene over and over again), I never really watched the movies I rented, they were just a tool for me to use.

After two months of relentless learning from the books, listening to DJs and imitating dialogues from the movies, my friends observed that my grammar and pronunciation has improved, as a result, I was able to self-correct. However, I was still struggling with verbs, tenses, and prepositions, the only difference now is that I knew what I was struggling with and a focused study can be done to resolve the issue. I didn’t worry too much, I had time.

Vocabulary was my next target. Everyday, I would memorize five words, get their meaning, use them in a sentence, and they were mine forever (not knowing the meaning of the word, or its synonyms and antonyms gave me restless nights). I realized the need to improve my vocabulary because whenever I was locked in a conversation, either I didn’t know what word to use, or I was struggling to find the correct one. I hated the fact that I wasn’t able to express myself effectively and efficiently, especially in moments when in it was necessary.

One day, on the third month, we had an American visitor at home. To me, it was an opportunity to practice and during one of our conversations, I couldn’t help but catch the American’s facial expression as he struggled to find meaning to what I was saying. I have forgotten what I said to him, but I realized that I was thinking in Filipino…err groping for the right word or expression, then translating it to English. It was a classic case of lost in translation and whatever I said simply did not make sense. Solution: to talk in English, think in English, twenty-four seven.

On the fifth month, I did a self review to check my progress by using a list similar to the one below:

1. Grammar test – passed (one made by a friend)
2. Pronunciation – incomplete (but I was struggling with TH, short and long I, b and v, and p and f)
3. Diction – check
4. Intonation – check
5. Accent – check
6. Vocabulary – good
7. Spontaneity – getting there
8. Coherence and conviction – at this point of evaluation, unknown.

Spontaneity is a by-product of practice, plus the learning that I experienced in grammar, pronunciation, diction and intonation, and better vocabulary gave me the confidence to talk without groping for words – this was on the fifth month of evaluation. I didn’t bother about fluency, as it has something to do with mastery of a particular subject, one can never be fluent at anything he does not know anything about.

The final item in the list was the most challenging one because I could not find a method that would help me develop coherence and be able to deliver a line with conviction. It mattered to me that my ideas would come together so I can present a logical argument and not sound idiotic when I speak. The other part of the problem was comprehension; I was concerned that having  poor comprehension, especially in a conversation would have disastrous effect on one’s image. Especially that I am to face a potential employer for my dream job – I really wanted to be a radio jock.

On the sixth month, I went back to the province and presented myself, the manager invited me for coffee and was shocked to hear me speak, and he said I sounded so different. Again, he invited me to the recording booth and this time, I passed with flying colors. He offered me a job and I stayed in that industry for five wonderful years.

As a jock, I never had to worry about spontaneity and coherence because DJs talk in phrases; moreover, the secret to the best ad lib is “to write it down first.” Then one day, I realized that coherence and spontaneity was no longer a problem, years of reading just gave me the confidence to talk and so long as I’m familiar with the subject, I’m able to carry a conversation.

The final step to complete my learning was to listen to myself all the time when I am speaking, this way, I will be able to catch my errors and correct myself immediately. I realized too that it’s OK to make mistakes – no one is perfect, no one expects me to be. Even this blog entry is not perfect.

Thanks for reading. Hope you learned something.




24 thoughts on “Learning English The Hard Way

  1. Hi Paps. Wow! Nice to have you back! Thank you so much.

    Try to look for a course in coursera.com. or edx.org. both websites offer courses for free. Google is your friend, Paps.

    Language is like riding a bicycle. It’s sonething you will never forget. Of course, like riding a bike, you need to keep practicing.


  2. Hi Seven,

    I am back! This is Paps by the way.

    I hope you could still remember me. (I’m the one you saved countless of times from resigning, and my tenure is going 3 years now.) You also advised me to pursuit my goal of learning Spanish. I’ve been a lurker on your site and I am amazed that this is the first time I thoroughly read this wonderful article about learning English the hard way (which I think is applicable in learning Spanish as well, minus the household feedback and “auto correct feature” of family, as no one that I know speak Spanish)

    For the last 2 years I’ve been working as a non-voice support (the pipe “peteks” dream of most applicants). Fast forward, I wanted to test the waters, so I tried job hunting again just for fun. To my surprise I failed miserably and it was my lack of spontaneity that did it. I just couldn’t answer the questions without pausing or trying to grasp the words I want to say. Oh my my verbal skills have rotten, hibernated and went extinct.

    I have taken English for granted. I focus too much on trying to learn Spanish that I haven’t notice that English is slowly leaving me.

    Please help, how do I get to Improve my spoken English? Do you recommend any specific book, movie or online course?

    P.S. (I plan to stay with my company for several years more until I learn Spanish so don’t worry about me doing the “grass is greener” hopper thing)

    Looking forward for your great advice,


  3. Hi Grace. I’m glad to know that my personal experience is helping motivate you to learn. In today’s world, better communication skills makes us more competetive, more marketable.

    When I was struggling to learn how to speak proper English, I didn’t have the internet at my disposal, that’s why kids today are lucky. In fact, I did a quick search on your question and found this link: http://www.talkenglish.com/Grammar/prepositions-of-to-for.aspx.

    I encourage you to take full advantage of the internet. Also, think and speak in English 24/7.

    Let me know if you need more help.


  4. This blog is really a great help for others like me who are struggling to a better english communication skills. You inspired me a lot,having read your article .I’m now self-motivated upon applying what you’ve done so far to be as good as you are now. Same as you,I only have limited vocabulary. I’m currently reading books,listening to radio (93.1 Monster Radio) and I also do watch foreign movies. Sometimes I confuse of the right prepositions to use. I hope someday I can be fluent like others so I can boost up my confidence and improve my interpersonal skills. 🙂 May I ask when to use “to” and “for” ? I get confuse to it sometimes. 🙂

  5. Hi Noel. Watching English movies can help fix your pronunciation, it doesn’t fix the grammar problem (and others). You need to put a structure to your learning similar to what I did (as shared in the story you read). This story happened in 1994 and up to this very day, I am still doing my best to improve my English-speaking skills. I suggest enrolling in a program.

    Let me know if you need more help.


  6. To seven. I’ m having a hard time in english. I failed everytime in interview in a call center company. Do you suggest watching movie with caption on or turn off?

  7. Gngwa q now ung watching as much english language as u can…

    Ska ung memorizing 10 words and using them in a sentence a day..

    Fun nmn..

    Hopefully asap gamay n ung language..

  8. Hi Lilia. I’m glad your training is working well for you. It only means that you took it seriously and practiced practiced practiced. Yon lang naman ang sikreto. If Lilia can do it, why can’t others do it too?

    Thanks for visiting.


  9. At first, it;s really hard to speak English.. pero after 3 weeks of training ko.. nagugulat na lang ako sa sarili ko.. 😉 TY Trainer “C.R.M” .. I’ll never forget you.. love u!

  10. So inspiring! I’m not aspiring to be a call center agent but I reallly want to improve my oral english comm. skill because I know it can help me in having a better career. Thanks to your blog. I also read your posts in PEx under the topic ‘hardest questions during interview’ (something like that) and they are also very helpful.
    Once again, thank you. God bless..

  11. in a blog, i guess, there are no rules…e.g needs to follow tech writing rules, or maybe business writing… as long as you were able to get the message across and readers were able to understand…

    when i was taking business communication, 3 of my classmates (mba) flunked!
    at this rate, it is so hard to perfect english thru writing and speaking… even if you still think and dream in english.

    readers start to question your credibility and writing skills once they halt and start to rethink how and what the message is all about. In this blog, i was able to read it swiftly!

    Nevertheless, this story has inspired and will continue to inspired a lot of bloggers, especially to those who would like to be part of the callcenter industry.

    Kudos se7en

  12. SevenH8reds :Hi. I hope you receieved my response to your comment above. I sent it to your email. Please advise if you haven’t so I can repost the item. Thanks.

    Hi Se7en,

    Yes I received your response that was so quick and I thank you for that.
    I already started learning to speak this language the hard way by following the tips in your article and hopefully, by that time I decide to shift to a call center job as my second career, it wouldn’t be much problem selling my self to prospective employers. Thanks again.

    Best regards,

  13. Hi, I happen to stumble upon your blog from my lurkings at PEX.
    I am not a call center agent but my struggle to improve my spoken English skills brought me to reading the call center threads at PEX.
    I work in a multinational and multiracial company (as an engineer) and one of the greatest frustrations in my working life is not able to communicate fluently in English with my colleagues and bosses. A few words in the above article like “spontaneity” and “groping for words” really struck me. I also experienced for many times my American and Singaporean superiors making faces trying to understand things I need to explain in detail. I have been struggling to find ways to address this deficiency and thanks to this article, I think I picked up fresh pointers on how to improve on my spoken English (thinking in English is one, I think I need to practice it). What seems to be a observation of myself is that I think faster than I speak. The thought or the words that is coming out from my brain seem to be faster than what my mouth can deliver, the reason why I am groping for words and lose spontaneity. I think I experience this even if I speak Tagalog. Is there a better way to address this?

  14. It’s my pleasure sir. I really do have lots of questions (like how things work in a Call Center environment, etc.) as this will be (hopefully) my first job experience on the industry.

    I’ll probably drop by again for questions when I’m really ready and confident to apply, it’s hard being a shy and socially incompetent person. 😐

  15. Hi Lou.

    Thank you for the note of appreciation and for the kudos. I’m glad the blog is able to help you, especially when you’re already job hunting. Do drop by anytime if you have any questions. I’d be glad to help. Please tell your friends, colleagues, and relatives about the blog as well.


  16. Your blog’s almost like a manual for aspiring call center newbies like me. I plan on reading every blog post when I’m really ready to apply. Had an experience once (and it was my first time!) when I tried applying in a certain company and as I, not prepared and all, obviously failed.

    Kudos to you sir Seven, I really hope I could apply what I could read here.

  17. Dear Kevsz,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for leaving a comment. I’m glad you find the blog useful. Please don’t hesitate to tell your friends about it.


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