Learning English The Hard Way

I am of Bicolano origin. I grew up and went to school in the province. My exposure to English as a typical ‘provinciano’ was restricted to the classroom, the unique experience of being asked for directions by a foreigner, and when forced to speak the language at home.

I’ve always disliked English classes. It’s effect on me was similar to arithmetic, so my foundation was never strong. I never cared to learn the fundamentals of grammar, pronunciation, or diction, and my vocabulary was limited. Carrying on a conversation in English was impossible since I would avoid any opportunity. The lack of a solid foundation deprived me of the ability to correct myself if I made a mistake.

A local radio station had a job opening after I graduated from college. The radio commercial became Pied Piper music to my ears. One day, I found myself compiling my résumé and a five-minute demo tape in which I played DJ, read the newspaper, and chatted about myself. “Bahala na,” I thought to myself.

I waited a few weeks after submitting the demo cassette but received no response. One day, a radio station ad announced that they had already picked five radio jocks from the pool of candidates and that a contest to name them was underway. I decided to participate in the promotion and went to the radio station to turn in my submission. As I was ready to leave, the radio station’s manager approached me and said, “Your tone of voice sounds familiar. Did you send us a demo tape?” I responded with a brief yes. As I accompanied him to the recording booth, he explained that there would be another vacancy for the radio disc jockey and that he wanted to see if I would be a good fit.

The manager instructed me to introduce a song, play DJ, read from a magazine, and speak about myself inside the booth. I completed the task despite being nervous, hot, and unconfident.

After the evaluation, the manager said, “Your voice is lovely, but I’m afraid I have to tell you that you aren’t qualified for the position. You have a strong provincial accent, weak grammar, poor diction, and a worried tone to your voice, which is reasonable given the circumstances. If you want to be a DJ, a new radio station will open in six months; come back, and we’ll do this again.”

Six months, I told myself. I didn’t have much time, and I needed assistance. I traveled to Manila in search of a program or school that might assist me, but they were all too pricey for a recent jobless graduate like me. I chose to work for my cousin’s company but was keen to improve my English.

I told my friends and family that I was on a self-training program and needed their help, and I urged them not to laugh at me but rather to accommodate me because I wanted to learn. I felt grateful that everyone was game.

The first order of business was to learn the fundamentals of grammar. I didn’t know anything about the internet (which was launched in the Philippines by PHNet in 1994), so I requested another cousin to lend me her (high school) textbooks. While learning the fundamentals of grammar, I resolved to talk in English 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m bound to make mistakes, so I asked my family and friends to correct me. They’d do it 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.)

I practiced pronunciation by imitating the DJs, but it wasn’t enough. Every weekend, I would rent ten Betamax tapes, all American films. I’d put on a headset, play and pause, and copy the dialogues; if satisfied, I’d proceed to the following dialogue/line. The goal was to improve my pronunciation, reduce my accent, and learn intonation. Except for Fast Times at Ridgemont High (where I watched the pool scene repeatedly), I never honestly watched the movies I rented; they were simply tools for me to learn from.

My friends noticed that my grammar and pronunciation had improved after two months of constant learning from books, listening to DJs, and imitating lines from movies. However, I was still having difficulty with verbs, tenses, and prepositions; the only difference now is that I recognized what I was having issues with, and a targeted study can remedy the issue. I didn’t worry too much because I knew I’d have time.

My next objective was to improve my vocabulary. Every day, I would memorize five words, understand their meaning, and use them in a sentence, and they would be mine for life (not knowing the meaning of the word or its synonyms and antonyms gave me restless nights). I realized I needed to work on my vocabulary because whenever I was in a conversation, I didn’t know what word to use or had difficulty finding the correct one. I did not particularly appreciate that I couldn’t express myself effectively and efficiently, especially when required.

We had an American visitor one day in the third month. It was an opportunity for me to practice, and during one of our chats, I couldn’t help but notice the American’s facial expression as he strained to understand what I was saying. I can’t remember what I said to him, but I realized I was thinking in Filipino, searching for the proper word or expression, and then translating it into English. It was a classic instance of lost translation, and anything I said made no sense. Solution: speak and think in English 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In the fifth month, I conducted a self-evaluation to assess my development, using a list similar to the one below:

  • Passed the grammar test (one made by a friend)
  • Pronunciation – insufficient (but I was struggling with TH, short and long I, b and v, and p and f)
  • Diction – double-check
  • Check your intonation.
  • Check the accent
  • Vocabulary – adequate
  • Spontaneity – Getting There
  • Coherence and conviction – uncertain at this point in the evaluation

Practice breeds spontaneity. In the fifth month of evaluation, I realized that the learning I had experienced in grammar, pronunciation, diction, intonation, and improved vocabulary had given me the confidence to speak without fumbling for words. As for fluency, I didn’t bother with it because it has something to do with mastery of a specific subject; one can never be fluent at something if one does not have a thorough understanding of it.

The last item on the list was the most difficult because I couldn’t find a method that would assist me in developing coherence and delivering a line with conviction. My views needed to make sense and convey a clear point when speaking because I believe that a person’s image is negatively affected because it indicates my level of comprehension (or lack thereof).

I returned to the radio station in the sixth month and presented myself to the manager again. He invited me for coffee with some of his team and was surprised to hear me talk; he told me I sounded completely different. He asked me to join him in the recording studio for another audition round, and I aced this time. He offered me a position, and I spent five wonderful years working in that field.  I was a radio jock for five and a half years and even got promoted to Program Manager.

As a jock, I was never concerned with spontaneity or coherence because DJs speak in phrases; also, the key to the best ad-lib is “to write it down first.” Then I realized that coherence and spontaneity were no longer an issue; years of reading had given me the confidence to speak. I can carry on a discussion as long as I’m conversant with the subject.

The final stage in completing my learning was listening to myself while speaking; this way, I can identify my mistakes and correct myself immediately. I recognized that it is acceptable to make errors – no one is perfect, and no one expects me to be. Even this blog entry is not without its flaws.

Final words

It’s been 27 years since I learned how to speak and write English correctly.

Today, I feel comfortable speaking in public and writing. I don’t need to be nervous because I can confidently express what I want to say.

Back then, I just wanted to learn how to speak English properly because I wanted to be a DJ. Unbeknownst to me, it had another advantage: I became competitive and marketable besides being efficient at communication, which is why I had a fruitful career in the business process outsourcing industry, marketing and sales, and now, as a freelance writer.

My objective for the future is to maintain my current proficiency in English and further improve my vocabulary and grammar. I plan to keep learning and hope you’ll keep reading my posts.

Finally, I want to thank all my readers, whether you’re commenting or not. It’s always nice to know people care about what I have to say. Thanks again!

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