The Long and Winding Road: How I Improved My English

I’d never thought of English as more than something important; but one day I realised that I needed it more than ever.

Winding road (Liam Gant on http://www.pexels.com)

Disclaimer: I am by no means claiming myself to be highly proficient in English. There will always be room for improvement, and I’m yearning to find my lacks and improve. I can only say that I’ve improved because I measure it against a standard, that is, the IELTS score band. This is also far from a definitive guide for improving your IELTS score, but this is what I did to improve mine.

It was just another language

It’s quite safe to assume that I had a massive privilege to be able to learn English earlier than people about my age, especially those in my social circles. While the majority first learnt English several months after their first step into kindergarten, my parents walked another mile and endeavoured to teach me other languages along with my first language before I underwent any formal education, despite their rudimentary fluency in these languages.

It is too far a memory lane to walk down, but I blurry recall being taught to count in Indonesian, English, Chinese, and even Sundanese (the local ethnic language) simultaneously. They gave me toys that would help me in learning English and Chinese, like those Chinese mock computer toys that would spew out the names of things that were on the screen in Chinese when I push some button, or just sets of collectable cards and stickers that were printed in English.

My father avidly loved the Beatles, and every now and then, he would give me the lyrics of one of their songs, telling me to try to translate the song, and find a meaning of it. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been fortunate enough to afford their albums, and he would tell me the lyrics just from his memory. With broken English, in a knock-off British accent. He was jubilant when I decided to take that after-school keyboard lesson and try to play Hey Jude.

My mother would hold back from buying new clothes and shoes for herself, and instead use the money to splurge on dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and multilingual story books. When I got a free English lesson from being the third-best first grader, she devotedly waited for me from outside the class, and faithfully supported me with her home-cooked meal.

Despite all this, I was still nonchalant to other languages. I never thought that it would be so important for my life. This went on at least until I was in the third year of the university. Even when my life had revolved around reading academic papers — which is more often than not, written in English. English had always been there, but it was just another language not worthy of my full attention.

Panic Attack

One day, in the fourth (last) year of my bachelor study, I realised that I desire to study more about my major. I browse through the Internet, and finally found the suitable university and the master programme. The university was located in London, and indeed, the whole course would use English as its delivery language.

Even then, I still procrastinated; but eventually I managed to gather myself together and start the long quest.

I began by signing up to an IELTS preparation class, since it was a prerequisite for the programme.

I’d thought that it’d be a normal English class. Turned out, it was a class with only one focus, and you might’ve guessed it: IELTS. So, in spite of few mini lessons on general English, the spotlight was directed to how to undertake the nightmarish IELTS test. But the lesson was paid with cash-in-advance, and I came to think that it can at least give me an initial benchmark for my overall skill, since the IELTS test examined the four basic language skills: reading, listening, writing, and speaking.

In the spirit of assessing my initial proficiency, I took a preliminary test. Alas, I scored substandardly. If I’m not mistaken, I got an overall score of 6, with one or two subtest marked below 6. It certainly was not enough. The minimal requirement from the programme was 6.5, with no subtests below 6.

However, I myself set a higher standard, I desire to score at least 7, with no subtest below 6.5. It wasn’t a stellar standard, despite the proverb “sky is the limit” that my lecturer used to resound, in my defense, considering the time frame of my plan, I was being realistic.

So there I went, taking a 36-hour IELTS class. I explored myself there, I’d always realised that I sucked when it came to passive English and sucked even more when it came to writing and speaking, but I never known that I was actually an even worse English user than I’d thought.

I’d read and frequently stop mid-sentence because I didn’t know a word and had to look for it in the dictionary. I’d listen to a conversation track and lost focus because it was too fast for me to comprehend, or I heard a word that wasn’t familiar. My vocabulary was severely limited, my grammar knowledge was narrow, thereby I wrote poorly and unattractively. Not only did I stutter every two or three words, but I also paused between sentences; having not enough brain capacity to simultaneously process what and how to talk about the topic at hand.

My score improved a bit in the progressive preliminary test, but plummet back to my initial 6 in the end of the course. Only this time, with a 7 in reading among three other 6s.

I might’ve not improved my English skill much, but I learned something equally important: The insufficiency thereof.

At the time, the IELTS test cost about IDR 2,700,000, or about USD 197, or about GBP 152 in today’s currencies. To put it more in context, that money amount to more than half of an average Indonesian’s monthly income. Consequently, I had to postpone my taking the IELTS test, and began to think of the strategy I must employ. Not to merely get the coveted IELTS score, but, most importantly, to better my English by and large.

The Art of War

Several months post the preparation class, I laid out a basic strategy to tackle the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. However, I always thought that passive English (reading and listening) was always a good place to start learning English, before advancing to active English (writing and speaking); putting basic in vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension in both written and spoken English. Here I’ve written down the strategies I’ve been employing to improve each of the four aspects.

Reading

It was late 2018 when I finally decided that I had to commit myself to reading in English. At first, I had no goals, I just wanted to acclimatise myself into the activity.

I finished reading my first book in the quest within 1.5 month, with difficulty and doubted comprehension. The following year, 2019, I began to impose on myself a stricter restriction: I had to read at least a book a month, and with full awareness of the text not only semantically, but also syntactically. I often found myself spending more time wandering through the internet in search of a particular grammar rule I just found than to understand the text itself.

For instance, one day I was reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, when I stumbled upon a particular paragraph:

“Yes.” It was the shortcut to school. I remembered the day Hassan and I crossed it and the soldiers had teased Hassan about his mother. Hassan had cried in the cinema later, and I had put an arm around him.

My grammar was weaker than it is today, and I was struggling to fathom the use of past perfect tense. I then went to the Internet for assistance, and found nothing that could help me enough. Disappointed, I posted in on English Stack Exchange, and some time later, the kind people there explained it to me patiently.

Since I wanted to take the Academic IELTS test, not the General Training one, in addition to reading books in general, I also forced myself to read other sources, including the news and science magazines. I did so because reading these would in one way or another make me read formal writings and familiarise myself with scientific parlance. Both would later help me in the IELTS writing test.

I’ve been reading regularly since then. When this piece is written, mid-February 2020, I’ve read eight books this year; including a classic that 2 years ago I couldn’t have enjoyed even if I wanted to: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. (Yes, this is March and I’ve been procrastinating from completing this writing.)

Along the way, I pick up tons of hitherto unfamiliar words; some were esoteric to certain fields, others were common in daily conversations of English users. I also learn the different grammar rules of English. I spend less time checking the dictionary and asking stranger on the Internet, resulting in a tremendous boost in my reading speed without sacrificing comprehension.

The increased speed was particularly proven to be extremely beneficial when I took the IELTS test.

Listening

Listening has been my favourite part of English learning, because I can have so much fun while still hone my skill.

I get most of the practice from podcasts. Mainly because I can listen to them when I’m doing other things that don’t really require much brainpower like brushing my teeth, driving, or even sometimes at work.

I work in a laboratory, and some of the work may be mind-numbing, but a quite big proportion of it involves tasks that don’t really need a focused mind, such as washing flasks, or pipetting fluid to tens of tube. My brain will wander anyway if I don’t listen to podcasts.

Even when I need to use my brain for demanding tasks, I still set a background noise by hearing people talking in English, instead of songs; I actually had no specific reason nor aim of doing this, just thought that it could help accustoming myself to English.

For IELTS listening, I couldn’t really know what accent I would have to listen in the test. Rumour had it that you should expect at least three accents: British, American, and Australian. I thought to myself that I at least had to adapt myself to these three accents, and I went to find the suitable podcast channels.

Not only for accents, but I tried my best to also include topical consideration in my searching. Since I planned to take the Academic IELTS test, I preferred to listen to those channels which had science and news theme.

I ruffled through the Spotify recommendation and also browsed the internet, and bumped into some science-themed channels that were interesting. I test-listened them, and picked the main three channels for each accent. For British accent, I picked No Such Thing as a Fish; Scientific American for American; and Science vs. for the Australian one.

I also sometimes listened to some BBC channels (there were a lot of them), The Economist Radio, and also TED Talks Daily.

To this day, I still listen to them all. I really, really recommend you to listen to them.

I can talk so much about these highly interesting podcasts, but I leave it to you to find it by yourself.

In the beginning, the ‘skip back 15 seconds’ button was my dear friend. I would press it every several minutes of a podcast episode. A 30-minute podcast would be lengthen to about 40–45 minutes because I couldn’t really catch what was said.

Irrelevant as it may seem, I can now listen to an episode even if it’s sped up to two times its normal speed while maintaining comprehension. I do think this is an improvement.

In addition, every morning, I say ‘OK Google, good morning’ to my Google Assistant, and she (yes, it’s a she) will read out the weather prediction for the day and how long it will take for me to drive to work, and then proceed to play the newsflash of the day. All of this happens while I’m preparing to go to work.

I also train myself to hide subtitles from TV shows and films.

And quite like with the podcasts, and because I was visioning myself to study in the UK, I chose some British TV shows like Doctor Who, The Crown, and The Office (some people actually don’t know that The Office was first a BBC TV Show before the it was remade in the US).

Speaking

For me, speaking has been the hardest aspect to improve compared to the three others. This might sound like an excuse, but the English language has some sounds that are nonexistent in my mother tongue. In addition to pronunciation, I underwent a more general difficulties, such as arranging my sentences to be grammatically correct whilst keeping my speech coherent.

I shall further divide this part in two to address both problems.

Pronunciation

If there were a list titled ‘Things I worry about my study abroad’, ‘Can’t converse well with natives’ would be among the top ten —five, even. I’m afraid that despite my passing the minimum requirements in English proficiency, I won’t be able to converse properly with the locals. It’s a twofold problem: not only do I fear that I won’t be able to understand their speaking, but also that they won’t understand me.

And it was crystal-clear that other than practising in listening, the least I could do from my side was to speak more native-like. And this was where I finally fathomed the significance of a proper pronunciation skill.

I’d known that English is a highly irregular language. But little did I know that there would much more unexpected irregularities to be discovered. Especially, in comparison with Indonesian language, of which I couldn’t really recall any such irregularity. There hadn’t been any other vowel than ‘a,’ ‘i,’ ‘u,’ ‘e,’ and ‘o.’ And consonants were the rest 21 letters — practically even less, because ‘v’ and ‘f’ meant the same pronunciation, so did ‘q’ and ‘k.’ And all these letters were pronounced exactly the same in almost all words, save for some isolated instances.

I find it particularly hard to distinguish short and long vowels. In both listening and speaking. For example, I couldn’t differentiate whether someone is saying ‘man’ or ‘men’, ‘ship’ or ‘sheep’, ‘bat’ or ‘bad’, and many, many others. And since I couldn’t say which one is which, I also couldn’t — or even didn’t even care to — pronounce it properly.

Consonants too, were troublesome. I found it highly impractical to pronounce any word with the consonant ‘th,’ both voiced and unvoiced. Instead of unvoiced ‘th,’ I would pronounce it as a ‘t,’ and voiced ‘th’ as a ‘d.’ In effect, I would pronounce ‘three’ the same way as ‘tree,’ ‘that’ as ‘dad’ or ‘dead.’ Other one is ‘v.’ I used to completely ignore the difference between ‘v’ and ‘f.’ So, for me, ‘reference’ and ‘reverence’ were the same. As were ‘leave’ and ‘leaf’ — or even ‘lift,’ since I also ignored double consonant in the end of words.

There are some others fatal cases, but I prefer not to list it all here and instead proceed to what I do to mitigate it.

In improving my pronunciation, I resorted to YouTube, and found some praiseworthy channels dedicated to pronunciation for different accents. Because I aimed for going to London to further my study, I chose to pursue speaking in the British accent.

In particular, I can’t thank these guys enough: Lucy Bella Earl from English with Lucy, Elliot Giles from ETJ English, and Jade Joddle from Jade Joddle Speak Well. They were English teachers who specialised in pronunciation. They also help in speaking more naturally and colloquially, which I think will be of high importance when I eventually stay in London.

Some that encumbered me the most were the differences between how to say words which had different pronunciation for each part of speech; such as: ‘record’, ‘police’, and ‘present’.

From all the videos I watched and some other sources, I could safely conclude that the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was the mightiest sword I could wield to right my wrongs.

The IPA consists of those squiggly-wiggly kinds of letter that accompany most entries in any proper dictionary. They have fixed and consistent sounds in every language, and being able to read using the IPA will help you in producing the sounds needed to pronounce every word in every language.

I didn’t expect at all that these guys would help me pronouncing any word. Alas, it did.

Since then, I find for myself time to be alone and practise. Be it by reading books out loud, or repeating some dialogues whenever I hear it on a podcast episode or in films and TV shows.

Often, I record myself and play it to evaluate my pronunciation and speaking in general, whether or not I sound acceptably natural.

With enough repetition, I find it easier and easier to speak with better articulation and therefore increasing clarity and decreasing mispronunciations.

General difficulties

Until today, after more than a year practising, I still feel difficulties when I have to speak in English impromptu. Though reduced, there are still pauses and stuttering still presents. Despite my unsatisfactory progress, I am sure that there’s been improvement. And for what it’s worth, to arrive here, I’ve done only the cliché: practice. I’ve practised it with friends. I’ve also practised it with myself, doing some meaningless monologues.

In addition, one particular that I think indirectly contributes to my humble progress is doing written conversation in English. I actively talk in the internet, be it in form of email correspondences, consultations with customer service representatives; also comments on LinkedIn, 9GAG, Reddit, and sometimes Instagram.

However, for IELTS, I desperately hoped that I can score at least 6 that I didn’t really care of whether it was the proper showcase for my English. I was so pessimistic that I just treat this as just a test in which I had to get my desired score.

So, with this mindset, I set up an idea bank. Fancy as it might sound, it was just a collection of 5Ws+1H (what, when, who, why, where, and how) of several topics that came out most often. Some of them were: food, art, sport, childhood, and holiday.

For example: for art, I put down ‘music’ under the ‘what’ column, ‘The Beatles’ under ‘who,’ ‘when I was twelve’ under ‘when,’ etc.

After filling the rows and columns, I developed general narratives for each topic. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that those are to be memorised; rather, it functioned as a guideline to make sure that my train of thought didn’t derail. The 5W+1H at the very least gave me five sentences. While five sentences wasn’t quite enough, I could develop new ideas from sentences, not from very broad topics.

Finally, I complemented all these with some memorised phrases and structures to spice up my sentences. Phrases like ‘a piece of cake,’ ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ were exceptionally helpful. And by structures, I mean something like ‘never have digital information technology been so pervasive that we now can do many everyday things without actually going out of the bed’. Customise ‘digital information’ and the part after ‘that’ to suit other topics, and voilà!, you get more sophisticated sentences.

Writing

To be able to write well is one of the things that are always present in my bucket list and annual resolutions.

But like many of them, writing only stayed as a filler in the list.

I used to excuse myself with petty defences like ‘I don’t know what to write,’ ‘I don’t know where to write,’ ‘No one wants to read my writing.’

Predictably, I hadn’t written anything quite lengthy other than college assignments and laboratory reports prior to deciding to take the IELTS test.

And surely, writing was one of my weakest aspects of English. I had always known that I would tread on thin ice in this part of the test.

Burnt with fear of the probable failure, I browsed through the internet and found tons of IELTS writing question from books and websites.

I committed myself to devour those collection of questions, I do at least one question a day for more than two months. Despite this seemingly-constructive measure, I still felt difficulties even until the d-day of the test.

I did feel some improvement. I arranged my ideas more quickly, used more sophisticated yet accurate vocabulary, varied my grammar more adeptly, and above all, I can managed my time better.

After IELTS, I continue to train myself to write. I don’t really aspire to be a professional writer; but I do think writing is at the least stimulate my brain to think more strenuously than normal workaday thinking.

And since I read more in this pursue, I also have much more in my head to share to people. I just started to train myself to write those things regularly on Medium.

I write really unproductively. And this piece is one product of my long procrastination. Procrastination masked as idea searching.

Sesquilingual

To compare and contrast, in the practice tests, I quite often got a perfect score for listening and reading parts, that is, 9. I couldn’t score my speaking and writing properly since they were open ended question and should be professionally assessed, not just with simple matching with the answer key.

Putting the effort to the test, I scored 7.5 in the actual test: 8 for listening, 8.5 for reading, and 6.5 for both speaking and writing.

At this point, I still can’t consider myself to be even remotely multilingual — or even bilingual. I don’t deserve that title on me.

At my best, I am sesquilingual. I still use Bahasa Indonesia as my main everyday communication language, while trying my best to learn English.

Prior to beginning this quest, I didn’t expect that linguistics would be this interesting. When I dived deeper and find spicy details like etymology and accents, it was even more alluring.

It’s beautifully elusive yet graspable with logic. It’s abstract but in the same time tangible. Its regular irregularities always managed to force my brain to think out of the proverbial box.

What’s exciting is that there will always be room for improvement.

And I’m eagerly anticipating those rooms to be filled and continue building more vacant rooms.

I don’t get paid writing this, nor does Medium’s system already support paying writers from Indonesia. If you enjoy my writing, consider filling my tip jar to support me :). I will use the money mainly for buying books so that I can read more and enrich my knowledge and insight; so I can come back and write with more edge.

I am lost in this world so I read and write to find my way home

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