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How To Improve Your English

In this second part of our tips on how to improve Mathematics and English, we will offer some tips on how to improve a compulsory subject in Singapore – English.

1. Understand Why You Must Learn English!

English is a widely used language today. In its spoken and written forms, many people around the world use English to communicate with one another. It is also the working language in most countries.

English was also the first language used on the Internet, until other languages, such as Chinese, Spanish, French, German and Japanese, began to be used on the Internet. It is estimated that 60% of Internet websites will be in English in the next few years.

While you may now realise that English is a predominant language throughout the world, you may wonder, "Can I not learn it? After all, I’m not a native English speaker and I love my own language."

Well, if you’re a regular Internet user, we ask you to answer the following questions honestly:

  1. How often have you had difficulties trying to understand what is written on the English Internet websites that you frequent or come across?

  2. How often have you experienced difficulties trying to express yourself in English Internet chat rooms, and how often have the users in those chat rooms misunderstood you?"

For the irregular Internet user, we ask you to answer the following questions honestly:

  1. How often have you found yourself tongue-tied trying to communicate with another person in English?

  2. How often do you find yourself under stress because you have to write in English?

  3. How often do you have to check the dictionary while reading an article or story in English?

  4. How often do you have to read and re-read a piece of writing before you can understand it, if at all?

If any of your answers to the above questions is "All the time!", "Most of the time!", "Many times!" or "Several times!", then you know you really have a problem with the English language and you should try to improve your English language skills now.

Even if you live in a remote area or distant city where everyone speaks your native language (and it is not English), chances are you will be working like everybody else once you finish school.

Since the working world and the Internet predominantly use English, you will be at the losing end if you do not know the language. So learn it now while you have the opportunity!

2. Learn To Appreciate And Love The Language!

English is an interesting and, some may say, beautiful language. It is very lively because you can express the same idea in more than one way. For example, a person asking for directions to a toilet may say:

  1. "Excuse me, may I know where the toilet is?"

  2. "Excuse me, do you know where the restroom is?"

  3. "Hi, can you tell me where the john is?"

  4. "Hi, please tell me how to get to the Gents from here."

Of course, there are more ways to express the same idea above, but depending on your mastery of the English language, your choice of words may be limitless.

It is useful, though not necessary, to appreciate and love the English language if you want to master it. This principle applies to all other languages. If you appreciate and love the language, you will find that you will be more motivated to learn it.

3. First Step In Learning English - Listening

The first step in learning English is listening. Research studies have shown that humans learn languages by listening, speaking, reading and writing, in that order.

In fact, it is not hard to understand why this is so. If you have a baby in your house, or if you know of someone who has a baby, observe the baby closely. While the parents are trying to teach the baby how to speak (usually "Mama" or "Papa"), you will realise that the baby is listening. After a period of listening to its parents, which may take a few weeks, the baby will respond by saying "Mama" or "Papa". Although the baby may not understand what it is saying, it has spoken!

So, do you begin learning English by listening to your friends speak English? NO! Chances are, if your friends are not native English speakers, they will speak incorrect English with an accent.

In Singapore, there is a local brand of English called Singlish, or Singapore English, which is enriched with words coined from the other widely spoken languages and dialects in the nation, including Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay and Tamil. "Don’t be so kiasu lah!", "Ok lor!" and "You got meh?" are common Singlish phrases that would be totally incomprehensible to foreigners.

The right places to start listening in English include radio programs, television programs and movies made in countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Australia. As you listen to these programs, try to learn how English is spoken in those countries. Pay special attention to their grammar, choice of words and sentence construction. Ignore their accents if you can, as they are only applicable to their specific countries and you risk being isolated if you speak like them in your own country.

4. Second Step In Learning English - Speaking

Like the baby who speaks after listening to its parents speak, you should also begin speaking in English once you have started listening to those radio programs, television programs and movies. If you’re taking your first steps in learning English, try to speak along as the radio presenter, newscaster or movie actor speaks.

You may sound awkward at first, but so did you when you started speaking when you were a baby! Be bold and repeat the lines that the radio presenter, newscaster or movie actor has just spoken. If you are shy, do it in your own privacy. If possible, speak into a recorder and then playback to find out how you sound!

Continue to listen and speak in English in the same manner above for a period of time. Once you are ready, try to speak in English to a family member, friend, classmate or colleague who can speak good English. They may have difficulties understanding you at first, but don’t give up. If you don’t want others to give up on you, never give up on yourself first!

If your family members, friends, classmates or colleagues are sincere and helpful, they would be most glad to help you learn how to speak proper English. Ask them to point out your mistakes so that you can avoid these mistakes in the future. Then ask them how you should have said that certain sentence in the correct way. Do this over time and you will speak in English more confidently in no time.

5. Third Step In Learning English - Reading

Back to our little baby. As he grows up (let’s assume it’s a baby boy) into a little kid, he will get curious about the things around him. His parents may start reading stories to him. Over time, the kid will be able to read a few words at a time. Eventually, he will be able to read a short story all by himself. The parents may then proceed to teach him how to write.

In the same way, once you have learnt how to speak English comfortably, the next step is to learn how to read in English. Get a storybook, a newspaper, a magazine or any other material that is written in English by a qualified English writer. If you’ve just started learning how to read in English, get a short one!

You would also need help from a family member, friend, classmate or colleague who can read in English. At this stage, you may also consider seeking help from a professional home tutor.

As you read, observe how each English sentence is constructed. At the same time, recall how the radio presenters, newscasters or movie actors have spoken in English. Recall how you and your family members, friends, classmates and colleagues have spoken in English too.

In most cases, if what you read in English is different from what you have heard or said in English, stick to the written form, that is, what you have read. This is because English in its written form has been more carefully planned, structured and edited, so that the final piece of writing is in proper English (if the writer is a qualified English writer). Given the short span of time we have in between thinking and speaking, we are therefore more prone to make mistakes in English grammar and sentence structure in the spoken form than in the written form.

As you progress in your reading skills, shift your focus from observing the English sentence structure to understanding what you are reading. This is important because without comprehension, you will not be able to proceed to the fourth step in learning English – composition.

6. Fourth Step In Learning English - Writing

So now that you can listen, speak and read in English, what next? Well, you have to be able to pen in English. And this may prove to be the most difficult step because not everyone can write in good English.

Very often, students and even working adults are under this mistaken belief that whatever they write, others can read and understand their writing. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In most cases, it will not be hard to read what someone has written; the agony could come from trying to understand what is written! Just for laughs, read the following and see if you can figure out what the writers actually mean:

  1. (A letter to a teacher) My son is absent from school today because he is not feeling well. Please execute him.

  2. (A note from a parent) James, open the TV on 9 pm and record my best show.

  3. (A note from a postman) Yesterday I came nobody in. Today I came nobody in also. Tomorrow I come please in!

  4. (A spam email) If you are interested in broadening your computer and internet skills, then please feel free to check out my sites at (Please click on the two URLS below) No obligation. You'll be very pleasantly surprised, I suspect. Even more so, if you follow the links. Be circumspect..

  5. (A signboard) Only employee. Please no enter.

Well, if you suspect you write like the above writers, it’s time for you to improve your writing skills! Attend writing courses, seek professional home tuition services, learn how to write from the masters of storytelling (e.g., Charles Dickens) and write more often!

We recommend you cultivate a habit of diary writing and pen pal writing. If you correspond via email, be warned. Most people do not write proper English in their email, so never learn how to write good English from them!


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