Peek Into My Mailbox

When I started this blog, I had no idea what would happen. I just wanted to share ideas, and hoped that somehow, somewhere, somebody would find it and read what I wrote. Now, seven months, and nearly 240,000 hits later, I am amazed. People all over the world are reading this blog, and many have written to me with questions about how to improve their English writing.

Surely others who are students of English have similar questions. With the kind permission of my new pen pals, and a little editing for clarity and privacy, here are some of the things we have discussed. I hope they are interesting and helpful.

K. from India writes:

Hello,
I am from India and we are not native speakers of English. I dream of becoming a news reporter. I make lots of mistakes in writing and I skip the difficult words while reading, or guess the word.

  1. How much time does it take to master the language and what should I do? How much time should I spend every day?
  2. How should I practice remembering the words? I mean, should I learn the word’s spelling first, or know the meaning first?
  3. How do I improve the speed of reading, and should I learn the word while reading the paragraph itself?
  4. How should I communicate my thoughts to others? When I am speaking to somebody, I won’t be able to speak for a long time because I lack words. How can I improve that? I think all these are interrelated, right?

Thank you,
K.

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Hello K.,
Thank you for writing to me. You asked some important questions, and I will try to answer.

  1. How much time does it take to master the language… One answer is that it takes a lifetime. English is a complex language with a huge vocabulary of words. Nobody can learn them all, but the more words you know (and know how to use properly) the better you can express your ideas. Only you can decide how much time is available to study English. The important point is that you use that time well.
  2. How should I practice remembering the words… It doesn’t seem useful to learn how to spell a word if you don’t know what it means. Spelling it correctly, and then using it incorrectly, won’t make your English better. So I would say it makes sense to first learn the meaning of a word and how to use it. In order to use it in your writing, you need to learn how to spell it. For me, both tasks go together. Why try to separate them? When you learn a new word, just decide that you will learn both meaning and spelling.
  3. How to improve the speed of reading… I think what you are really asking is whether you should stop reading in order to look up the words that you don’t know. I would say YES. How can you hope to get the meaning from a piece of writing if you don’t know what some of the words mean? You will only be guessing at the meaning. If you do that, you are not reading what the writer wrote, you are creating your own fiction using parts of what the writer wrote. It takes time, and makes reading slow, but I believe it is necessary. You may wish to scan a paragraph, pick out all the words you don’t know, look up each one (maybe write them all down) and then go back and read the paragraph using what you have learned. Don’t worry about speed. That’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is to understand. If you keep doing this, the speed of your reading will increase automatically.
  4. How should I communicate my thoughts to others… I think it’s true for every person who is learning a new language that when you try to speak, you often can’t find the right word. You are correct that the answer is interrelated with the other things I told you. (By the way, interrelated is a very good word, and you used it perfectly.) When you write, you can take the time to think and to look up words in the dictionary. But when you speak, you have to start eventually to “think” in English. Once that starts to happen, you will be more fluent. It just takes time and practice.

I encourage you to read as much English text as you can. You don’t have to limit it to academic subjects. It’s good practice to read for entertainment also. You will be learning while you enjoy. If you have access to English language movies and television programs, watching those will also increase your familiarity with English. It will make you more comfortable with English, and that will also make you a better writer.

Best regards,
Judy Rose

M. from Singapore writes:

Dear Judy

I am a desperate student struggling with English writing. I stumbled across your website and I found some very useful information on how to improve English writing. I have been reading extensively but my writing doesn’t seem to improve at all.

Can you help me?

Thank you and I look forward to your prompt reply.

Best wishes
M.

_______________

Dear M.,

Your question is so general that I can’t help you solve your problem directly.

I will ask the obvious question. Have you taken any courses in English composition? Such courses should provide you with lots of practice and feedback from the teacher. As a student, you probably have access to a good library and resources that can help you. There are many books that offer information on writing style. Ask your professors. They should be able to direct you to the good ones.

But all this reading can only take you part of the way. There is no secret to good writing. It is a discipline like any other, and requires the same careful thought and practice as any other skill. The best path to excellence is to write, and write, and write more. That, coupled with guidance from a capable teacher who can review your work and discuss it with you, should help you to improve.

Good luck to you. I admire your desire to improve. You already have a good start, judging from your e-mail.
Best regards,

Judy Rose

_______________

Dear Judy

The pointers you gave are extremely helpful! Thank you!🙂

I will stay tuned to your blog! All the best!

Best wishes,
M.

_______________

Dear M.,

You know, your writing is so fluent I can’t imagine why you first described yourself as desperate and struggling. I could make some minor grammatical corrections, but in the overall, your writing is so much better than the samples I usually see when people write to me.

What is it about your writing that you are so dissatisfied with? I’d like to know a little more about you, if you don’t mind telling me.

Regards,

Judy Rose

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Dear Judy,

Absolutely, I will be more than glad!

I am a Singaporean and Chinese is my first language. I am a native Chinese speaker: my parents speak Chinese. Here comes the twist: In Singapore, English is the de facto language. i.e. the national language. And by the same token, the education in Singapore is also English- based. Science and math are taught in English, we also have subjects like English Literature and Economics.

When I was first enrolled in a primary school, my English really suffered. I couldn’t speak English (let alone say write). I have been reading extensively 3 years back and it’s only now my English is beginning to improve slightly. What really brings me down is the inability to come out with complex sentence structure and the unawareness of grammatical errors made in writing. All I am told is to read more to improve my English.😦

Best wishes
M.

_______________

Dear M.,

I think there are two separate parts to learning to be a good English writer. First you need to master the foundations of the language (grammar and vocabulary) and then you need to develop style.

When I was a student, we had grammar lessons every day. We diagrammed sentences to identify all the parts of speech, and learned the proper structure of writing. We also had regular vocabulary lessons. We learned the definitions of words and how to use them in sentences. We had grammar textbooks, but it was so long ago that I have no recollection of titles or authors. (I’m talking about a REALLY long time ago!) But I think I have something that may interest you, thanks to my husband (Michael) who found the following references while I was still drinking my coffee this morning.

You may already be familiar with Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia. Michael selected the following pages because they are very orderly presentations of grammar lessons and information.

This is the first place I would send you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammar. Among the items on this page, you’ll find a listing of grammatical terms with links to more detailed explanations.

Then have fun searching around this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_grammar. It covers topics like word order, gender, use of articles, tense, voice, and more. These are typically things that cause difficulty for ESL speakers/writers. So I think you’ll like this page too.

As for style, that’s where the reading comes in. The more you read good authors, the more you get a feel for different ways of expressing ideas. Don’t just read for content; read for style. Take notice of how the writer chose to phrase his or her thought. Think about word selection, and use your thesaurus, and especially your dictionary, to study the differences between meanings of words that may seem to be totally synonymous, but actually create different pictures or reactions in the reader’s mind. That’s one of the great advantages of the English language. We have so many words that we can convey even the subtlest shade of meaning or mood by selecting the perfect word. Of course, in fiction, writers often abandon the rules of grammar to create authenticity in a scene. People don’t always speak in complete sentences, and much of fiction is dialogue. But if you have been studying grammar, I think there’s little danger of getting into bad habits from reading good fiction. Just recognize that for any sort of formal writing, the rules should be observed.

Finally, in a previous e-mail I recommended that you take a course in English composition. The advantage of doing this is that you’ll get feedback from the instructor. You won’t be completely on your own to figure out whether your grammar is correct or not, and whether your style is developing. Writing is a skill that has to be practiced like any other. Improvement takes time. But I have no doubt that you will eventually become a confident and capable writer.

Best regards,
Judy

H. from Vietnam writes:

Hi Judy Rose,

I am very interested in your website. If you have available time, please chat or send me email so that I can improve my English writing skill.

I am ‘H’ from Vietnam, my English is not good, so I write and read a lot to understand and improve all English skill. But it seems it is not effective. Please give me more ideas or the method that will help me grow.

Thanks so much and appreciate when I receive your email.

Sincerely,

H.

_______________

Dear H.,

You asked how to improve your English. I assume you mean both written and spoken English. Of course, the obvious answer is that if you are in school, take more English grammar, conversation, and writing courses. But I think you are asking for things you can do independ- ently that will make you more fluent. So here are some suggestions:

  1. Read as much as you can in English. It doesn’t have to be limited to text books. Any kind of reading is good. I’m sure you can find many entertaining books that will keep you interested, even though it is hard work for you.
  2. When you don’t know the meanings of words, take time to look them up. I know it makes the reading slow, but that is the only way you will understand what was written. Since the purpose of reading is to gain understanding, it is necessary. But one way is to quickly scan a paragraph and identify all the words you do not know. Make a list, and then look them all up before you read the paragraph. When you read the paragraph again, the meaning will be more clear to you.
  3. Listen to English language movies and television programs as much as possible. If there is not much choice in Vietnam, perhaps you can watch American TV shows over the internet. Most of our most popular shows can be seen on-line.
  4. Find other people who also want to learn English. Practice speaking English together. If you are in school, perhaps you can form a club for English speaking. Promise not to use your native language, and just speak English during your meetings. If you can’t think of a word, maybe one of your friends will know. Or you can look words up together and help each other.
  5. Be patient. All this is hard work (although it may be fun) and it takes time. You said that the work you are doing is not effective, but I have a feeling it is more effective than you realize. Over time, you are going to improve if you do the things I mentioned.

Best regards,

Judy Rose

After this e-mail, H. explained to me that he is not a student. He graduated from the university about three years ago and has already begun his career. Since he is no longer in school, I suggested some things he can do on his own.

Dear H.,

You mentioned that your vocabulary is not good. But vocabulary is an easy thing to improve. It just takes time. When I was in school, my teacher said it is good to learn 5 new words every day. The best way to learn them is to practice using each new word. If you can write three different sentences using a word, then it will become part of your vocabulary. Here’s my idea for you:

  1. Start a notebook for vocabulary words.
  2. When you find a new word, look up the definition. (If you don’t have a paper dictionary, the on-line dictionaries are very good. Use the Thesaurus also. It will give you similar words, and may increase your understanding.)
  3. Write each new word into the book along with its definition.
  4. For each word, write three different sentences using the word. (This part is very important.)
  5. Every day, look back over the words you learned yesterday. Review them so that they stay in your mind.

At your stage of learning, you are going to find many more than 5 new words per day. But it is too much to learn them all every day. So limit yourself to 5 new words maximum each day. Even just three words will still be good. The point is to keep building. If you do this, your vocabulary will grow.

Best regards,
Judy

_______________

Hi Judy,

First, I want to say thanks for your reply. That’s great.

Second thing, with your emails I am learning lots of ways to improve my English skill.

Third, I will self-study 5 new words day after day.

I will learn, read and write more. Promise you I can do it.

Have a nice weekend.
Yours truly,
H.

People like these writers really impress and inspire me. They recognize the importance of knowing English in today’s world, and are determined to do whatever it takes to master it.

Writing this blog is my way of reaching out to people I’ve never met. I am grateful when my readers reach back in my direction. I hope you find something of value here.

13 Comments

  1. Hi, I just found your site; it’s very interesting and informative!

    I noticed in the replies to the letters above you referred to ESL, but did not spell out the acronym. Using and understanding jargon and slang is often one problem ESL students have, so I thought I’d point out that ESL means “English as a second language.”🙂

  2. Hi S,
    Thanks for clarifying ‘ESL’ for any readers who didn’t already know.

  3. I stopped on by after you left the nice comment on my site. I absolutely loved what you wrote. I have been studying Russian and French my whole life. One of the reasons I love Joseph Conrad so much, is that he taught himself to read and write English with only the help of newspapers and maps. Although he always had difficulty speaking it, he is still considered one of the great writers of English…the way Gustav Holst and Handel are considered great English composers.

  4. Thank you, Jauhara al kafira.
    Handel – one of my very favorites! (Brahms too. Eva Cassidy too.) I studied Spanish, French, and Italian in school, and then picked up lots of German and Latin from my music studies. I mastered none of them, but all those foreign words sure come in handy when I’m doing the crossword puzzle. Even dabbling in those languages opened a window to the derivations of many English words and the relationship of our language to the others. I love it when the lightbulb goes on as I make a sudden connection that I was unaware of before.

  5. Dear Judy,

    I like to think that I use the English language with decent respect. Currently, one of my roles at work is to revise templates we use in email to customers. I came into the committee about half way through and one of the changes they made previous to my arrival I am having a hard time accepting. I am trying to understand and accept the verbiage they used but I was hoping that maybe you could give me some insight.

    In the footer of our email we typically thank the customer by saying, “Thank you for shopping with us.” The change that they have made is adding the word “I” to the beginning of the sentence so it will read, “I thank you for shopping with us.”

    The reasoning for the change I was given was that it is more personal. I can see why they think that since they have added the “I” to the front of the sentence but to me it sounds unnatural, forced, unprofessional, and very silly.

    Can you help me see why everyone else feels this change is so wonderful? Anyone else I have talked to agrees with me, except the committee members.

    Please help me,
    Susan

  6. Hi Susan,
    If it’s a footer, and not part of the body of the e-mail, then I would say it’s not part of the personal message. It seems to be more a message from the company, rather than the individual writer, and in that case, the “I” doesn’t fit. (If you’re using templates, how personal are the messages to begin with?) So it makes more sense to me without the “I”, but that’s only my personal opinion. I don’t think there’s a rule about it.
    From a very practical point of view, if it’s the boss’s idea, or he/she really likes it, it may not be important enough to take a stand. Another solution might be “We appreciate your business.” That speaks for the company. They’re all cliches. The readers probably don’t pay much attention.

  7. i really enjoy read this website. really2 motivate me…. thanks judy…

  8. I had no idea English was so hard to learn. I always thought French or Japanese was the hardest.

  9. I know how to speak in english, but when i speak, my seech is not clear, and i swallow most of the words, also my english is not fluent, and mke lot of gramatical mistakes, cant pronounce some words properly.

    could you please guide me

  10. Dear Perpetine (and others who have e-mailed me with similar questions):
    The best way to improve your speech is to listen to and imitate English spoken by native speakers. If you live in an area where English is not often spoken, one alternative is to watch American movies and television. Some of these can be found at libraries, bookstores, and on the internet. You need to find the resources available where you live. Another possibility is language tapes published by companies such as Berlitz. I’m sure there are others as well. Having a good example, and lots of repetition should make a difference in your capability and confidence.
    Good luck to you. I admire your determination.
    Judy

  11. Hello I was just wondering if their is any difference in the subject Math if it is taught in English or French, I thought that math was a universal language so therefore is there any difference besides the language when someone learns math in English vs French what is the pro’s and cons, Thank you 🙂

  12. Hi Michael,
    Your question should go to somebody who is (1) an expert in math, and (2) who speaks both English and French. I’m definitely not that person. Common sense would tell me that math is the same in any language, but I cannot answer you with authority. – Judy

  13. why reading english is important than writing english


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