My poor English ability will continue to hold me back professionally and life in general if I don't find a way to improve it.
May 1, 2010 6:59 AM   Subscribe

Poor English is holding my American Dream hostage.

OK, it's embarrassing for me to even ask this question but I feel if I don't, my poor English ability will continue to hold me back professionally and life in general.

I am an immgrant who was raised in United States since I am 12 years old and graduated from American college. But I feel my English writing (i.e. basic grammar) and speaking ability are still shockingly poor. I really have problem with writing. Sometime, I am afraid to write anything because I fear the mistakes I made in my writing will cause embrassment. I am also very frustrated with the way I speak English. When I speak something, some people don't understand me. It is very frustating because I know how the word sound like in my mind but the things came out of my mouth is completely different!

For the writing, I know a lot of people would suggest reading. But I'm already a voracious reading. I read average of three books a month.
Some of my most recent books are:

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
Annals of The Former World by John McPhee
The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence

I want to emphasize I have no trouble understand these books, but I felt it doesn't help my writing at all. What should I do instead? Get a grammar book on writing? Start diagramming every pages of books I read?

For speaking, I also want to emphasize I have no trouble understanding when people talk to me. I listen to NPR everyday. I work with coworkers who are native English speaker. But still, sometime when I talk, my question or sentence doesn't make any grammarically sense. Even as I spoke it, I know, it sounds wrong but I can't find a correct way to speak it. And my accent is really starting to get on my nerve. I really feel like a failure when someone said "What?" or "Say that again" to me.


I'm not here to make people feel sorry for me. I'm also not here to blame my schools. I have only myself to blame.

So mefi's can you suggest a comprehensive way to improve my language skill?

My throwaway email is poorenglishanon@gmail.com

Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (58 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm a native English speaker and I didn't learn grammar until I graduated from college. I didn't learn it until I actually needed to know it.

Do you have a friend or a trusted coworker who is a grammar maven? Maybe you could set something up where you write an essay each week and then they correct it for you. But more than correct it, actually *explain* to you the rules and regulations of our funky language.

I'd also recommend Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. She's good at explaining and provides fun examples.

Other than that, just know there are TONS of people for whom English is their first and only language and who STILL have a huge problem writing and communicating effectively. Good luck!
posted by ilikecookies at 7:09 AM on May 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can you afford to throw some money at the problem? I ask, because it's very hard to do this on your own. Even those of us who write books for money need editors. I am a native English speaker, and I proof everything I write (even casually tossed-off stuff on Facebook), but I still miss tons of errors. So problem one is knowing an error when you see one; problem two is seeing the error in the first place. For some reason, it's almost impossible to see many of the errors in your own writing.

In your shoes, if I could afford it, I would hire an editor/teacher. I would send him writing samples every day, and I would ask him to send me critiques. Over time, you and he will find patterns in your mistakes.

I'm guessing that you could find someone on Craigslist who would do this for you for a reasonable price -- maybe an English major who needs some extra beer money.
posted by grumblebee at 7:09 AM on May 1, 2010


But I'm already a voracious reading.

Here are the problems to the ear of a native English speaker. You should write either "I am already reading voraciously" or "I am a voracious reader."

It sounds like you have never learned the parts of speech that make up English syntax. I would start with those fundamentals.

It may also help to know what your native tongue is.
posted by dfriedman at 7:11 AM on May 1, 2010


I am in similiar position as you are. I am just not raised in the US or graduated from the US school. I am starting with The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and side by side, Punctuation at Work by Richard Lauchman. Once I am gone through these books, I plan to practice writing every day. I also plan to study TOEFL and IELTS books for the same. If there is no improvement, I plan to take a course / hire a teacher.
posted by zaxour at 7:17 AM on May 1, 2010


I really feel like a failure when someone said "What?" or "Say that again" to me.

This may not be entirely a function of your grammar, if you have an accent. There are many Americans who are particularly bad at understanding even the slightest foreign accent.

As dfriedman mentions, there are certain mistakes that you seem to be predisposed to making, and that may be related to the structures of your native language. I'd look for a teacher/editor (as grumblebee suggests) who is fluent in both your own native language and English, so that they can be hyper vigilant for the particular mistakes you are going to be making.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:20 AM on May 1, 2010


One of the first reasources I would investigate would be your local library. For example, the library in my town offers weekly "English Conversation Groups" for people who speak English as a second language. The library might also be able to point you in the direction of a tutor (I second the comments above that it would be very helpful for you to write regularly and work with somebody to critique what you write) or other classes or resources. Good luck!
posted by warble at 7:23 AM on May 1, 2010


I'm sure you will get more extensive suggestions and from much better writers than myself, but here are couple of things that improved my writing dramatically. (from poor to adequate)

1) Pick up a good book. I bought the "Oxford guide to Writing" by Kane. Just reading it helped me distinguish good writing from bad.

2) Go Slow. Writing takes time - especially if it doesn't come naturally.

3) Proof read what you write - again go slow and try to read every word. When you start to go fast, old habits take hold and you don't even notice the errors.
posted by NoDef at 7:24 AM on May 1, 2010


I'm a native English speaker, and, in fact, a professional editor. For one of my first editing classes, we used the grammar book English Grammar for Dummies and the workbook that goes with it. They explain things very clearly and the workbook gives you the chance to practice what you've learned. It has the answers in the back, so you don't need a teacher, just the self discipline to sit down and actually do the work.

And on another note, I find that the hardest part of any foreign language is producing it yourself, reading or writing. Be patient and keep up the good work!
posted by chatongriffes at 7:25 AM on May 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


When you start looking for a teacher or a class, mention that you seem to have trouble with tenses. You switch back and forth from past to present to future tense. English can be a tricky little language for those who aren't native speakers; sometimes it's difficult even for native speakers.

For the accent problem, I'd try a voice coach. That's what actors do when they're trying to get an accent just right. Perhaps even a speech therapist would help? I'm not sure.

To get the results you want, though, I do think you're going to have to throw money at the problem, or find a really sympathetic teacher. Perhaps you could barter? He/she can teach you grammar and syntax and you can teach him/her your native language.
posted by cooker girl at 7:29 AM on May 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


To deal with your accent issues, you could also hire a speech-language pathologist. It'll cost you but will probably be more effective than any other approach.

I really feel like a failure when someone said "What?" or "Say that again" to me.

I have some foreign friends who I constantly have to ask to repeat what they said. But I also have to ask certain native speakers of English to repeat what they say! So you shouldn't feel like a failure—this isn't entirely your accent. The common factor with people who I have to ask to repeat, is usually not a bad accent, but often people who quietly mumble so I really can't hear what they say. So make sure you are speaking loudly, when necessary, and with clear enunciation. Next time someone asks you to repeat yourself you can ask them what the real problem is.
posted by grouse at 7:33 AM on May 1, 2010


Are you familar with Mixxer? You could find a native English speaker who is learning your native language and talk with them on Skype for mutual practice. It's free; you just have to spend equal amounts of time in each language. I've never used it (yet), but I've heard good things about it. That said, if practice alone doesn't help, coaching, as previous answers have mentioned, may be the only option.

I have participated in Lang-8, which is a free site where people post short written journals in their second language and native speakers correct them. It's nice if you correct other people's entries in your language, but you don't have to.
posted by pengale at 7:38 AM on May 1, 2010 [13 favorites]


I think you should sit down with someone who speaks both English and your native language, and ask them to talk to you about specific differences in grammatic structure. You are probably making the same set of mistakes every time, because your native way of forming sentences is overriding what you know about English.

But I'm already a voracious reading.


Maybe, in your native language, a gerund like "reading" would actually make sense there, so you naturally use it in English.

You might want to just come out and say what your native language is in this thread, and I bet some people here will be able to give specific advice.
posted by bingo at 7:48 AM on May 1, 2010


I'd like to suggest you check out the website Antimoon. It was written by a few Polish guys on how they learned English to native fluency. Basically their method involves getting massive amounts of native-level input and applying specific study methods to them, specifically the use of a spaced repetition system to remember the examples you're getting through native materials. Their study methods do not include heavy use of grammar texts or classes. I've been using their method to learn Spanish and I think it's been very helpful.

Since you can already understand native conversation and read native level books and you live here, you're already way ahead of the game. And yes, reading is something they strongly endorse. What I think may benefit you is their "pause and think" reading method. Apparently when we read simply for content, our brain misses a lot of the small grammar words, and you end up being able to consume whole books but not able to construct a simple sentence on your own. That said, though, I'd say if you're stuck on not understanding particular grammar points, don't hesitate to pick up a book or two.

They also have an extensive section on pronunciation. After listening to a few clips of these guys talking, I'd say it's worth trying their advice, as they sound like native speakers to me.

Good luck!! I know how hard a second language is to master.
posted by unannihilated at 7:54 AM on May 1, 2010 [11 favorites]


Just a note, Anon, you can mefi mail one of the Mods and ask them to post the answer to this thread if you want to remain anonymous.
posted by Atreides at 7:56 AM on May 1, 2010


I had more or less the same problems than you. I still have a bad accent but my ability to write more or less coherently has improved a lot. I can point to two things that helped:

- Forums / Discussion Boards in English. Nothing helps more than writing short messages multiple times a day about something you enjoy. Just try to avoid boards that use textspeak. Twitter may also help. To make sure you're writing correctly there's

- Google. Not sure how an expression or even a word is written? No problem, just throw it at google and check the number of results and the 'Did you mean' suggestion box. Over time the amount of times I have to check something has considerably reduced.
posted by Memo at 7:58 AM on May 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


In my opinion, your vocabulary and sentence/paragraph structure are great. You get your point across well, and you're obviously very intelligent and more literate than many ative English speakers. You need to address two main things: verb tenses and accent elimination. Sometimes you use the past tense instead of present and vice versa, and sometimes you conjugate verbs in the first person instead of the third. Also, you are missing the last letter 's' on some of your words - sometimeS and nerveS, for example. These things are minor, and I bet once they are pointed out to you you'll remember them. I think having friends or a tutor read and correct some written work would be beneficial, and you should also look into accent reduction or accent elimination programs in your area. Good luck!
posted by infinityjinx at 8:02 AM on May 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


It is very frustating because I know how the word sound like in my mind but the things came out of my mouth is completely different!

Maybe it would help to practice pronunciation. Next time you are reading a book, try reading it out loud and focus on pronouncing every word correctly. When you are listening to NPR, repeat the phrases that you hear and try your best to mimic the announcers' voices.

It might help us to know your location, as well as your native language. I know there are several groups in my community that do English tutoring for all levels of proficiency; if we know where you are, maybe we can help you find some resources in your area.

Also I just want to say that although there were some mistakes in your question, they're not that bad. Your spelling and punctuation are great, and you got your point across effectively in every sentence. So don't be too hard on yourself!
posted by beandip at 8:03 AM on May 1, 2010


Let me say a couple of things here:

First, I'm going to presume that you carefully constructed your post here and that it may well have caused some serious anxiety to put your command of English writing on display for all to see. Good for you. Seriously - this is precisely what it takes.

Secondly... your writing is fine. Were there elements of your usage that were nonstandard? Yes, of course, but you knew that about yourself. Did I see things that said to me, "this person is probably a non-native speaker"? Yes. Did they impede my comprehension? Nope, not one bit.

Reading is an absolutely enormous part of one's ability to write. For years I taught writing to both native and non-native speakers at the college level, and let me be clear: the ones who had been avid readers in whatever language are typically light years ahead of their non-reading peers. So don't give up on that portion of your self study. It's a smart thing to do.

There are a lot of ways in which you can write with others, both in the professional sphere and privately. Asking a native-speaking friend or co-worker for discrete pointers, like "I want to be sure that I use the right word here," or "I want to understand why I use this form of the verb and not this other one," are perfectly good questions. As far as your accent goes? I'm absolutely with Rock Steady on this one: there are plenty of English speakers who can't understand another native English speaker with a regional accent different from theirs, so I would urge you not to put much stock in this. Say what you want to say, and if you get raised eyebrows or looks of incomprehension, ask your listener for the pronunciation of [the word you just said], perhaps by spelling it. Then you get an on-the-spot lesson. Do not, however, feel as though you should be apologetic for speaking both your native language(s) and English too. That's madness.

I'm
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:04 AM on May 1, 2010 [8 favorites]


Errmmm... ignore that "I'm" please. I have no earthly idea where I was going with that.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:05 AM on May 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


You might just need a little structure so you can get a rough draft out. Then try to clean things up on your own, then get help to do more clean up, then do more writing and revising on your own, and repeat all these steps until you have a final product.

This book gives you a framework to get your ideas out:

http://www.amazon.com/They-Say-Matter-Academic-Writing/dp/0393924092

This author's books give you frameworks for various writing issues:
http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Guide-Powerful-Paragraphs/dp/0945045050/

This is a pretty intense book about the entire writing process and coming up with original ideas and arguments:
http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Analytically-David-Rosenwasser/dp/1413033105

These are books for when you're struggling to find the right words:
http://www.amazon.com/Focusing-Eugene-T-Gendlin/dp/0553278339/
http://www.amazon.com/Felt-Sense-Writing-Sondra-Perl/dp/0867095377/
(The above has a CD that guides you through the writing process.)
http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Natural-Gabriele-Lusser-Rico/dp/0874779618
http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Both-Sides-Brain-Breakthrough/dp/006254490X
posted by zeek321 at 8:12 AM on May 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, this may or may not be relevant, if pronunciation is an issue:

http://www.amazon.com/American-Accent-Training-Book-Audio/dp/0764173693
posted by zeek321 at 8:15 AM on May 1, 2010


For your writing, I would find an editor.
For speaking, I would look for someone who you could get conversational practice with who would also correct you every time you make a mistake and explain why it's said a different way in English. If you just rely on regular conversation as practice, it won't be as helpful, because people aren't going to correct you in everyday conversation (it's rude, and unnecessary if they can understand the gist of what you are saying).
If people are having a hard time understanding you, it would be for two reasons 1) the words you are using don't make sense, or 2) they can't understand what actual words you are saying (because of an accent or pronunciation). Since you express yourself really well in English, I'm guessing the problem is really just #2. Some people just can't understand people with accents (even other regional US accents).

It might even be helpful to meet with a fluent English speaker who is also a native speaker of your native language. They might understand better why you make the certain types of English mistakes you do and be able to explain better how to know the "right" way.
posted by ishotjr at 8:28 AM on May 1, 2010


Books like The Elements of Style* aren't grammar guides. They're style guides. They assume that the audience already knows English grammar and simply needs to have their writing polished up. They won't tell you, for the most part, when to use "reader" versus "reading," because that's not what they're about.

(Unfortunately, many people confuse grammar for style, so you'll find many style guides that pass themselves off as "grammar" guides, which is not helpful.)

I have a different suggestion than learning from books: What about a pen-pal?

If you can find someone who is attempting to learn your own language, you can exchange letters or emails and correct each other's work. You might be able to find someone on a community like this one:

http://community.livejournal.com/linguaphiles/

You already have a decent grasp of English grammar. Yes, you do make some mistakes, but they're occasional and don't make you hard to understand. You don't need to learn all of the rules over again. What you need is just a little correction here and there.

* Also, The Elements of Style is a horrible, misleading book. Imagining someone taking its wacky proscriptions and advice seriously makes me shudder. Don't do it!
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:40 AM on May 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Elements of Style is a horrible, misleading book.

Same with Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
posted by grouse at 9:04 AM on May 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


ishotjr's got the right idea: what you need is conversational and writing partners who will correct you (gently but firmly) in an environment where you're able to develop the right instincts for grammar. While Antimoon has good criticisms of a class-based approach, at first it might be useful to look for some school/ESL drills that are written to highlight particular elements (verb endings, verb-noun number agreements) or see if a local community college offers advanced-level ESL courses that focus on writing and speaking practice.

I'm sure, too, that if you tell your co-workers that it's okay for them to correct you in situations where it's not going to cause embarrassment -- the break room, the watercooler -- they'll be happy to do so. Then you pause, think, repeat, and it'll go into the verbal memory bank. Treat it like a game: you're building up your skills through practice, finding and correcting weaknesses in your swing.
posted by holgate at 9:23 AM on May 1, 2010


Do you speak your home language almost exclusively outside of the need to communicate in English? If so, that may impede your progress. I find that after even a two week trip to Singapore (singlish) or India (Hinglish) I develop a strong accent adn stumble over english vocabulary simply because I've lost practice. When I travel back to the US, I'll pick up the twang in my english which isn't there in Europe for example.

Many friends who moved to the US and weren't as accustomed to the 24/7 english although highly educated found that the most cost effective way to sensitize the ear to the local pronunciation is to turn the close captions on for TV programs and read along with the dialogue. Also, CD format pronunciation guides are cheaply available in Barnes & Noble and the like for you to practice in the car during your commute or otherwise at home.

I also find that the Kaplan GRE prep books to be very good for testing your English in professional settings as it pushes you beyond the basic beginner lessons.

Its not easy wrapping your head around sounds and languages and being overly conscious will make it harder, but that is easier for us to say than for you to deal with. I have an accent and I work with whomsoever I'm speaking to, regardless of local language, in order to ensure that my intent and meaning are communicated, regardless of sentence structure or grammar, as the case may be.

And yes, the US can be hard on this, regardless of your english quality and education, there are those who presume that they won't understand you if you also look foreign to them, regardless of what you may be saying or how clearly. Don't let that get to you, sometimes its not as innocent as its made out to be.
posted by infini at 9:24 AM on May 1, 2010


I don't think that the style/grammar books suggested above will help you; they are for native speakers who wish to learn formal/academic grammar, such as the correct use of commas.

As your writing here shows, you have not internalized the essential generative grammar of English -- tenses, conjugation and phrasing. In your post, you miss the use of an article (a, an, the), and later say "speak something" when it should be "say" something. These are the sorts of things that native speakers of any language learn as babies, along with accent, not in school.

Perhaps what would be best would be to sign up for English as a second language classes. They would teach grammar, but in a completely different way from a grammar class for native speakers. They would teach things like when nouns need an article; I have studied English grammar as a native speaker and can tell you about passive voice and how to use a semi-colon, but I can'y tell you when to use an article because I just know, like someone who speaks Chinese just knows how to use number words or how to pronounce a neutral tone after another tone. But my friend who teaches ESL probably has a lesson plan on articles in English.

In the meantime, ask Anglophone friends to proof your writing and practice your English with native speakers. And be justifiably annoyed at people who don't understand you because you make perfect sense even if your English is not as a native speaker would speak.
posted by jb at 9:26 AM on May 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Lots of good suggestions listed here! Try this: get a relatively decent but fairly popular magazine with essays--New Yorker, Atlantic, Peoples (yes: it is done by professionals), Time..read some essays ALOUD...that is the best way to absorb what decent non-academic writing sounds and reads like. lI have , when teaching, used the send letter technique: write a friend who is decent writer, speaker, and send a letter or two each week, with stamped envelop for return. Ask for comments, corrections, suggestions.

Pronounciation: you need a pal to edit, correct, suggest as you read or talk to that person
posted by Postroad at 9:58 AM on May 1, 2010


I have to second Emperor SnooKloze. Your writing is fine. You made a few errors in the post, but you got your thoughts across. If I read a business email from you, I bet I'd be able to tell English is your second language. But I'd also conclude that you're very fluent, and this would speak well about your work ethic and intelligence (especially in the US, where fluency in a second language is uncommon).

My advice to you with regards to your writing is to focus on getting over your insecurities. I've worked with a lot of very successful people who can't write grammatically correct sentences. Some of them are even native English speakers. Yet occasional errors have not had a negative impact on their careers. (Granted, their fields aren't literature or writing, but some of them have published articles and books on their areas of expertise with the assistance of copyeditors.)

I think you can write to your colleagues and business associates without fear. They will understand you. In the US, chances are they've worked with immigrants before, and they'll be accustomed to and unfazed by small errors that don't impede comprehension. Besides, the more you practice, the better you'll get, especially if you keep reading. I say that as a fellow immigrant and English learner.

Your accent seems like a larger problem. You say people act like they can't understand you. How often does this happen? Can you get an honest opinion from a friend about whether the largest problem for you in speaking is your accent or your grammar?

Others above have suggested ways in which you can practice speaking with a partner who can correct your speech for grammatical errors. Most lay people will not be able to help you with your accent, but a speech pathologist probably can. Personally, I had good luck with courses that include phonetics labs where you practice individual sounds for hours by repeating after a recording of a native speaker and recording your own speech for later playback. (This way, you and your instructor should be able to compare the sounds made by the native speaker and yourself.) Perhaps a university near you offers something like what I'm describing.

We might also be more helpful to you if we know what your chosen field is, since norms do vary.
posted by whimwit at 10:02 AM on May 1, 2010


The best way is very simple: pick a good text that was written in your native language, one which you can enjoy. Then translate it into English, writing down your translation and correcting it carefully as you go. This helped me immensely with ancient Greek.

At the end, you might not have a translation that you want to show anybody, but you'll have a little notebook full of translation and a lot more facility with the language. I find translation like this is a really good way to get past the difficulty of synthesizing the language - it's one thing to understand it, but to produce sentences naturally can be a big challenge. Translating, solely for your own benefit, is a private and effective way to get there.
posted by koeselitz at 10:09 AM on May 1, 2010


> Secondly... your writing is fine.

No, it's not. I knew some kindly MeFites were going to come along with this pat on the shoulder, and so far there are two, but it's not true and it doesn't help. The writing is not good English, it's full of grammatical and syntactical mistakes, and the poster knows that perfectly well. Furthermore, recommendations for Strunk-'n'-White and (*grinds teeth*) Lynne Truss are beside the point; however useful or otherwise they may be for refining the style of a native speaker (and I personally think they're next to useless), they are not what the poster needs. The only genuinely useful answer so far is jb's: the poster needs an English as a second language class. (Also, knock it off with the "What's your native language?"—the poster is not expecting us to provide detailed language instruction, and your curiosity is irrelevant.)

To the poster: Teachers of ESL are used to these problems and will help you deal with them. It's understandable that you're embarrassed by your English, and that's the best (probably the only) way to fix it. Simply reading and listening is not going to help. Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 10:13 AM on May 1, 2010 [20 favorites]


I have to second Emperor SnooKloze. Your writing is fine. You made a few errors in the post, but you got your thoughts across. If I read a business email from you, I bet I'd be able to tell English is your second language. But I'd also conclude that you're very fluent, and this would speak well about your work ethic and intelligence (especially in the US, where fluency in a second language is uncommon).

I'm sorry, but (as languagehat said) it's just not true that the OP's writing is "fine."

"You got your thoughts across" is a ridiculously low standard. Yes, I understood every sentence in the post. But I can't believe that commenters here who are native English speakers honestly think it wouldn't be a problem for the OP to write like this in a professional context (keeping in mind that the OP was probably extra careful in writing the post). For example, just one sentence -- "I know how the word sound like in my mind but the things came out of my mouth is completely different" -- has multiple errors with verb tense and subject/verb agreement. ("I know how the words sound in my mind, but the things that come out of my mouth are completely different.")

I've studied a foreign language only to realize later that my instructors weren't being upfront with me about how off my pronunciation was. They may have wanted to be encouraging or avoid embarrassing me, or they may have been clinging to some notion that there's no right and wrong in language. But telling someone who's making mistakes that they're doing fine can be really pernicious.

As far as books, I would look for something more basic than Strunk & White. Strunk & White is a great, classic book (even though attacking it is a favorite Metafilter pastime). It's useful for correcting common errors and improving the writing of native English speakers, but it's not going to be focused on the kinds of errors you're making. You want something that explains parts of speech, verb tenses, and subject/verb agreement from the ground up. This is surely a very common product: you basically need a book for learning the English language, but you can skip lots of vocabulary that you already know. Check the foreign language section in any bookstore.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:39 AM on May 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you have never learned the parts of speech that make up English syntax. I would start with those fundamentals.

It may also help to know what your native tongue is.


I would bet my druthers that OP is of Asian descent, based on the type of grammatical errors that he or she is making.

OP, I just want to give you a hug. I've taught English and tutored non-native speakers and the problems you're having with language are so incredibly common. My students would be incredibly smart, curious, and dedicated--but it's really hard to learn grammatical rules when your native tongue doesn't even include equivalent grammatical rules.

An ESL class would be good (and would be great for showing you how common these problems are), but I think you might get even more out of individual ESL tutoring. One-on-one attention is likely to be far more personalized, and you're likely to see faster results.

Good luck!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:47 AM on May 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Full disclosure: I am a moderator on an English as a Second Language message board, a former ESL teacher and I am also a professional writer/editor.
Reading technical manuals such as Elements of Style is fine and will no doubt give you good tips when it comes to parts of speech, syntax, etc. But it sounds like you need practice in conversational English. Your first goal should be to have your main meaning understood when you speak, the second goal is to be grammatically correct in both speech and writing. (Sad to say, it seems like what used to be slang or colloquial English passes as proper grammar today.)

Do you have a hobby or particular interest? I have often advised my students to join a small book club or stamp collecting club or model airplane club or whatever interested them and then to come right out and say at their first meeting "One reason I am here is to improve my English. I have a favor to ask - when I say something that sounds awkward or incorrect, please tell me. I won't be offended, I want to learn." Usually other folks will be so impressed by your desire to learn "their" language they'll be glad to work with you. But your main advantage in such a situation is to be able to listen and observe (body language is also an important part of conversation - native speakers know how to read the faces and gestures of others and immediately correlate them with the words being spoken). You'll see and hear people holding natural conversations versus the stilted dialogues taught in books and on teaching videos.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:48 AM on May 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I find it both sad and amusing that "error" that originates in foreign language fluency is somehow significantly more objectionable than that which originates from native semiliteracy. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of native English speakers appear to be scarcely acquainted with the basic conventions of written English, so when a non-native speaker can get a point across, my temptation as a reader is to meet them 25% of the way.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:56 AM on May 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


You might check local community colleges for ESL programs. The one I work at here in St. Louis has one of the best in the city; couple that with the fact that community college tuition is so much cheaper than four-year universities, and our school has a thriving international and immigrant student population. Which encourages the college to support the ESL program more extensively. Which draws more international and immigrant students . . . If this dynamic is happening at other community colleges, you might find a really good program near you.

You probably will not need to take the whole ESL series; many community colleges will allow you to just pick up the courses you need if you already have a college degree. If you were to come to my school, I suspect the ESL faculty would recommend the one-on-one supplemental course that works on polishing verb tense/ verb form, word forms/usage, etc, as well as the one-credit listening course, a conversation group set up independently of the curriculum, and maybe a vocabulary-building course.

I realize many people are recommending books, but it sounds like you've been working at it kind of from that angle already, so maybe a change of approach would help you.

I do understand the commenters who are saying you're doing fine: They, like I, are impressed with your degree of fluency so far, and hope to encourage you, but I also understand that you want to improve beyond that level. The desire to improve is the greatest motivator I've seen amongst students, which gives me a pretty optimistic feeling about your eventual success.

Good luck!
posted by miss patrish at 11:04 AM on May 1, 2010


Non native speaker of English here - the mistakes you make are not unusual even for people who have lived in an English speaking environment for many years.

And as others have pointed out, most of your errors are grammatical although there is some spelling in there as well.

How good is your grasp of grammar in your own language? Do you understand the rules as opposed to just use them? Unless you understand the grammatical rules of your own language you won't understand where English grammar is different. And unless you know the differences you won't be able to consciously apply the different rules. And initially it has to be a conscious process until you have internalised the rules and just use them, the way a native speakers do.

What language do you think and dream in? My guess would be it's not English and that a significant part of your life still takes place in your native language - as others have said that does not help with what you are trying to achieve.

It is great that you want to improve but don't be discouraged if progress is slow. Some people are words people and pick up all things language related with ease and some people just don't. You seem to have spent a long time in an English speaking environment now so maybe this stuff just does not come easy to you and will take a lot of effort to fix.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:12 AM on May 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I find it both sad and amusing that "error" that originates in foreign language fluency is somehow significantly more objectionable than that which originates from native semiliteracy.

I think this is a straw man; no one here has said that. But it's beside the point, because that isn't the question. Saying that people should be more tolerant of anonymous's mistakes isn't the question either. They didn't ask how to get people to become more tolerant, they asked how to get better.

Can anonymous communicate in written English better than some native speakers? Yes.

Can I understand what anonymous is saying? Yes.

Does that mean anonymous has a good command of written English? No.

Will this hold back anonymous as they fear? Probably.
posted by grouse at 11:18 AM on May 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also note how, despite proofreading, I managed to get it wrong as well...
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:21 AM on May 1, 2010


There is a lot of good advice here.

I'm an immigrant who knew no English at all when I came to America about fifteen years ago.

What worked for me was the willingness to be corrected by people who could explain the "why" of what I was saying or writing was incorrect. I took a lot of ESL and other English courses - community colleges are amazing for that.

And another thing to which I give a lot of credit is reading a lot, but especially "high" literature - authors from earlier eras, authors reknowned both for the clarity and simplicity of their writing (such as Hemingway) and the relative difficulty of their prose (Nabakov was perfect here - I had to spend a lot of time unravelling his sentences.) Best of all were Jane Austin, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Wodehouse - British writers from 50 or more years ago. In America, "British," in speech and writing, is shorthand for something like class or highbrow language, and the vocabulary and sentence patterns in those books classed up my English quite well.

One of the best books I ever received was one of those inexpensive "100 Common English Mistakes" paperbacks. I read it continually for a year; I must have read it a thousand times until I'd memorized evey single error and could recognize them in conversation and writing. And I made sure *never* to make one of those mistakes, although I made plenty of others (!) and I've loosened my standards a bit since then. Knowing "rules" which native English speakers don't know - when to use "whom" and when to use "who" is a great example - intimidates people a little, boosts self-esteem and tends to make people quite forgiving when one makes some other sort of error.

I see non-native mistakes in your English. But you're about 90% of the way there, which is a great accomplishment. Learning how to properly use parts of speech seems (from your brief bit of writing) to be a problem, and you seem a bit shaky with verb tenses. Those things can be pretty easily corrected with a bit of effort, so I don't think your problems in writing are as awful as you imply. That's good news!

One more thing: problems with any new language have a lot to do with the peculiarities of one's native tongue. For example, I have had lots of problems with when to use articles, which is common with native speakers of Slavic languages. I'm sure that many people here could give you some special exercises to help you with problems which relate back to your native language, if we knew what it was - or at least its "family." If you can, let us know that. (You can e-mail me if you'd like and I'll post it, so you don't have to bother a moderator and can still maintain your anonymity.)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:34 AM on May 1, 2010 [12 favorites]


In addition to all the other suggestions of groups and classes to practice spoken English, your Toastmasters might be a good option to interact with both native & non-native speakers who are trying to improve their public speaking skills. Depending on your profession, that could be more or less helpful to you, but it's worth checking out.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:37 AM on May 1, 2010


Oops! That should say your local Toastmasters group, not "your Toastmasters." Toastmasters has local meetups world-wide.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:38 AM on May 1, 2010


It is very frustating because I know how the word sound like in my mind but the things came out of my mouth is completely different!

When you practice your English, do you practice saying it aloud or do you just read silently to yourself and/or listen? I agree that it will be easiest to get your grammar cleaned up by going to an ESL teacher, but in terms of your accent, if you know what the words are supposed to sound like in your head but just can't make your mouth form them properly, then I would think you could start practicing that on your own. Speaking and hearing are two different skills, after all. And speaking has a physical component--getting your mouth and tongue and teeth coordinated to make the right sort of sound--and that takes practice to do automatically. It's like learning how to ride a bike: you can't do it without actually getting on the darn bike and falling off it a couple of times and feeling foolish. So.

I think you should buy some English-as-a-foreign-language cds, and find a place or a time when you can listen to them privately. I recommend cds over the radio, because the cds will have built in times to repeat after them and will go slower and repeat things over and over. Every time they tell you to repeat after them outloud, do it. And when you do: say it outloud once, check your pronunciation against the one in your head, try again, and then listen to the differences between your pronunciation and theirs. You can even pause the cd after useful phrases, and go through the same process. I'm learning German at the moment, and I do this (combined with taking classes) and it's definitely been helping my pronunciation. Luckily I live by myself, so I can turn a cd on while I'm cooking and and practice strange German vowels into the spaghetti until I've bored even myself.

Good luck!
posted by colfax at 12:01 PM on May 1, 2010


I'm sure, positive, that you're Chinese. One of the hats I wear in Beijing is as an ESL teacher, and you sound like the people I teach.

You'll notice that while some commenters here say your mistakes may hold you back, I think you'll notice that a lot more are saying that your English is "fine". Which, from my perspective, it is. Your grammar is not "shockingly poor". Your grammar would be shockingly poor if you said "I have for graduate of a American's colleges. I am living 12 since years. I can haz cheeseburger?"

Improving your language past a certain point is an exercise in diminishing returns. Beyond the goal of communication and living a full, literate life, what do you want?

Not to be embarrassed? Good luck. There are judgmental people in the world, and they will find you, and if it's not your accent, then they'll laugh at your shoes, or the wine you drink, or the music you listen to, or the car you drive. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life hiding in your basement, embarrassment is a fact of life that you'll have to learn to live with. If you do hide in your basement, that will be embarrassing!

I'm not trying to talk you out of this, but before you smash your head against language learning, it's important to know why you're doing it. That way, when it gets really, really frustrating, you have a rock solid reason that will keep you going. Escaping embarrassment is usually never enough. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but that's a truth I've personally been witness to dozens, maybe hundreds, of times.

Real, specific goals that are tied to non-linguistic accomplishments, by contrast, almost always work, and they have the added benefit of making you confident enough not to care what others think of your accent. :) Examples? Okay. Go read this column posted here to mefi about weird animals and tell your coworkers about the lifecycle of that lobster mouth critter. Dedicate yourself to understanding Shakespearean orthography. Or consider mastering the koan-like wisdom of Stephen Wright's official ESL torture kit. Broadly speaking, these are the things that will help you, because the language is secondary. Write a blog about your learning process, whatever you decide to take as your mantle of study.

Specifically speaking, it's 3:30 in the morning, and my email is in my profile if you have specific grammar questions. :)
posted by saysthis at 12:34 PM on May 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


I taught EFL for several years. ESL/EFL teachers who are comparing the poster favourably to their students are missing the point. Yes, his writing is better than many of your students. It's still not good enough for business. I agree with those who have told you to take an ESL class. You'll be in a high level, which means you'll be able to discuss or write about interesting things, but it'll help you to root out the errors in your speech and your writing. For accent reduction or elimination, probably a speech therapist is your best bet. That'll be a bit expensive, but it'll help.
posted by smorange at 2:06 PM on May 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the OP:
First of all, I just want to say thank you! Mefis, thank you for all the helpful suggestions and comments! This is what I love about this community. I always learn new thing and new ways to improve myself. I deeply appreciate everyone's contributions.

Most of comments are correct when pointing out the problem with verb tense. I am aware of the problem. It is excruciating painful and took inordinate amount of time for me to even type even simple message because I over-analyzed my sentence. I know my fundamental is weak, but I also know I can no longer bury my head in the sand and ignore the problem.

The whole problem is frustrating for because English is by far my best language. I'm already rapidly losing fluency in my native tongue. I think and dream in English. I took several college level English classes when I was in college. I already read Element of Styles, Eats, Shoots & Leaves and On Writing Well. I guess I made the mistake of using style books as grammar book. For past month, I also write regularly on daily basis at 750words.com. Yet I don't feel I'm improving at all. I need feedbacks; someone who could brutally and ruthlessly point out any mistakes I made.

The people who have problem understanding me when I speak are the colleagues who I work with on daily basis for two years!

I'm not afraid to throw money at the problem. If I have to eat beans and rice whole year to afford to hire instructors/editors and books, then so be it. I will sign up for ESL classes at my local community college. If I can still afford it I will hire a speech language pathologist to fix my accent.

"I'm already a voracious reading "

I meant to type "I'm already a voracious reader." I made mistake of substituting reading because I typed too fast.

This reminded me of another issue I forgot to mention. I would never ever use the word voracious in real life, in addition to being too formal, I don't even know how to pronounce it! I understand English is a mostly phonetic language; but when I came across an unfamiliar word I don't know how to "sound it out"? It always amazed me when some native speaker could pronounce an unfamiliar word. Right now, my method is to use dictionary on the web that has pronunciation sound file to learn its pronunciation. I really regret not knowing this important skill. How should I address this? Pick up books on phonics aim at school children? Would beginner's ESL cover this?
posted by jessamyn at 2:14 PM on May 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


It always amazed me when some native speaker could pronounce an unfamiliar word.

Guesswork and intuition: voracious is like gracious is like spacious. You can talk about their common roots, but it's mainly about developing a sense of the "moving parts" of words. That's what spelling bee contestants do from the other side: they'll hear a word, ask for the origin and an example of the word in use, and figure out which bits go into it.

Knowing words but not the pronunciation is often a sign that your reading vocabulary outstrips your common spoken one. It's happened to me plenty of times.
posted by holgate at 3:02 PM on May 1, 2010


Nthing ESL classes. Check your local college/university or literacy organization for people who are experienced teaching ESL since people who only teach English will probably not have the training to work with people who learned English after their primary language. If it helps, most ESL learners I have worked with find that written English is the most difficult to learn even if they speak just like an American, understand everything they hear and can read any book written in English.
p.s. When I proofread documents written by highly educated, native English speakers, I am often shocked at how they write. There is a big difference between people who can write and good writers.
posted by MsKim at 3:24 PM on May 1, 2010


thank you OP for your message. it also helps me understand that when I am too lazy to make the effort to correct my english when I type too fast, the message it could send about my learning ability and quality of english. good luck with your efforts.
posted by infini at 3:57 PM on May 1, 2010


I agree with everyone recommending ESL classes, particularly upper-level English for Academic Purposes ESL classes offered at community colleges.

I have one recommendation you can try for improving your pronunciation/making your accent more "American." This article describes a technique called "reverse accent mimicry" through which the author (native English speaker) improved his own pronunciation in his second language (French). Basically, it works like this:

1. Think about how American English speakers sound when they try to pronounce words in your first language. They probably don't pronounce certain sounds correctly. Try to analyze which "funny" sounds and mispronunciations are particular to English speakers.

2. Now try speaking your language the way an English speaker would pronounce the words. Exaggerate a lot while you're doing this. It should sound ridiculous. That's the point; it'll help you remember the sounds more easily when you want to apply them to your own English speech.

3. Now, when you speak English, apply that exaggerated "English-sounding" pronunciation to the way you speak. Exaggerate it; sound as stereotypically American (for your region of the US) as you can. You will probably feel silly at first, but keep doing it.

Different languages require different mouth shapes and tongue positions, and this technique helps language learners think about these differences between their first language and the one they're trying to learn. I used to teach this technique to my ESL students when I taught ESL. They would laugh a lot and think it sounded ridiculous, but it seemed to work pretty well for those who persisted with it. It worked for me when I was taking a French conversation class, too.

Good luck!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:13 PM on May 1, 2010


In terms of pronunciation - you may be relieved to know that even native English speakers often don't know how to pronounce new words. I've always said that I have a "reading vocabulary" - meaning that I learned most of my vocabulary from books, not from hearing them said aloud. As a child and even teenager, I mispronounced words so often that it was a family joke, and at 25 I still pronounce things wrong every now and then.

So, sounding things out / using analogous words works most of the times - but when you get things wrong anyway, remember that native English speakers do too.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:37 PM on May 1, 2010


Maybe you could try this too, for words you don't know how to pronounce.
posted by dubitable at 12:20 AM on May 2, 2010


To me, it sounds like you've spent a considerable amount of time studying the language on your own, reading books, practicing writing and so forth. What you really need in a venue to practice your conversation with others and I think the best way to do so is with a personal tutor who preferably speaks your own native language as well. Supplementing social activities will also be helpful.

As for as accent goes, I find that losing your accent shouldn't be high on your priority list. There are many types of accents in English that are hard to understand from region to region, southern drawls and the like. What you really should focus on is pronunciation. Being able to speak the sound difference difference between color and collar, so forth. Pointers on where to place your tongue, how to shape your lips or even a comparison to a sound that exists in your native language will help you in pronouncing words understandably.

Keep working on it! Good luck!
posted by p1nkdaisy at 12:44 AM on May 2, 2010


You'll notice that while some commenters here say your mistakes may hold you back, I think you'll notice that a lot more are saying that your English is "fine".

Um, no. There have been over 50 comments in this thread. When languagehat commented about halfway down, he noted that two people had said the OP's English is fine. The vast majority of responses here are not saying, "Oh, it's fine, don't worry."
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:59 AM on May 2, 2010


I think working on your spoken grammar will make it easier to fix mistakes in your written grammar. I thought your question was well-written from the point of view of conveying information, it just had some mistakes with conventions. A person who grew up speaking English with correct conventions wouldn't have trouble with those things.

So focus on speaking better. Find someone with whom you can have weekly conversation practice sessions. Sometimes you can trade with someone who wants to learn your native language. Ask your conversation partner to correct grammar errors that s/he hears. Also ask them to help you practice pronunciation. I think speaking more in conversation will help a lot.
posted by mai at 11:48 AM on May 2, 2010


I have a perfect British accent and have no trouble being understood anywhere in the world...apart from America!
So don't worry if they ask you to "say that again", it's them that need to sharpen their listening skills.
posted by freddymetz at 12:34 PM on May 2, 2010


The research that I have read suggests it takes at least 7 years to gain "near fluency." Achieving it faster than that is considered unrealistic.

One additional possibility. If possible, become a writing tutor and help other people move forward with their writing projects. Many tutoring centers like to hire ESL writers because they have special insight into the process -- you can see that some of the most helpful posters above are ESL speakers, for example. If this is something that is interesting to you, I might know some people who could be hiring.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 10:16 AM on May 4, 2010


Sorry this comment is so late...I'm an ESL teacher. Many community colleges offer specific classes on grammar, pronunciation, etc. Look into those.

Style guides are not likely to be useful to you. Don't worry about reading those.

I recommend classes, but if you don't have time right now, try Betty Azar's book, Understanding and Using English Grammar (get the version with answers). Unlike other books, this book has exercises in context.

There is a pronunciation book that I like, called Clear Speech, but if you buy it, it doesn't include the full CD set. You have to order the "class CDs" separately, and they're pretty expensive. (It's true that many Americans really need to listen to more kinds of international accents, too.)

Congratulations on your reading level. That's very impressive! Your reading is probably why your writing is as good as it is. Do you read often? You should keep reading, because it does help. It's good to read fiction, too, because that includes other kinds of grammatical structures, dialogue, and cultural information. I usually recommend reading at least 20 minutes a day. (More is better.) It doesn't need to be difficult fiction. Easy stuff is fine. If there are more than around 5 important words per page that you can't understand, the book is too difficult. Try another book. (You probably won't have any problem with that...)

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 2:21 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


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