What's the best way I can help an Indian colleague improve his English?
December 7, 2011 2:18 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way I can help an Indian colleague improve his English?

There's a new guy at work. He's fun, enthusiastic and smart, but his English (particularly written) is poor and will hold him back unless he improves. He considers himself fluent, but his understanding of grammar and idiom lacks any subtlety, so he tends to write confusing sentences.

Is there maybe a book called "English for people who are pretty good at English but not perfect"?
posted by hoverboards don't work on water to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Has he asked you for help?
posted by decathecting at 2:19 PM on December 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

Yes, he says he feels quite embarrassed. He's really super-enthusiastic and is totally up for all kinds of self-improvement, and has laid out quite a comprehensive development plan. I can help him with the technical stuff, but English language skills... I feel not so much.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:25 PM on December 7, 2011

Advise him to read books in English, watch TV in English (with subtitles in his native language, if he can find that), and to have as many conversations in English with as many different people as he can. Languages are best learned by being exposed to and using it in real life.

Giving him a couple of books on good writing in general (in English!) would probably also help. He might just be a weak writer and communicator in general, and his lack of fluency is compounding but not causing it.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 2:33 PM on December 7, 2011

There are hundreds of books aimed at people whose English is pretty good, but not perfect. The problem is knowing which one to choose. To do that, someone needs to diagnose where his problems lie - are they lexical, grammatical or at a discourse level? And which areas of lexis/grammar/discourse? If, say, his use of relative clauses is weak, is it because of a failure to use relative pronouns correctly, mixing up the use of them as subjects and objects? Or perhaps he has a tendency to repeat the pronoun when it is the object of the clause? If so, what should he do about it?

I'm not saying that because I genuinely think that is his problem is relative clauses, but to show that diagnosis of the problem is a necessary and complex task, requiring explicit knowledge of the language which you, as someone who learned it as an infant, probably lack. It also requires someone who understands language learning.

If he can afford it, one-to-one lessons with an experienced Business English tutor would be extremely valuable. At the very least, someone like that could, within a few hours, identify the specific areas he needs to work on and lay out a plan of improvement that your colleague could follow on his own.

If that's not practical, then he will need to figure out where he's going wrong on his own, perhaps by comparing specific examples of his writing with that of colleagues who are proficient in English and identifying areas where his English is lacking and figuring out for himself how to improve it.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:37 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

On preview, Busy Old Fool said what I came here to say. My Indian colleagues have found Business English courses very helpful in the past. Writing isn't particularly well-taught in schools in India (huge generalization, but), and what is taught often sounds excessively formal to the American/British ear. Spoken Indian English has some idiomatic usage that can sound odd, as well, but that can be easily adjusted if he's willing to take some (gentle) correction from you - if you can just point out words/phrases that aren't commonly used in Standard English, it can go a long ways towards him not sounding out of place.

For example, the phrase "I didn't know how to do it only" with the use of "only" as a modifier is not standard English, but a direct translation from Hindi's (and other Indian languages) grammar. Pointing out that "only" isn't used as a modifier that way and giving examples of other ways of phrasing would probably be helpfu
posted by Gori Girl at 2:52 PM on December 7, 2011

He needs to see and hear lots of conversational English. English language movies and television with English language subtitles*, books and magazines in English, music with clear vocals and lyrics (folk songs and ballads, since they tend to tell a story, are really good; so is adult contemporary music, no matter how unappealing it may be to you). You're describing someone who has all the building blocks but not a lot of muscle or ear. Doing exercises in a workbook won't give you an ear, either.

*When I was learning Swedish, I would watch the Cosby Show in English with Swedish subtitles and Swedish-produced documentaries (the sort of public-televisiony TV doc you get on state television, like "Pick Mushrooms!" and "School Food", both of which are real and I saw on one of SE's two channels back then) in Swedish with Swedish subtitles, and both of those were immensely useful in making connections in my language-brain. Even now, with my rusty Swedish and really rusty French, I can watch a film in one of those languages and feel a little lost, or turn on English subtitles and know when the subtitles suck. It's a very mysterious thing, the connection between hearing and seeing the words.

All of this material will be more compelling if it's on subjects he's already interested in or stories that are likely to be interesting. If he knows cars, have him pick up a Car and Driver magazine. If he's into cooking, maybe one of Michael Ruhlman's books. Action movies are not exactly your best language-related option, but he doesn't have to drag himself through Remains of the Day either, there's lots of middle ground that's fine as long as people are a) talking b) understandably c) in common English d) with subtitles. (And maybe TV would be better so it's not a long time investment every time - maybe some 90s Must See TV on DVD?)
posted by Lyn Never at 2:54 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe books by or about successful Indian Americans?
posted by blargerz at 3:00 PM on December 7, 2011

My parents are from India (came to the US before I was born) and learned their conversational English from television. So they say, because by the time I was old enough to remember they talked just like everybody else on our block. After 40 years here they barely even have accents any more.
posted by sweetkid at 4:36 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best way to *quickly* improve written English is to understand the Inverted Pyramid Style, and have read a daily newspaper.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:38 PM on December 7, 2011

Have him get a subscription to USA Today. Test-prep books for the SAT verbal and writing sections will probably help, too - the grammar questions on the SAT are mostly about slightly tricky usage, close reading, and other "good to great" English language proficiency.

He should also spend a LOT of time listening to English-language programming on the TV and radio. Far more than he is interested in doing for his own amusement.

(I second watching TV with closed captioning turned on.)
posted by SMPA at 8:53 PM on December 7, 2011

When will Americans stop trying to "improve" others.?

He can use Wren and Martin, it was a cool book which i really enjoyed to tone up on my grammar etc.
posted by pakora1 at 8:56 PM on December 7, 2011

If you interact with him a lot, make sure that your own grammar is as close to perfect as possible. It is painful to hear people use bad grammar that they picked up from you.
posted by goethean at 9:13 PM on December 7, 2011

I had the same problem in Arabic. I solved it (mostly) by listening to massive amounts of Arabic-language BBC podcasts, because they tend to contain both formal and colloquial registers, especially programs with a lot of interviews. NPR might be a good analog.
posted by cirgue at 10:06 PM on December 7, 2011

If he knows cars, have him pick up a Car and Driver magazine.

Maybe books by or about successful Indian Americans?

Have him get a subscription to USA Today.

When will Americans stop trying to "improve" others.?

NPR might be a good analog.

The OP and his Indian colleague are not in the USA.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 11:54 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think what tends to happen is that immigrant groups tend to get together and speak that same sort of English and sometimes even pick up and start using each other's errors. I've met Indian people here in England who speak like others have given examples ("He's in the sitting room only") for years because the other Indian people they know speak like this.

Since you're in England, have him put an ad on gumtree to see if anyone has any simple sort of English grammar books out there for free.

And even the OP and his colleague don't live in the US, they can still listen to NPR as far as I know. In SOME occasions American English can be easier to understand than British English.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:11 AM on December 8, 2011

And even the OP and his colleague don't live in the US, they can still listen to NPR as far as I know.

They can, but there is no particular reason to, unless the job involves communication with people who use American English. As far as I can tell from the question, the colleague's problem is expressing himself, especially in writing, in a British workplace. Even if focussing on receptive oral skills by listening to radio broadcasts was a good method to help with his productive written skills, British English would be better for him over American, South African, Indian etc. English. The same would apply if he was struggling in an Australian, American or Singaporean workplace.

If there are specific materials aimed at his specific problems (whatever they are) which use American English, then there's nothing wrong with using them; the differences aren't that huge. When it comes to something widely available in many forms of English, like podcasts, then it makes sense to go for the same form.

In SOME occasions American English can be easier to understand than British English.

Obviously the global dominance of American culture means that most people have some familiarity with it that they don't have with, say, Ulster English or Namlish. However, I've never come across any research that suggests there is anything inherently more comprehensible about any variety of English. Even if there were, I'm not sure there would be any reason for someone with a high level of English to listen to this 'easier English' to improve their abilities in the 'harder English'.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:25 AM on December 8, 2011

There are a lot of Indian people in my office with varying degrees of English skills. I find that they almost exclusively socialize together; I don't know if this is what they genuinely prefer or if they feel excluded by their native English-speaking colleagues. They do not generally speak English when talking to each other. I notice that the ones who do socialize with native English speakers tend to speak much better English. Invite the guy to lunch with others who speak English well.
posted by desjardins at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Listening to English is key so I highly recommend watching TV as well as reading English eveyday with newspapers/magazine and books. Also, not speaking his native language at home. When I go to France, I love watching French TV, a lot of which is American, but it's cool to watch in French since I often already know the the show and the French shows are often really awful but all in all, it really helps a lot. Maybe you and he can have lunch together a few times per week and talk about what he read in the paper at breakfast.

I'm not sure how he would go about it but if he can find someone who teaches English to Indians that would help a lot. Different languages have different challenges when learning English. A French and Japanese learner of English will have different issues because certain concepts, sounds, or grammatical structures don't exist in both languages.
posted by shoesietart at 9:12 AM on December 8, 2011

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