When I moved to Seattle from the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan to study journalism through the State Department’s Northwest Community College Initiative, the biggest surprise was the language barrier. I had studied English for fifteen years, but suddenly I knew I was in trouble.
The slangs just were flying over my head and everybody talked so fast. I heard “pissed off’, “drive me nuts”, “heck”, “laugh my face off” and countless other words and phrases that were totally unfamiliar. I sighed and thought: “What am I gonna do about it? I thought I was pretty good in English.”
But I soon realized I had a Victorian way of speaking, rife with synonyms, antonyms and idioms. Most folks just couldn’t understand the way my learned British accent commingled with my native Pashtun accent. “Oh, okay! You mean blah blah,” some folks would respond. Others would say “this guy is not from here.” It embarrassed me.
So I decided to compile a list of tips for folks new to this country trying to improve their English. When you work hard, there is no way you won’t be able to learn English. But don’t be too hard on yourself. It doesn’t happen over a night. There is no royal road when it comes to learning English. There is no time-frame for learning English. There are immigrants I met who have been for ten years or so and they still speak like they just got off the plane because they have never taken it seriously.
Here are some tips for success:
1. Record Your Own Voice: If you don’t already have a smartphone with a voice notes feature, buy a cheap MP3 player with a voice recorder. Read articles out loud out to yourself from an online newspaper or anything else you can get your hands and record your voice. Play it back and listen to yourself: can you understand what the hell you’re talking about? Hang in there! You have to straighten this language barrier out sooner or later if you’re serious about it. This practice can go on for months. It all depends upon how you move your jaw muscles, lips and tongue.
2. Mastering the American Accent with Audio CDs: This combination book and audio instructional program is designed to diminish the accents of men and women who speak English as their second language. It will help them speak standard American English with clarity, confidence, and accuracy. Specific exercises concentrate on vowel sounds, problematic consonants such as V, W, B, TH, and the American R, as well as how to employ correct syllable stress, link words for smoother speech flow, use common word contractions such as won’t instead of will not, and more.
3. McGraw-Hill’s American Idioms Dictionary: I dug and dug until I found this dictionary. It’s got all the stuff that Americans actually say. If you’re having difficulty understanding expressions in everyday speech, you need a comprehensive reference for idioms, common phrases, and sayings of American English. This is it! Also, read online American newspapers and you will notice journalism is completely different from other countries. The language of the American newspaper is very descriptive and you will be addicted to it once you start reading.
4. Intonation: In the end, this is the hardest thing to learn. Observe people around you when they talk; the way the pitch of their voice changes and certain kinds of body language. If you’re from another country, you will be tempted to bring in intonation and body language from your native language and listeners will not be able to understand you. To get rid of this, watch American movies and TV and listen to radio a lot.
5. Make American friends: You will be tempted to hang out more with friends from your home country. Don’t! You need to spend more time with American friends to improve upon your English. It won’t be easy because of the language barrier and culture differences, but just take your time, smile, be friendly and relax. You will find folks who would love to speak with you.
In a nutshell, American English is the most beautiful language I ever knew. When Americans write and speak, they paint you a picture. And that’s why I’m still digging and learning this language.
The author is a journalist from the northwest of Pakistan where state security forces have launched an offensive against Taliban militants. He lives in Seattle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ever wondered how telemarketers based outside of the US learn to lose their accents? Check out “Up All Night,” an audio story from the CLP about a call center in Lahore, Pakistan.