Learning English The Hard Way

I am of Bicolano origin. I grew up and went to school in the province, and as a typical ‘provinciano,’ my exposure to English was limited to the classroom, the unusual experience of being asked for directions by a foreigner, and, to my disgust, being compelled to speak the language at home.

I’ve always disliked English classes. It had the same level of aversion to arithmetic as I do, and as a result, my foundation was never strong. I never cared to learn the fundamentals of grammar, pronunciation, or diction, and my vocabulary was limited. Carrying on a conversation in English was impossible since I would avoid any opportunity. The lack of a solid foundation deprived me of the ability to correct myself if I made a mistake.

A local radio station had a job opening after I graduated from college. The radio commercial became Pied Piper music to my ears, and one day I found myself compiling my résumé and a five-minute demo tape in which I played DJ, read the newspaper, and chatted about myself. “Bahala na,” I thought to myself.

I waited a few weeks after submitting the demo cassette, but received no response. One day, a radio station ad announced that five radio jocks had been picked and that a contest to name them was underway. I decided to participate in the promotion and went to the radio station to turn in my submission. As I was ready to leave, the radio station’s manager approached me and said, “Your tone of voice sounds familiar. Did you send us a demo tape?” I responded with a brief yes. As I accompanied him to the recording booth, he said that there will be another vacancy for the DJ position and that he wanted to see if I would be a good fit.

I was instructed to present a song, play DJ, read from a magazine, and speak about myself inside the booth. I completed the task despite being nervous, hot, and unconfident. What the station manager said to me is still fresh in my mind “Your voice is lovely, but I’m afraid I have to tell you that you aren’t qualified for the position. You have a strong provincial accent, weak grammar, poor diction, and a worried tone to your voice, which is reasonable given the circumstances. If you want to be a DJ, a new radio station will open in six months; come back and we’ll do it all over again.”

Six months, I told myself. I didn’t have a lot of time, and I needed assistance. I traveled to Manila in search of a program or school that may assist me, but they were all too pricey for a jobless recent graduate like me. I chose to work for my cousin’s company, but I was keen to improve my English.

I told my friends and family that I was on a self-training program and that I needed their assistance, and I urged them not to laugh at me, but rather to accommodate me because I wanted to learn. It’s a good thing; everyone was helpful.

The first order of business was to learn the fundamentals of grammar. I didn’t know anything about the internet (which was launched in the Philippines by PHNet in 1994), so I requested another cousin to lend me her (high school) textbooks. While learning the fundamentals of grammar, I resolved to talk in English 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I was destined to make errors. I quickly requested that my family and friends correct me. They’d do it every two to three minutes (being purists and obsessive-compulsive about grammar, my friends made sure that I understood the rule I broke, and a penalty was set for a repeat offense.)

I practiced pronunciation by imitating the DJs, but it wasn’t enough. Every weekend, I would rent ten Betamax tapes, all of which were American films. I’d put on a headset, play and pause, and copy the dialogues; if I was satisfied, I’d proceed on to the next dialogue/line. The goal was to improve my pronunciation, reduce my accent, and learn intonation. With the exception of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which I watched the pool scene over and again), I never truly watched the movies I rented; they were simply a tool for me to employ.

My friends noticed that my grammar and pronunciation had improved after two months of constant learning from books, listening to DJs, and replicating dialogue from movies. As a result, I was able to fix myself. However, I was still having difficulty with verbs, tenses, and prepositions; the only difference now is that I recognized what I was dealing with, and a targeted study may be conducted to remedy the issue. I didn’t worry too much because I knew I’d have time.

My next objective was to improve my vocabulary. Every day, I would memorize five words, understand their meaning, use them in a sentence, and they would be mine for life (not knowing the meaning of the word or its synonyms and antonyms gave me restless nights). I realized I needed to work on my vocabulary because whenever I was in a conversation, I didn’t know what word to use or was having difficulty finding the correct one. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t express myself effectively and efficiently, especially when it was required.

We had an American visitor one day in the third month. It was an opportunity for me to practice, and during one of our chats, I couldn’t help but notice the American’s facial expression as he strained to understand what I was saying. I can’t remember what I said to him, but I realized I was thinking in Filipino, searching for the proper word or expression, and then translating it to English. It was a classic instance of lost in translation, and anything I said made no sense at all. Solution: speak and think in English 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

On the fifth month, I conducted a self-evaluation to assess my development, using a list similar to the one below:

  1. Passed the grammar test (one made by a friend)
  2. Pronunciation – insufficient (but I was struggling with TH, short and long I, b and v, and p and f)
  3. Diction – double-check
  4. Check your intonation.
  5. Check the accent
  6. Vocabulary – adequate
  7. Unpredictability – Getting There
  8. Coherence and conviction – uncertain at this point in the evaluation.

Practice breeds spontaneity. It was the fifth month of evaluation that I realized that the learning I had experienced in grammar, pronunciation, diction, intonation, and improved vocabulary had given me the confidence to speak without fumbling for words. As for fluency, I didn’t bother with it because it has something to do with mastery of a certain subject; one can never be fluent at something if one does not have a thorough understanding of it.

The last item on the list was the most difficult because I couldn’t find a method that would assist me in developing coherence and delivering a line with conviction. It was really important to me that my views make sense and convey a clear point when I spoke. While both parts of the problem were real, I believe that a person’s image is negatively affected by lacking comprehension.

In the sixth month, I went back to the radio station and presented myself, the manager invited me to haveI returned to the radio station after six months and presented myself; the manager invited me for coffee and was surprised to hear me talk; he claimed I sounded completely different. He summoned me to the recording studio once more, and this time I aced it. He offered me a position, and I spent five wonderful years working in that field.  coffee and was shocked to hear me speak, and he said I sounded so different. Again, he asked me to the recording booth, and this time, I passed with flying colors. He offered me a job, and I stayed in that industry for five beautiful years.

As a jock, I was never concerned with spontaneity or coherence because DJs speak in phrases; also, the key to the best ad-lib is “to write it down first.” Then I realized that coherence and spontaneity were no longer an issue; years of reading had simply given me the confidence to speak. I can carry on a discussion as long as I’m conversant with the subject.

The final stage in completing my learning was to listen to myself while speaking; this way, I can identify my mistakes and correct myself right away. I recognized that it is acceptable to make errors – no one is perfect, and no one expects me to be. Even this blog entry is not without its flaws.

We appreciate your time in reading. I hope you gained some knowledge.

25 thoughts on “Learning English The Hard Way

  1. It is remarkable how self-conscious you’ve been throughout your learning process and been able to write it down is an accomplishment by itself. Congratulations!

  2. Hi Paps. Wow! Nice to have you back! Thank you so much.

    Try to look for a course in coursera.com. or edx.org. both websites offer courses for free. Google is your friend, Paps.

    Language is like riding a bicycle. It’s sonething you will never forget. Of course, like riding a bike, you need to keep practicing.


  3. Hi Seven,

    I am back! This is Paps by the way.

    I hope you could still remember me. (I’m the one you saved countless of times from resigning, and my tenure is going 3 years now.) You also advised me to pursuit my goal of learning Spanish. I’ve been a lurker on your site and I am amazed that this is the first time I thoroughly read this wonderful article about learning English the hard way (which I think is applicable in learning Spanish as well, minus the household feedback and “auto correct feature” of family, as no one that I know speak Spanish)

    For the last 2 years I’ve been working as a non-voice support (the pipe “peteks” dream of most applicants). Fast forward, I wanted to test the waters, so I tried job hunting again just for fun. To my surprise I failed miserably and it was my lack of spontaneity that did it. I just couldn’t answer the questions without pausing or trying to grasp the words I want to say. Oh my my verbal skills have rotten, hibernated and went extinct.

    I have taken English for granted. I focus too much on trying to learn Spanish that I haven’t notice that English is slowly leaving me.

    Please help, how do I get to Improve my spoken English? Do you recommend any specific book, movie or online course?

    P.S. (I plan to stay with my company for several years more until I learn Spanish so don’t worry about me doing the “grass is greener” hopper thing)

    Looking forward for your great advice,


  4. Hi Grace. I’m glad to know that my personal experience is helping motivate you to learn. In today’s world, better communication skills makes us more competetive, more marketable.

    When I was struggling to learn how to speak proper English, I didn’t have the internet at my disposal, that’s why kids today are lucky. In fact, I did a quick search on your question and found this link: http://www.talkenglish.com/Grammar/prepositions-of-to-for.aspx.

    I encourage you to take full advantage of the internet. Also, think and speak in English 24/7.

    Let me know if you need more help.


  5. This blog is really a great help for others like me who are struggling to a better english communication skills. You inspired me a lot,having read your article .I’m now self-motivated upon applying what you’ve done so far to be as good as you are now. Same as you,I only have limited vocabulary. I’m currently reading books,listening to radio (93.1 Monster Radio) and I also do watch foreign movies. Sometimes I confuse of the right prepositions to use. I hope someday I can be fluent like others so I can boost up my confidence and improve my interpersonal skills. 🙂 May I ask when to use “to” and “for” ? I get confuse to it sometimes. 🙂

  6. Hi Noel. Watching English movies can help fix your pronunciation, it doesn’t fix the grammar problem (and others). You need to put a structure to your learning similar to what I did (as shared in the story you read). This story happened in 1994 and up to this very day, I am still doing my best to improve my English-speaking skills. I suggest enrolling in a program.

    Let me know if you need more help.


  7. To seven. I’ m having a hard time in english. I failed everytime in interview in a call center company. Do you suggest watching movie with caption on or turn off?

  8. Gngwa q now ung watching as much english language as u can…

    Ska ung memorizing 10 words and using them in a sentence a day..

    Fun nmn..

    Hopefully asap gamay n ung language..

  9. Hi Lilia. I’m glad your training is working well for you. It only means that you took it seriously and practiced practiced practiced. Yon lang naman ang sikreto. If Lilia can do it, why can’t others do it too?

    Thanks for visiting.


  10. At first, it;s really hard to speak English.. pero after 3 weeks of training ko.. nagugulat na lang ako sa sarili ko.. 😉 TY Trainer “C.R.M” .. I’ll never forget you.. love u!

  11. So inspiring! I’m not aspiring to be a call center agent but I reallly want to improve my oral english comm. skill because I know it can help me in having a better career. Thanks to your blog. I also read your posts in PEx under the topic ‘hardest questions during interview’ (something like that) and they are also very helpful.
    Once again, thank you. God bless..

  12. in a blog, i guess, there are no rules…e.g needs to follow tech writing rules, or maybe business writing… as long as you were able to get the message across and readers were able to understand…

    when i was taking business communication, 3 of my classmates (mba) flunked!
    at this rate, it is so hard to perfect english thru writing and speaking… even if you still think and dream in english.

    readers start to question your credibility and writing skills once they halt and start to rethink how and what the message is all about. In this blog, i was able to read it swiftly!

    Nevertheless, this story has inspired and will continue to inspired a lot of bloggers, especially to those who would like to be part of the callcenter industry.

    Kudos se7en

  13. SevenH8reds :Hi. I hope you receieved my response to your comment above. I sent it to your email. Please advise if you haven’t so I can repost the item. Thanks.

    Hi Se7en,

    Yes I received your response that was so quick and I thank you for that.
    I already started learning to speak this language the hard way by following the tips in your article and hopefully, by that time I decide to shift to a call center job as my second career, it wouldn’t be much problem selling my self to prospective employers. Thanks again.

    Best regards,

  14. Hi. I hope you receieved my response to your comment above. I sent it to your email. Please advise if you haven’t so I can repost the item. Thanks.


  15. Hi, I happen to stumble upon your blog from my lurkings at PEX.
    I am not a call center agent but my struggle to improve my spoken English skills brought me to reading the call center threads at PEX.
    I work in a multinational and multiracial company (as an engineer) and one of the greatest frustrations in my working life is not able to communicate fluently in English with my colleagues and bosses. A few words in the above article like “spontaneity” and “groping for words” really struck me. I also experienced for many times my American and Singaporean superiors making faces trying to understand things I need to explain in detail. I have been struggling to find ways to address this deficiency and thanks to this article, I think I picked up fresh pointers on how to improve on my spoken English (thinking in English is one, I think I need to practice it). What seems to be a observation of myself is that I think faster than I speak. The thought or the words that is coming out from my brain seem to be faster than what my mouth can deliver, the reason why I am groping for words and lose spontaneity. I think I experience this even if I speak Tagalog. Is there a better way to address this?

  16. It’s my pleasure sir. I really do have lots of questions (like how things work in a Call Center environment, etc.) as this will be (hopefully) my first job experience on the industry.

    I’ll probably drop by again for questions when I’m really ready and confident to apply, it’s hard being a shy and socially incompetent person. 😐

  17. Hi Lou.

    Thank you for the note of appreciation and for the kudos. I’m glad the blog is able to help you, especially when you’re already job hunting. Do drop by anytime if you have any questions. I’d be glad to help. Please tell your friends, colleagues, and relatives about the blog as well.


  18. Your blog’s almost like a manual for aspiring call center newbies like me. I plan on reading every blog post when I’m really ready to apply. Had an experience once (and it was my first time!) when I tried applying in a certain company and as I, not prepared and all, obviously failed.

    Kudos to you sir Seven, I really hope I could apply what I could read here.

  19. Dear Kevsz,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for leaving a comment. I’m glad you find the blog useful. Please don’t hesitate to tell your friends about it.


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