Thursday, December 07, 2006

How to Learn English

by Tibor R. Machan

Yes, if you came to the US as an immigrant, to live your life here, it's quite likely that you could get by without learning English. Even back when I first landed here, in 1956, there were regions of America where people only spoke Hungarian. (I recall shops in Cleveland's Buckeye District with signs saying, "We also speak English!")

But all in all it's best to become proficient in English if one is going to live and work in the United States of America. But it isn't easy. Often people who come here live in households where the default language is the one spoken where they hail from. Hungarian, Polish, or Mexican immigrants will likely continue to speak their native tongue just because it is simpler—there's so much else to worry about that if one can get away without spending time on learning English, it looks advantageous ... for awhile! In time, however, not learning English turns into a big liability.

This is especially true for children who lack proficiency and thus undermine their chances in schools, colleges, and the work place. A friend of mine's five year old son, born in China but living in the States since he was 3, simply will not even try to speak English, apparently because his mother and other relatives and friends lack the fortitude to insist on speaking English with him. So he is doing very badly in his elementary school and his mother is even thinking of sending him back to his aunt in China.

Not that one swallow makes springtime, so my example may be moot as far as many other immigrants are concerned. Still, I have a few suggestions to those who come here and do wish to learn English even though they are surrounded by folks who don't much support this idea. When I arrived, I was quite old, 17 and a half, and although I already spoke the language a bit, having gone to an American high school in Germany for a few months so as to get a head start, I was very far from being fluent, which I did, eventually, become—so much so that few people detect even a trace of an accent now when I speak English. And I tried for this quite deliberately.


For one, I learned a lot of American songs—my very first one was "Mr. Sandman." I listened and tried to imitate such singers as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and a host of others. I learned a bunch of American songs, like "Ain't Misbehavin'," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," and many, many more, and sang them whenever I could, whenever I wouldn't drive others up the wall with my inept but educational crooning.

Of course, that is just the start. Going to the movies is another good way to acclimate oneself to a new language. Reading books, magazines, newspapers, or whatever else is at hand also helps, certainly with one's vocabulary and grammar. Indeed, I had very little formal instruction and only practiced the irregular verbs, mostly on my own initiative since learning them involves a lot of memorization. But use was my best instructor.

After living with a bunch of emigre Hungarians for about a year, I realized that that was an impediment. Since I had run away from my home anyway, I decided to leave Cleveland for someplace where no Hungarians could be found: New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. This was a great move for me since there I had no one to talk with unless I become pretty good with English. Being someone who likes to talk, to chat with people, to discuss ideas and so forth, being away from Hungarians made a big contribution to my becoming more and more proficient in English. It didn't hurt, either, that I joined the US Air Force where once again Hungarians were very scarce and where I simply had to speak English if I was to speak at all.

Of course, some people are more adapt at learning a new language than others, but I would surmise from my own and some other people's experiences that the old German saying, "Ubung, ubung macht den Meister"—"Practice, Practice makes the Master"—is true and if one wants to prepare for a productive, successful life in a new country, one ought to go to work on learning the language in ways similar to those that stood me in good stead.

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