Sunday, July 17, 2011

Writing well in English no guarantee of speaking well in English

Over the past nine years that I’ve been pursuing my good-English advocacy, initially through my English-usage column in The Manila Times and now also through my English-usage books and this website, I have received hundreds of e-mail from people commenting on my views or asking for personal advice on how they might be able to improve their English. In terms of English grammar and usage, I’ve always been confident that my advice and prescriptions could demonstrably help learners improve their written English as well as their thinking process. I didn’t have the same level of confidence though in being able to help people speak well in English. Being totally print-based, I just felt that I didn’t have the wherewithal to give useful instruction on such aspects of speech as pronunciation, enunciation, voice projection, and body language. This was why in practically every case, I would suggest to those asking me for advice on improving their spoken English to seek more competent instruction elsewhere.

Looking back now, I couldn’t help but wonder how those who sought advice from me fared after getting nothing from me beyond such general suggestions as developing the ability to think logically, learning from good English speakers as role models, and relentlessly doing practice, practice, practice. With a tinge of guilt, I am particularly keen in knowing what happened to the pseudonymous Euclid Paraiso, about whose desire to be a call-center agent I wrote the essay below—rather harshly and dismissively, I regret to say—in my English-usage column in the Times way back in 2006. (July 17, 2011)

The need to speak well in English

A few days ago, I received this e-mail from a reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times:

Dear Mr. Carillo,
 Please give me some pointers on (1) how to improve my capability to speak fluent English, (2) how to speak with confidence before an audience, and (3) how to speak without gaps in my speech. I’m making this request, sir, because I plan to apply to a call center and I want to prepare myself before I send my application. 
         Euclid Paraiso*

Here’s my open reply to the letter:

Dear Euclid,

To speak fluent and convincing English, you need at least four major attributes: a good grasp of English (and by this I mean its vocabulary, grammar, semantics, and structure), logical and clear thinking, good pronunciation, and confidence and empathy with your audience.

It takes years to develop all of these attributes, and those still sorely deficient in most of them by the time they finish college don’t stand a chance at all of landing an English-language call center job. A clear, demonstrable command of spoken English is a must for this job, so all things being equal, applicants who don’t meet this criterion can’t hope to compete with the thousands who have already cultivated their spoken English to a high level. They may possess the intelligence and native charm to impress people in their regional tongue, but if their spoken English is way below par, it would be much better for them to pursue occupations that don’t give too much premium to good spoken English.

It’s true that through my English-usage column, I aim to help people improve their written English, but I would like to emphasize that there’s a whole world of difference between being able to write good English and being able to speak like a good native English speaker. Writing and speaking are two different disciplines, and I’m afraid I can only teach the former. Good writers aren’t necessarily good speakers, and good speakers aren’t necessarily good writers. In fact, it’s an open secret that there are many excellent English-language writers and editors who speak dreadful English, as there are many excellent English-language lecturers, public officials, and TV talk-show hosts who can hardly write a coherent English paragraph, much less a cohesive English exposition.   

As to logical thinking and clarity of thought, Euclid, I fear that these are such in short supply these days. People allow too much politics, ideology, religious fanaticism, and superstition to bend and twist their thinking into such ludicrous shapes. Scores of people getting crushed to death in a TV show stampede? Blame the current national leadership for the grinding poverty that had desperately made those people want to get rich quick by participating in that TV show. A huge chunk of a denuded moun­tainside collapsing to bury a whole village and most of its population? Blame the current national leadership, the rain, or the people themselves for perhaps forgetting to pray the night before for the absolution of their sins. I just hope that you aren’t one of the legions of our people who have been rendered largely incapable of rational thinking by their social milieu, because if you are, Euclid, even impeccable English won’t land you a job in a call center or in any other job that needs clear, straight thinking to produce the desired results.

Good English pronunciation is, of course, something you learn from good English speakers as role models and from years of practice, practice, practice. Only these can eliminate the flaws and gaps in your articulation and build your confidence when addressing an audience. But frankly, Euclid, if you still have serious doubts about your pronunciation up to now, forget that call center job. By dint of hard work you may ultimately achieve passable English diction, but by then your regional accent would have already clung to your tongue and vocal chords so tenaciously that there’d be no hope for you to sound like a native English speaker ever. (February 27, 2006)
*Euclid Paraiso is a pseudonym of the letter writer, who at the time of the writing of this letter lived in San Pedro, Laguna.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 27, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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