All of us read something or the other every day. Can we make use of a small part of that reading to improve our English language skills – mainly written, but to some extent spoken as well – at a much faster rate than we currently are.
Yes, we can. (The similarity of this sentence to Mr. Obama’s 2008 election slogan is purely coincidental.)
Through reading slowly and attentively, crawling in other words. If you can make crawling a regular habit, you’ll improve your English language skills at a much faster clip than your peers.
How to do it?
Crawl a small sample of what you read daily to observe how grammar and other rules have been used – sometimes broken – by the best in the business. You can read anything – books, magazines, and articles. You can read online or offline.
I prefer books. When reading a book, I slow down on 2-3 pages to actively notice choice of words, variation in length of sentences, transition words between sentences and paragraphs, punctuation (especially comma, which can be confusing), how arguments are made and demolished, and so on.
However, what you pay attention to depends on your current level? If you’re a beginner, you may also want to look at how grammar rules have been applied.
If you want to take more out of this method, you should ideally get as much well versed with the rules as possible, especially on punctuation and writing. Otherwise, you wouldn’t even know why the author has written something the way s/he has. You can refer Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R L Trask on punctuation and The Elements of Style by Strunk & White on writing.
Why this method works?
First, and most important, you pay attention. And when you pay attention you learn better. To quote John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:
The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded – that is, learned – and retained… Whether you are an eager preschooler or a bored-out-of-your-mind undergrad, better attention always equals better learning.
In your regular reading, you pay attention to the content, but not to the nitty gritty of the language used. That’s one of the important reasons why most people have basic to average English language skills despite reading every day.
Second, you learn from a real-world, complete output, which is in contrast to the compartmentalized learning (tenses, articles, comma, and so on) many of us go through. Swimming in a pool too has its importance when you’re learning to swim, but you got to take to rough waters – real situations – soon and spend more time there.
Third, you learn from some of the best writers and authors.
Here are extracts from two different books explaining how you can learn from the crawl method. Each extract is followed by learnings. For ease of browsing, relevant parts have been underlined wherever possible and numbered.
Source: Brain Rules
by John Medina
That’s the power of the Brain Rule. Learning results in physical changes in the brain, (1) and these changes are unique to each individual. Not even identical twins having identical experiences (2) possess brains that wire themselves exactly the same way. Given this, can we know anything (3) about the organ? Well, yes (4). The brain has billions of cells whose collective electrical efforts work in a similar fashion. Every human comes equipped with a hippocampus, a pituitary gland, (5) and the most sophisticated thinking store of electrochemistry on the planet: (6) a cortex. These tissues function the same way in every brain. How then can we explain the individuality? Consider a highway (7).
(1) A comma before a conjunction (‘and’) introducing an independent clause (‘these changes are unique to each individual’)
(2) Restrictive clauses are not set off by commas. That’s why this sentence has not been written as: Not even identical twins, having identical experiences, possess brains that wire themselves exactly the same way.
(3) Italics is used to emphasize. Here the author is laying stress on the word ‘anything’.
(4) ‘Well, yes’ doesn’t make a complete sentence. Such expressions are called fragments and they’re used to bring variety to the writing – a fragment preceded and followed by relatively long sentences.
(5) The two preceding commas are listing commas used here to separate a list of three. Also note that here a comma precedes ‘and’. This is American style. Had it been written in British style, there would have been no comma before ‘and’.
(6) Notice the use of colon. What follows a colon explains or elaborates what precedes it. Here ‘cortex’ elaborates ‘most sophisticated thinking store of electrochemistry on the planet’.
(7) Sentences of same length and similar style make writing or speech monotonous. Short, punchy sentences like these bring variety. The fragment in point # 4 serves a similar purpose. This sentence also acts as a glue or transition for the next paragraph which compares highways with neural pathways.
by Carol S. Dweck
I wonder if this is what happened to Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass. They were both young reporters who skyrocketed to the top – on fabricated articles. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her Washington Post (1) articles about an eight-year-old (2) boy who was a drug addict. The boy did not exist, (3) and she was later stripped of her prize. Stephen Glass was the whiz kid of The New Republic (4), who seemed to have stories and sources reporters only dream of. The sources did not exist and (5) the stories were not true.
Did Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass need to be perfect right away? Did they feel that admitting ignorance would discredit them with their colleagues? Did they feel they should already be like the big-time (6) reporters before they did the hard work of learning how? “We were stars – precocious stars,” wrote Stephen Glass, “and that was what mattered.” (7) The public understands them as cheats, and cheat they did. But I understand them as talented young people – desperate young people – (8) who succumbed to the pressures of the fixed mindset.
(1, 4) This is another use of italics: books, films, journals, and so on. (Observe how I used colon that we covered in point # 6 in the previous example.)
(2, 6) Hyphens are used to form compound modifiers. The entire word ‘eight-year-old’ refers to ‘boy’ and not its individual components. So does ‘big-time’ to ‘reporters’.
(3) A comma before a conjunction (‘and’) introducing an independent clause (‘she was later stripped of her prize’)
(5) When the conjunction ‘and’ connects two independent clauses that are closely related, the comma can be omitted.
(7) Note how commas are placed in the quotation, how the quotation is broken into two at its natural pause (it’s not broken at ‘that’, for example), and how the second part begins with a small letter.
(8) The pair of dashes separates a strong interruption (‘desperate young people’) from the rest of the sentence. (Note that a dash is different from a hyphen.) In contrast, a weak (or slight) interruption can be separated by a pair of commas.
Please note that, depending on your current English language skills, your learnings in the above two extracts can be different from the ones mentioned above.
And it’s fine if you don’t understand why the author has used a rule in certain way. Don’t let it frustrate you. Skip such instances. With time, you’ll get there.
Featured image by Marc Rafanell López on Unsplash