How I Learnt English When I Was a Student Just Like You

You may be wondering how people around you learn English. At least, this is a case with me. I always wonder how people do some certain things better than me. And I like it because it makes me continue learning.

Today I am going to tell you my story. The story of how I learned English myself. Before telling you everything, let me tell you 9 amazing facts about myself so you will have a picture of me before reading the whole story.

Fact # 1: I never studied, lived or worked in the USA, UK, Canada or any other English speaking countries.

Fact # 2: I am not smart or clever. I understand slowly and learn slowly.

Fact # 3: I never used any shortcuts or special books to learn English.

Fact #4: I knew nothing about English when I started learning English.

Fact # 5: I used to translate the words like “the, of, -ing, off, to” which proves I knew nothing about English.

Fact # 6: I didn’t even know the past form of the verb ‘see’ in 1998.

Fact # 7: I exchanged my tape recorder ‘Весна’ to an English-Russian dictionary.

Fact # 8: My grammar was almost rubbish back in 1997-98.

Fact # 9: I don’t know Russian and not knowing Russian didn’t bother me to master English.

1. How I learned grammar

I learned the grammar working with a lot of tutors and exploring a lot of grammar books. My first teacher was Dilobar opa from Translation faculty at Uzbek State World Language University when I was lyceum student. It was back in 1996 or 1997.

So anyway when I realized I should know English in order to study at lyceum, my parents found Dilobar opa. Soon I started learning English using a lovely and legendary book called ‘Bonk’. At that time Bonk was the only book to study English from. We used to do lots of grammar exercises, learn tons of vocabulary and translate many texts.

So what I want to say is that I also started with the grammar. I also had problems with tenses. Actually, I did not know the difference between Past Simple and Present Perfect and many others tenses until I entered the university.

So when your teacher says that you should learn grammar, remember that you should learn grammar. If you are born and raised in the USA or the UK then perhaps you don’t need to know the grammar because you already speak the language and know the language.

2. How I learned to speak

The way I learned speaking was perhaps the most memorable experience of my life. As soon as I started attending the lessons at the university I realized that I couldn’t say a word in English. I was totally shocked when I saw how some other students could speak English easily, fluently and with a beautiful accent. They would speak non-stop. They would not pause to think their ideas in Uzbek or Russian and translate the whole thing into English after about a minute or so. They would just go on and on and on and on.

So I thought...

Why not me? Why I can’t speak as fluently as they are?

So I became friends with students whose English was much better than mine and we used to hang out together a lot. We used to attend speaking clubs after the lessons and we used to speak English literally everywhere. Yes, even on the buses. And even at the bus stops. Everywhere.

But I should say that I would not have improved my speaking skills so fast and dramatically if I hadn’t opened English Club for students of Uzbek State World Language University.

Now you may think that in English Club only students came and improved their speaking skills and I had no benefits. When I led the English Club at that time, I improved my speaking a lot … because I also used to talk a lot at the beginning when opening the topics, facilitating the discussions and closing the discussions.

And the funny part is that because I used to speak only in English to all my students, they used to think that I don’t speak Uzbek or Russian at all. So they always spoke to me English even before and after the lessons at English Club. When they saw me, they used to think English.

And sometimes when I had to speak to them in Uzbek or Russian, they would say that it was kind of funny and weird. One student even came to me one day and said:

Oh Akmal aka you speak Uzbek?

So basically this is how I learned to speak. I helped many other students improve their English and they helped me improve mine. It was a boomerang effect. But before that, I learned and improved my grammar first.

3. How I learned to read & listen

Well, I learned how to read and listen in English by reading and listening to English materials. Hahahahaa OK, let me tell you what I did. Those years when I was a student, many students who were learning English used to visit several English libraries in Tashkent.

That time we had Mustakillik International Library in Chor-su located on the first floor of Republican Foreign Languages Teaching Centre building. The building is completely demolished now.

Then there was British Council Library but the British Council people used to call it Information & Learning Resource Centre. And inside of it, they had another center called Open Learning Centre, as far as I remember. But for us – students – the whole thing was just a British Council Library. There were other libraries or resources centers at American organizations such as ACCELS and IREX but I never went there in my life.

OK, so back to how I learned to read and listen in English.

Of those two libraries – Mustakillik and British Council, I liked British Council most and not because I know some people at the British Council today. Those days I knew nobody there. I liked British Council because almost all the materials they had on their shelves were specially designed for language learners. They were adopted, tailored and simplified. For example, if your English was Elementary you could find lots of useful and interesting materials for your level.

What about Mustakillik library? They mostly had second-hand books donated by American people from the USA. You would not be able to read anything with pleasure even if your English was strong Intermediate.

But unlike British Council, they had native speakers working at library reception. Sometimes we used have round-table conversations on different topics. That’s only thing I liked about Mustakillik library – interacting with native speakers.

So back in the British Council library I used to borrow lots of video, audio, grammar and reading materials and study almost every day. It was like a paradise of knowledge at that time.

When I first took and opened those Macmillan readers I was, you know, so happy I was able to read and understand English text. The text which was not in my mother language. Same thing was about videos and audios. I used to borrow Hollywood-made movies and couldn’t understand much. I used to understand about 5-10 percent of the movie. But I never gave up and in fact one year I was watching Hollywood movies without understanding almost anything.

Later, I realized I was doing exactly the right thing because you know our ears, mindset and the way we receive information is not adapted to English way of receiving the information. So after about a year, I was so happy that I could comfortably sit and watch a lot of Hollywood movies.

So you need time, patience and practice, practice and practice.

4. How I learned to write

The way I learned writing was also very interesting experience. Believe it or not, I was not confident about my writing skills until I took a teacher training course at Westminster International University in Tashkent. One of the main requirements of the course was to write a coursework of about 8,000 words after several training sessions in order to show how much you have learned in the course.

So after about a week or two, we were all given a coursework to write. I went home thinking that I couldn’t write anything of 8,000 words. I was really scared because I thought I had to write in a highly and highly advanced, academic and smart language. And I didn’t know that language.

But as I was leaving the building I remembered one of our tutors saying we could go to the library and pick up previous year students’ coursework papers to see how people wrote last year.

So I said ...

Why not?

... and went down to the library. I randomly and without feeling any happy picked up 2 or 3 coursework papers. I put them into my bag and went home on a tram. As I was sitting on the tram wondering what to do, I remembered about the papers in my bag and decided to have a look at them quickly.

You know what happened next?

As soon as I opened and started to read some pages I quickly realized how simply … no, no … super simply they had been written. I was really and really shocked because I thought I would read a text full of smart words, phrases and sentence structures which were extremely difficult to read and understand. But it was quite opposite. Yeah, quite opposite.

When I came home I took a shower, had a dinner and started writing my own coursework. After about 2-3 days I went to the university and showed it to my personal tutor still thinking my writing was horrible. But … to my biggest surprise she said my writing was quite fine and that I should improve the content I put there which was not a problem at all.

That was my first eye-opening experience and I just fell in love with writing that I even started blogging. When I started blogging my writing skills improved even more because I started reading other blogs which teach people how to write better and create a great content.

So that’s my sweet little story.

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