As I spend September in Seoul and attend an intensive Korean language course, my story with English comes to mind. This is a story I have told a bunch of times to friends and coworkers and it’s time to write it down for posterity’s sake.

In the title of this post is a verbatim quote of something I have been told many times throughout the years:

Your English is pretty good!

The act of studying Korean has made me realize that I haven’t heard that claim for a long time so I’ve formulated a thesis: people used to say that to me as a compliment when they noticed I was “good enough” but had not yet mastered the language. Nowadays, the lack of such claim means that my skills have improved to the point where there is no appreciable trouble. The story in this post digs down in why I think this is the case and later parts with some suggestions.

By the way: I can’t wait to be able to hear " !" about my Korean because that will mean I’m on the right track. Unfortunately, reaching this point is still years away

My English learning process

My parents had me in after-school English lessons from age 9. As far as I can remember, the lessons were very decent but what played a larger role in my learning was my involvement with programming (circa that time), on-line forums (1994), and the Linux / free software scene (1996). Computers in general, and the online world in particular, required reasonable English skills and—if paying attention—were a good way to learn.

2004 and onwards: Reading and writing

Once I reached decent reading and writing skills via lessons and online activity, I volunteered to write some professional articles when the chance appeared: a couple of chapters for the BSD Hacks book (2004) at first and some OnLamp articles (2005-2007) later.

The surprising thing was that the manuscripts came back with minor edits and general praises about their quality. This was an affirmation that I had gotten relatively good at English and at composition, which in turn made me write even more. Yes, ego boosts are a good motivator in my case.

The blog I started in 2004 was just another way of practicing these skills in the open. Practicing English was not a goal of the blog per se, but writing short essays routinely certainly improved their quality. (Note that having had a feedback loop would have been great, but people are usually wary of correcting the grammar and spelling of other’s texts.)

2004-2008: On listening

By this time, I was fully aware that my oral skills were not good enough. In an attempt to improve them, I started watching TV series in their original form circa 2004. (Note that in Barcelona, Spain—where I grew up— everything is dubbed in Catalan and/or Spanish; it is hard to exercise English at all.)

The way I practiced was simple: I would put up an episode in its original version without subtitles and watch it closely. Anytime I could not understand something, I would roll back and play that part again until I could grasp it and, if I had to give up, I would search for the episode’s transcript online, painfully find the relevant sentence, and read it. This was annoying work but it paid off: once getting used to the voices and some common expressions, the rate at which I had to search for clarification decreased. Eventually, I was able to watch full episodes without the aid of the transcript.

On a related note regarding this timeframe, I hosted the pkgsrcCon conference in Barcelona in 2007 and, if I recall correctly, this was my first real exposure to a group of English speakers. While I could “get by”, those three days were mentally exhausting; reaching home in the evenings and switching back to Catalan was a relief.

Was this listening practice sufficient to live abroad? Far from it.

2008: The move to the U.S.

In the Summer of 2008, I moved to New York City for my Google internship. Oh my. Based on all the above, I assumed my English was decent, but as soon as I landed, I could not communicate. There were various accents I had not yet experienced and tons of unfamiliar words to be heard. As you might have noticed from the above, my skills were mostly around technical work —with its very limited vocabulary!—and then I had to live with English on a day to day basis.

That was a shocking difference. Going to the supermarket was frustrating. Going to the pharmacy was frustrating. Going to well, anywhere was frustrating. Keep in mind that smartphones were still a shiny new thing in 2008 and I did not own one, so “just looking things up on Google Translate” was not something you could easily do. Oh, and speaking of phones, handling a phone call was something of another-world experience.

At the end of my internship in November, I remember having a chat with my host in which he told me that, months earlier, he was a bit worried that we would not be able to communicate properly. Fortunately, things had improved significantly by then and were not a big issue any longer.

2009: The move to Ireland

A few months after the internship ended, I moved to Ireland for my full-time position with Google SRE. I was an expert in English already so it wouldn’t be difficult, right? Ha, ha, HA. That was another shock right from the ride to the hotel.

First of all: the Irish accent, which was nothing like I had heard before in the U.S. nor in any of the language lessons I attended. (Mind you, I still cannot parse it fully at times, especially from Irish people outside of Dublin, but I really like the sound of it!) Going to the pharmacy, supermarket, etc. was once again challenging, and having phone conversations was hilarious. I’m still surprised the first taxi I requested arrived at the right location.

But there was another issue: the population of the Google Dublin office was incredibly different than what I had been exposed to in the New York office. While the New York office was mostly populated by Americans and Asians—dunno which specific nationalities though—, the Dublin office was plagued with accents from European countries. Very different altogether, and each with its own challenges both in accents and in idioms.

It took weeks to get back to a comfortable level, but it wasn’t as difficult as it had previously taken the year before in New York.

By now I think that such exposure to dozens of accents was a gift. After this experience, I am able to understand many different accents without issues, and I’m able to generally fill the blanks for the few words I miss.

2010: English in the family

Fast-forward a year and I married my wife, a South Korean native that spent a handful of years in New York before I did. Our only common language was English. As months passed, I feared that I would never feel comfortable speaking English at home forever after, but I convinced myself that this was a minor evil. And, fortunately, it was.

I’m happy to say that, at this point, speaking English feels natural enough and doesn’t bother me at all. Well maybe not completely. The only time when I miss Spanish is when I’m angry because the words don’t come out as quickly in English. Maybe that’s for the better though: it makes me think a bit more before saying something too stupid!

On pronunciation

The last point to consider is pronounciation, and there are two things to discuss about it: the first is the accent and the second is the proper stressing of the syllables in each word.

During my first stay in the U.S. in 2008, I used to care about my accent quite a bit and I tried to hopelessly imitate accents in an attempt to hide my own. I have since stopped caring deeply: if I have a non-native accent and I can make myself understood, so be it.

What I do care about is learning and respecting the stress of each word because that’s important for the rhythm of the language and for being easily understood. I’m not certain if I’m successful at this but I think it’s not going badly. Note that learning how to stress words properly is mostly orthogonal to the accent and can be, and should be, learned.

Back to my thesis

Over the few years my learning process was at its toughest, which is when I put English to test in the “real world”, I used to hear “Your English is pretty good!” a lot. It was flattering to know that native speakers thought I communicated well enough and that we had no issues understanding each other but, in retrospect, I think that that sentence conveyed a secondary meaning.

Why? Because, nowadays, I rarely hear this sentence. It only comes up if I force the situation by bringing the English language itself on topic and, when the sentence does come up, the qualifier has leveled up from “pretty good” to “good” or “very good”.

My theory is that “Your English is pretty good!” was thrown around as a compliment after realizing that I was not yet that confident with the language. The lack of this sentence might now mean that my listeners do not notice significant struggles any longer and that they do not need to reaffirm me to make me more comfortable. (Oh yes, it would also mean that my English is so bad that it’s not worth qualifying, but the fact that I can communicate on a day-to-day basis hopefully implies otherwise!)

Moral of the story

I have said “I” too many times above so it’s time to switch perspectives. Is there something to be learned from this long essay? Maybe; let me try to synthesize some takeaways:

  • If English is not your primary language, it will be blatantly obvious to the listener. Don’t try to hide this fact and be proud that you are able to speak more than just English.
  • Never be afraid to ask for clarification on a word or idiom you don’t understand, and seek for help anytime you need it. Case in point: I can catch myself in meetings asking “What does X mean?” anytime a new word shows up, and in most cases I’ve gotten an apologetic answer of the form “Oh sorry, that’s an idiom only used in region Z of the U.S. and it means <blah>”.
  • Keep learning. Even if you think your language is good enough to communicate, it can always be improved; keep your eyes and ears open to notice new constructions you have not yet mastered and to internalize new words that show up. Myself, I’m excited every time I learn a new idiom or am able to decypher a tricky construct (such as those in ads or newspapers).

What do you think?