I think Mark is hilariously funny; in an understated kind of way. I guess, you’d have to meet him or read one of his books; and even then, you may or may not agree. But calling this chapter “Avoid clichés like the plague”; it just cracks me up.
“Refuse phrases you’ve read or heard of often before. They belong to someone else.” Well, you can tell he has an opinion; but I imagine it more to be like a kind of wisdom, developed from experience and a passion for good writing. I love his statement! Because it means – to me – that if I find my own phrases, they will belong to me. There’s something inherently beautiful about that. You create, you compose, and – if you can stay true to yourself – in the end, if you put in the work, there will be something new that belongs to you.
But Mark being Mark doesn’t keep things quite that simple. No. “Write every sentence your way. Keeping every phrase vernacular, make it striking.” (Vernacular = in the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region. I had to look this up, which is something I also love about Mark’s writing: I am learning new words all the time. ) Ha – write your way, but use words that are commonly spoken by society. To avoid clichés we shouldn’t make up new words or use a bucket full of difficult, purposelessly intelligent sounding ones; quite the opposite.
A few pages later, Mark leaves no doubt about what he thinks of people using big words; he quotes Walter Murdoch “… The general rule holds good; long words are sign either of muddled thinking or scam erudition.”
There is no writing task, but it might as well be:
…write about a big achievement; nothing flashy, nothing fashionable; just plain and authentic prose. Write like yourself… in a language that anyone might use.
Learning English is – to date – the most difficult thing I have ever done. I don’t mean, just knowing a few words and throwing them together haphazardly. I am talking about breathing the language, feeling it. That is something a grammar book won’t teach you; but knowing all your basics most certainly helps. Born in Eastern Germany and with a serious lack of talent for languages I was facing two big disadvantages: I was years behind my peers when I started college, because I had started studying English later and chosen to drop it from my curriculum early, and, possessing no natural talent, I didn’t manage to catch up, which seriously affected my confidence, which in turn meant I just stayed stuck at the level I was at.
I had chosen to study business. I didn’t quite want to know it then, but it started to dawn on me; I wasn’t going to get anywhere without speaking English. Then there was an opportunity to go abroad on an exchange programme to an English-speaking Business School in Finland. I signed up for it. I bought a grammar book “Year 5 to year 10 English” and studied every night. I did all the exercises until I got them right, every single one.
My grammar and vocabulary were quite reasonable by the time I arrived in Finland, but I struggled to hold a real-time conversation and I struggled in class. Looking back, my problem at this stage was simply a lack of self-confidence. I was afraid to speak up, worrying myself sick about the mistakes I would make. I’d been the one who couldn’t really speak English for so long; in my heart I didn’t believe I could change things around. But I met great people; people who took the time to listen and wait until I formed my sentences, and slowly, over the next three months, my shy attempts at talking became real conversations. I even managed to research a subject and give a presentation on it in class, although I nearly stopped breathing, I was so scared. After I came back home my marks went up by three grades.
But something else had happened. I had changed and I wanted more of that new me. That new me liked the change of air and people and life that comes with exploring, and suddenly I was craving places, I had never really thought of before, and became very eager to keep improving my English, possibly for different reasons now. Over the next few years I booked two separate English language study holidays, a fortnight each: San Francisco and Malta; learning English was seriously starting to be fun.
When I started my internship at a big multinational corporation, I realised the meetings were held in English. I could understand everything by now, but this was a different playing field. I wouldn’t talk. My old struggles with my self-confidence came back. I just didn’t believe that I could ever be able to converse fluently in English in a business environment. But I wanted to. Then a few things in my life came together – I had finished my degree, I didn’t have a job and I was in a dead-end relationship that I needed to get away from – and so it seemed like a great time to go on exploring again. Next stop Scotland.
What was I thinking? Do they even speak English? I remember my cab ride from the airport like it was last week. The cabbie was talking non-stop and I didn’t understand a word! It was an all too familiar feeling and I panicked, wondering whether I had really made the right decision. It took me a few weeks, but in the end I managed to get a job as a sales-assistant as part of the pre-Christmas staff hire in a department store, just as I had planned. And another few weeks later, I started to understand the customers too.
At first, I couldn’t understand a word my landlord (and flatmate) was saying. It got really boring asking him to repeat himself all the time, and I resorted to just answering something, anything; and we kind of started having conversations, that weren’t real conversations and probably would have seemed really weird to any onlooker. But eventually I started to make sense out of his West Coast accent; although that didn’t make that much of a difference to our conversations.
My English got better by the day now. I was watching a lot of TV then. I mean I didn’t just lock myself in at home; I made friends and went out and partied and drank lots of beer; there is no doubt about that! But TV is actually a great tool to get into the heart of how a nation is using its language. I don’t approve of TV. I don’t even own a TV anymore. But back then, I learned a lot about British pop culture and somehow it helped me with my language skills. On the other hand, a lot of the vocabulary is just not that useful.
There was a key moment though, when I knew, my level of skill had just jumped up. I was preparing sandwiches for work in the kitchen and the TV was running in the background. I wasn’t watching. Suddenly I realised that I was following the news and understood exactly what was going on without looking at the television. It may not sound like much but to me it meant that I was taking in the language at the same level as my mother tongue; without actually actively trying. I was ecstatic.
Don’t get me wrong. I was still making a lot of mistakes then. After all English is my second language. But all my friends were so encouraging and kept telling me how great my English was and how well they could understand me until eventually, I just believe them. That’s when I got to yet another level, a level of more ease in using the language; in the same way in which previously the understanding had automated itself in my brain, now the speaking had too. It just happened. Only it didn’t of course. It was the result of tenacious work.
That is 10 years ago now and I have put in a lot more work since. But it has never felt like work – not since I had developed a love for the language and a passion for understanding it better, knowing it – since then it has felt more like fun, like playing around.
Another thing I should probably mention is reading. I have spent days and nights reading English books; book in one hand dictionary in the other. I always recommend it to people, when they say they would like to improve their English. There is no greater tool to work on your style, your grammar, your vocabulary – your entire set of language skills. Of course, you have to be careful about the books you choose. 10 years ago, when I first moved to the UK, I started with Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Yes it’s a big book, and yes I spent the first third of the book looking up heaps of words in the dictionary, but it’s always the first third only. Every book has a range, a set of vocabulary, and after about a third of the book hardly any new words are being introduced and the reading will become more fluent, more fun. I always tell people, but they tend to find it too tedious. It’s a shame, it’s a great lost.
Eventually I got a job in my career. I wrote emails, strategy documents, briefs and proposals just like everyone else. I think I might be more fluent in English now than in German. But the learning never stops. And now, trying myself in writing, the old insecurities are right back, saying that I could not possibly do this, not me, not this. And I am doing, as I did before; I am studying and I am practising and I am trying my best. And now part of me is wondering and this part is kicking the insecurities out of the door, because this part is saying, we’ve done it before, we can do it again.