Walking on Penarth beach this morning, I noticed that each pebble is a different colour, size, shape, texture and age.
Pebbles are small pieces of rock that have broken away from the cliff. Over the years, a chunk of rock is beaten by the waves until its surface is smooth. At that point we call it a pebble.
The Jurassic coastline here has produced many different strata, or layers, in the cliffs. So the pebbles come in a wide variety of colours. The most eye-catching are the glittering pink and white alabasters.
What does this have to do with learning English?
While I was teaching in Spain, I realised that some of my clients were delighted when they met the expression “broken English”. They were convinced that it had been invented to describe their own, not yet perfect, language. “My English is broken”, they would cry when unable to express a particular idea. They felt that their English had been smashed upon the rocks and was now in pieces, like the rough stones and smooth pebbles I found on the beach.
So let’s think of English as a collection of pebbles.
You might think you need them all if you want to be competent and confident. But there are so many pebbles on the beach….wouldn’t that be an impossible task?
Choose the ones that appeal to you, the pretty or unusual stones, the stable rocks where you feel you can walk safely, the tiny bits of shingle that are easy to pick up.
Use English your way.
We colour language with our use of descriptive words. Some speakers are plain grey. Others make powerful use of adjectives, adding bold stripes or strata to a pebble. Use of imagery and idiom will make your English glitter and sparkle, as if it were alabaster in the sunshine on the shore.
We can be concise or verbose, using one word or many. Sometimes this tells listeners something about your confidence. If you are uncertain, you’ll probably limit the number of words you use. On the other hand, if your vocabulary is limited, you might need to use several words to describe an object, because you just don’t know its name in English. You can be a small, quiet pebble or a big, wordy rock. They’re both interesting.
You can only use what you know.
People shape the English they know into simple or complex sentences, moulding it around the structures they feel able to manipulate. Their experiences with the language affect the way they use it, just as pebbles undergo changes when battered by the force of the wind and the waves.
Your accent, pronunciation and intonation, even the quality of your voice, give texture to your speech. Pink alabaster is softer than white alabaster. Limestone is different again.
How old is your English? How long have you been learning the language?
When parts of the cliff break away, the most exciting strata are the ones hiding fossils. The oldest Jurassic dinosaur fossil in the world was recently found at Penarth.
What secrets are you hiding when you are too shy to speak?
Are you a false beginner, believing you know no English…but actually you sing along to all the British songs…?
Have you forgotten all the English you learned at school…or not?
Perhaps you’ve attended various English courses over the years, even tried online lessons or language exchanges, but you simply don’t feel confident?
Do you know you’re C1 level, because you have the certificate to prove it and you use English every day, but you still feel something is missing and you really don’t want to sound like a foreigner?
Sometimes we feel like a grain of sand. We feel small and powerless, as if we could blow away in the wind. We believe that nothing we say will make any difference to a situation. We don’t think our English is good enough.
At other times, we might feel isolated or frozen, emotionless. If you’re a Simon and Garfunkel fan, you’ll remember the lyrics “I am a rock, I am an island”. We don’t understand what is happening around us so we switch off. We stop listening. We stop hearing.
If each person is unique, just as each pebble as unique, then surely everyone will use English in a different way.
Know this. If you can understand this blog, you understand English. You speak English. What’s more, I’m pretty sure your English is already beautiful in its own way.
You can make it more precise by improving your range of vocabulary and your understanding of grammar. Regular reading, listening, writing and speaking practice will improve your fluency. Spending time in an English-speaking country will help you to think in English, rather than translating from your own language. If that’s not possible at the moment, try to create your own immersion environment at home. Use ear buds to surround yourself with English whenever possible.
Your English may never be “perfect”. But it will always be unique. Be confident. Make it the best it can be.