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Navigating Language Barriers: My Journey with English

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By Praveen Chandhok

English was not my native language.

I grew up in an era when English was not the language of everyday communication. Dehradun was an idyllic town, where only a few prominent citizens conversed in English. For them, it was less a means of communication and more a style statement, a way to gain respect, acknowledgment, and attention.

Attending an English-medium school was a decision influenced by my late uncle. After visiting our ancestral homeland in Thailand with my grandfather, he realised the importance of English for anyone aspiring to succeed, move abroad, or seek better opportunities.

At my uncle’s insistence, our enrolment in an English-medium school—first at Doon Cultural Centre and later the esteemed St Joseph’s Academy—laid the foundation for our language skills. But English was still not the language of everyday communication for us.

What truly helped was the arrival of my cousins from Thailand in 1974. They came to India to receive a better education and learn not only English but also Hindi and Punjabi. Since Thai was their first language, English became our only common ground for communication. Initially, conversing with my cousins—two sisters and three brothers—was quite a challenge, as English was also foreign to them, though it was preferred.

My cousins had the advantage of speaking Thai fluently with my father and grandmother, which helped them build relationships and express their feelings, especially as they missed their parents. Every day, my elder brother and I spoke to them in English, providing us with invaluable practice and training that we could never have otherwise afforded. This foundational experience was instrumental in my language development.

As we studied and grew up together, English gradually became our primary language of communication both at school and at home. Over time, I became fluent in English, but life had one more lesson up its sleeve: true mastery of communication involves much more than just knowing the words. It’s like navigating a ship; clarity is your compass, guiding your message precisely where it needs to go. Self-assurance acts as your anchor, grounding your ideas and making them compelling. Active listening is the wind in your sails, propelling conversations forward, while nonverbal cues like body language and eye contact are the stars by which you steer, ensuring mutual understanding and connection.

Recently, I had a brilliant discussion with my esteemed senior alumnus of St Joseph’s Academy, the renowned educationist, Kulbhushan Kain. He explained the optimal steps to learning a language: first listening, then speaking, followed by reading, and finally writing. “Learning a language is like planting a tree,” he said. “First, you nurture it with listening, then it begins to sprout with speaking, grows leaves with reading, and finally, it blossoms with writing.”

Understandably, the world we live in today is profoundly shaped by social media and OTT platforms, placing the English language within everyone’s reach. These tools offer endless opportunities for people to immerse themselves in English effortlessly, transforming what was once a distant dream into an accessible reality. This widespread accessibility not only opens doors to greater opportunities but also bridges cultures, turning local communities into a global village, where ideas and connections flourish boundlessly.

(Praveen Chandhok is former President 2019-2021, 2013-2015, SJA Alumni Association, Dehradun)