How I became Multilingual in English

Today, I would like to tell you how I became bilingual in English, without travelling!

I hope this “English” autobiography will help you find inspiration in the face of your difficulties and avoid the pitfalls I fell into while learning English.

Education begins in the family… or not

Let’s be honest, education begins first and foremost with the family . If you have parents who travel and live in a cosmopolitan city, you will be exposed to and motivated by English much more than someone who lives in a remote area with no internet. In my case, I was born in a rather monotonous town in Normandy (Cherbourg) and grew up with only one language: Hindi.

First steps in English…First steps in English

started English in 6th grade like most of my classmates. I was eager to learn English because it seemed to me, from the height of my 11-12 years, a useful language to know. I had even taken a little head start the previous summer, with a vacation notebook. But… I remember our first check very well. This focused on the possessive, with a series of questions such as: “how to say Marie’s dog?” », to which I replied the dog of Mary , as I thought I had understood from my holiday notebooks… Bad luck, I had to say Mary’s dog . Race result: 6/20 , followed by a second 6/20…

What would an English textbook be without a red bus?!School English

I made up for this false start during the year, with correct grades in the end. What did we do during these English lessons? The memory remains hazy. We had our noses in the manual but spoke little or nothing , that’s all I remember. However, I remember a discussion at the end of the 5th year where, in a small group, the teacher opened up a little more and gave his opinion on the students present. He said of me that I did the minimum necessary… which I took as a compliment, when that was obviously not the point of his remark.


Why geeks are good at English

The years go by and look alike… We learn bits of this and that. Irregular verbs, translation… and, above all, many questions of culture : the red double-decker buses, the Queen of England and the guards of Buckingham Palace come to fill our textbooks with their photos. To believe that it would be impossible to learn English without talking about apple pie. The need to speak out loud is imposed on us once in a while, for a phase, when the teacher questions us – maybe once every three or four lessons. The students then wade about, stammering to formulate a sentence; either speak quickly to get rid of the drudgery; and there is also the exception: one or two students per class per year, who speak with ease and a convincing accent, and do not hesitate to link sentences. What is their secret ?

I h4ve 1337 sk!llz & my c0mpμter r0ckz!I didn't choose the nerd life, the nerd life thing me!

In 4th grade, I fell in love with computers. Encouraged by my incipient acne and my braces, I spend hours playing video games or learning how to tweak a computer. The video games are then almost all in English. I’m a poor penniless teenager and spend tons of time playing various English game demos. I exhaust them to the last drop, even give them a second life by learning how to use cheat codes or edit game saves to cheat. I also learn other things such as retouching an image in Photoshop or other tasks related to what was called at the time. I didn’t realize it then, but it exposes me to a lot of English on a daily basis (in the menus of programs in English, in the interface of games, in the text of adventure games, etc.). Harrap’s is never far from my computer and, when I don’t understand, I look up the word in the dictionary . I don’t count the hours.

We are in the 90s and it is the heyday of the magazine press. I follow a few magazines, in French, which distribute CD-ROMs thrown on their covers. On these cakes, the editorial staff share their best finds. The content (software, e-zines ) is mainly in English and, between my curiosity (my desire to understand) and my laziness (the effort required to understand!)… fortunately, curiosity prevails : -)


Trust the school system?

Around this time, my English teacher seems like a joke to me. With his old tweed jacket and his admiring passion for an English author, whose ears he keeps telling us about, combined with the ton of boring texts he forces us to study, I find it hard to hang on. After school, however, I’m always happy to do some English stuff on the computer; the computer provides me with a kind of immersion where I don’t study English so much as I use it . This professor loses all credibility for me the day he corrects a fault that is not one (the use of the word business in the plural, businesses), under the false pretext that it would be American English and not British. This year, I tell myself that, if I ever miss my life, I could always be an English teacher because I am apparently better than my teacher.

Oh, yes, speak English to us in your tweed jacket!Tweed jacket typical of an old school English teacher

Arrived at high school,the masquerade, the circus,the English lesson routine continues with his obsession with grammar and conjugation. With the difference, at least my first year, that the English teacher seems more and more irritated by the deplorable level of his students . The teacher that year is not the most pleasant but I am more and more curious to know why we say such and such a thing rather than another and to distinguish what is correct and what is not . . The teacher tries to make us understand, to his great despair, the difference between the preterit and the present perfect . For my part, I hang on because I want to progress, and I made that year, I think, good progress ingrammar .


The beginnings of the internet…

Unfortunately, high school can’t stand me. I’m 16 and I know what I want: to program video games and sell them on the Internet! But no one cares. Yet for a long time a good student, I no longer pay attention in class and the lack of sleep does not help. Indeed, I spend my nights navigating an invention then new in France (we are in 1997): what is it? No, not Minitel… Much better: Internet! Everybody talks about it. For my part, I spend nights surfing and invest all my pocket money in the cost of my connection.

The Internet allows you to discover a lot of content, download a ton of things illegally (but, in 56K, you have to be patient!) or even join online “communities”. A system called Hotline allows me, for example, to create my own server and join others, to share files and join chat rooms. Casually, I start chatting with fellows from all over the world . If I have no memorable memory of the thing, I must admit that this is probably how I spoke with English speakers for the first time!


The music in theskinlanguage

At that time, I read my first bilingual book: a collection of lyrics , borrowed from my older sister. These are the lyrics, translated, of Jim Morrison, the singer of The Doors. I start to discover and sing the lyrics of this mythical group. I learn English while having fun, while singing . I follow up with more 60s music and lyrics from the musical Hair . I sing the words found on the Net, I understand most of them and the dictionary clarifies the meaning of what I do not yet understand. I know the lyrics by heart – and remember them years later!

The doors – Break On Through ( To The Other Side )

The Doors… or rather The Torses,
as I nicknamed them at the time

But high school is going badly. My family is not doing very well either. On top of that, my social skills are inversely proportional to the time I spent on computers… I nevertheless started a small electronics-related business with a classmate. He’s top of the class, I’m bottom of the class. And, on reflection, we would never have been able to develop this business if we didn’t speak English , since everything was based on information found on the Net. Our business is growing. Not enough to drop out of high school and become independent, but enough to put some money aside… What does it have to do with learning English? We will come back…

During my last years of high school, my English teacher was much more lively and pleasant than my previous teacher. I’m bad at just about every subject except English. I get my Bac as best I can and – above all – relieved to be able to leave high school. I get 17 in the English test (which is written only) with, on one of the exercises, a suspense story improvised at the time. The proofreader signs on my copy “Excellent linguistic reflexes”. But do I know how to speak English? We will see that it really depends on who you ask!…


“You are multilingual”… and my ass is chicken?

When I got to university, I took a compulsory English test. Giving me the result (I got a perfect score), my interlocutor said to me “Bravo, you are bilingual in English! » , which does not fail to make me smile, since I have never spoken English out loud with anyone!

“You are bilingual in English! »

But this English test will have a very beneficial result: it places me not in normal English class (essentially remedial) but in English phonetics class . This takes place in a language lab: we listen to recordings in English on headphones and have to transcribe them into text.

After ten years of English, I have the chance to realize that I don’t understand anything orally!! Or, at least, I clearly don’t understand everything and am a little handicapped. But the course is precisely designed to remedy this. We do simple dictations then phonetic dictations; we learn the symbols of the English phonetic alphabet and transcribe them.


The College Dropout

At the same time, I still spend a lot of time on the Internet. I fell in love with two things: an ultra-violent video game ( Soldier of Fortune , where the goal is to knock out the opponent with pump shotguns by doing headshots ) and – encouraged in this by this phonetics and the development of broadband and peer2peer –  a TV series in English  : the Friends series .

We were on a break!

Aided by my trusty online dictionary (which replaced Harrap’s in my exploration of English), I spend a lot of time looking up words in the dictionary to see how they’re actually pronounced and how they’re spelt phonetically . Concretely, when I watch an episode of Friends in original version without subtitles , I quickly rewind when I don’t understand… I keep trying to understand by repeating fifteen times… And, when it doesn’t work, I try to write the word to find it in the online dictionary. It doesn’t work every time but it works my ear well every time! In a few weeks, I make gigantic progress in understandingoral.

In principle in Paris to do my studies, full of gaps in maths and seized with a mortal boredom by our computer courses (which is still bad for a degree in Mathematics and Computer Science Applied to Sciences ), I finally go to more and more time playing this online video game… The only classes I still go to are a personal development class (!) and a linguistics class, in addition to the phonetics class mentioned above. As I have some money on hand (I’ve been working since I was 16), I also don’t have any pressure to study more than that, at least not right away.


gamer ‘s life

This video game soon occupies most of my time. I first play with French people on exclusively French servers (ZoneJeux for the nostalgic). Then, we form a team and will play, in tournaments, with English speakers and, to tell the truth, the rest of the planet! There is everything: British, Germans, a few Spaniards, a lot of Dutch… When it gets late, the servers empty out in Europe. Then, at one o’clock in the morning, the Americans arrive! The most passionate players ( hardcore gamers ) or the most “no life” (depending on the point of view) can thus play almost all day… and all night. I often go to bed in the early morning, exhausted but happy to have played well, to have improved at this game.

But what does it have to do with English?

All these little people obviously communicate in the language ofShakespeare John Carmack  ! Whether inside the game or throughout the organization around the game.

Even though it is a violent video game, the fact remains that the most popular game mode is played by teams. And the gamer , even alone in his room, remains a social animal! We are so very organized. The forums created for the occasion allow to discuss the game and to organize tournaments. IRC (a chat rooms system ) allows you to stay in touch with members of your clan or to chat with other teams, in text format (a detail that will be important).

Eh yes ! We can learn English thanks to this!

I end up putting an end to my French-speaking team (because most players have a life and are not as fanatical as me!) and joining a team that I admire. With a German, a handful of Americans and a Scottish, it’s a dream team for me , my best French team-mate follows shortly after. With this team, we obviously discuss in English. As soon as we’re online (which is a lot of the time!), we’re connected to the same chat room. We obviously talk about the game but not only, everyone tells a little about their life and the jokes are not left out.

In doing so, I learn the slang used on the Internet, English slang , and the differences between American English and British English . Above all, I quickly find myself communicating in English almost 24 hours a day. It gives me a ton of experience in English.

By dint of practice, I learn to understand everything that is said to me. I also learn to find my words and find better ways to express my idea when I am not understood; I learn to have the right word, rather than expressing my idea in an approximate way. Nothing can replace quantity! And, by dint of communicating in English, I no longer had to search for my words, they came by themselves (and, let’s be honest, we all say pretty much the same thing from one day to the next; the repetition forged English in my brain). I thought in English. I was doing more English than French.

At the same time, I continued to watch more and more TV series and started making films in English. Over time, I understood almost all the content that was done in American English. When I didn’t understand something, I was no longer sure if it was due to my English or not (just like, in French, one can not understand simply because something is badly articulated, oddly formulated, noisy , etc.) I began to have the impression of being truly bilingual in the sense of being able to understand everything and express everything. But what was it really?


Incomprehensible orally?

A British player that I vaguely knew is then passing through Paris and brings up the idea of meeting. I end up having him on the phone but the exchange is so complicated that the meeting does not take place. The fact is that, despite all this time spent writing and finding the right word online, my spoken English still suffered from huge gaps: my accent was strong, too strong, and barely understandable!

? The phone is crying…?Speaking English on the phone, another pair of sleeves

The months go by and look alike… So much so that I ended up spending about three years playing this violent video game… but extremely sociable, even if virtual.

When you ask your children not to play video games so much and to take their studies seriously, you often do it with the back of mind that if they fail they’ll end up bum or have the worst job. in the world… We don’t dream of them coming out bilingual.

People’s faces against my incomprehensible English accentPeople's faces against my incomprehensible English accent

Towards the end of this period, a Dutch player passing through Paris visited me. If my memory is correct, he had spent a lot of time in the United States. In short, his English is impeccable. But, while we could communicate on an equal footing online, in writing, oral communication is very complicated. My phonetics lessons taught me to understand spoken English but not to pronounce it! I understand him but he only understands me with difficulty and I have to repeat everything.

In fact, I spent years reinforcing my incorrect pronunciation by mentally reading all the English I read or wrote with, not English (or American) pronunciation but French-imagined pronunciation! It is therefore a half-hearted encounter. If I am happy to have exchanged in English whereas I have just lived a bit like a hermit, I must also realize a) that my accent is very, very hard to understand, because of enormous pronunciation errors ; but also b) that I am not comfortable socially. My phonetics lessons had enabled me to understand oral English but that had not transferred to my own pronunciation.

Was I bilingual at that time? Everyone will judge; and we will have to ask ourselves the question of what it really means to be bilingual. Some great authors have mastered a foreign language and published great novels in that language…all while keeping a very strong accent. We will think in particular of Joseph Conrad (English was his third language) or Samuel Beckett (who translated his works himself). The question is very well studied by François Grosjean in his book Speaking several languages: The world of bilinguals .


Open to the world

Video games are like a drug and, after several periods where I quit and then resume the game… I end up dropping out for good. It was starting to go in circles and, above all, I needed to make a life for myself outside of my computer screen.

Exit, in English, says exit!

One day, I participate in my first MeetUp . Surrounded mainly by English speakers, I am excited at the idea of being able to chat in English and meet new people . I understand them well… but, in return, I often make them frown  ! To tell the truth, I was still making simply horrible pronunciation errors (and leaving the school system with such errors should make you think about how the National Education goes about it). For example, I pronounced the word great like the word greet because, for me, -ea- was pronounced /i/ like in eagle. An example of error taken from so many others.

The problem is obviously that I was not aware of all his faults at the time. Over time, meetings like these led me to question myself, to become aware of certain errors, and to correct many of them.


Finding work through English

Having finally exhausted my reserves of money and after trying a business or two that did not work, I resolve to look for work . It was honestly not easy (I had counted a good hundred CVs sent, for interviews that can be counted on the fingers of one hand).

Now get a job you little wanker!Work in English

After months of research, two companies finally seem interested. One sells computer products and likes the fact that I am bilingual . The other interests me even more because of the good humor that emanates from it, but I don’t know yet what their decision is; she also needs someone who speaks English . I play for each other by indicating that I would prefer to work with them but that, if the answer is negative, I would need to know it quickly in order to accept the first offer. It works and I get the job I wanted!

Most of the work is done in French but, from time to time, it is a question of discussing in English with a Dutch technician (again them!). I am then happy to pick up the handset and practice my English, while my colleagues are a bit reluctant and are happy to pass the call on to me. Everybody wins ! Occasionally, we exchange by e-mail or receive a call from the USA; it’s going well but the opportunities are too rare.

The box sends me one day to Switzerland. I take this opportunity to meet a player I knew who lived in the region. We had often played together, then in the same team. I knew his written English was good but also thought my English was better, richer, than his. That day, he confessed to me that he thought I was totally bilingual because of the language I used ( slang , idiomatic expressions and other flowery expressions)… but, face to face, he realized how much I had a strong French accent! My pronunciation had improved and become clearer, but my accent was still unconvincing. If having an accent can be charming, I had to go to themy French accent was still playing tricks on me! This new half-hearted encounter motivated me to reduce my accent further.

Map of English pubsMap of English pubs

After two years in the box, the English subsidiary of the group needs a hand. People then think of me, which also suits me because I was starting to get bored. But, before that, I have to pass a “test” in the form of a telephone call with the manager of the English technical team. I then isolate myself in an office for a telephone exchange with a certain Fiona. I was a little anticipating this exchange with a Britonbecause I was mostly used to the neutral American accent of American television and was afraid of finding myself faced with an accent that I don’t understand, having to repeat… But, in the end, the call goes through like a letter to the job ! Fiona tells my manager that my English is impeccable and I end up spending a few days in the UK!

I have already written on the subject in an old newsletter. But, in short, if everything is not perfectly easy (telephone exchanges with the Scots are formidable… but we can reassure ourselves by remembering that this is also the case for the English themselves), I can do my work and make friends, in the evening (in the pub, of course!), with my British colleagues.

At the same time, I take advantage of my travel time to listen to many audio books (in English, of course) in the metro.

Between audio books , evening TV series and other projects, I do English every day without counting, but probably spend dozens or twenty hours a week on it. I don’t do English for English; English is a way to do things that bring me something  : personal development, marketing, books on business, books on communication, programming, guitar…


English for life

Years pass and are not alike.

I share my experience learning English in my book How to become bilingual in English (independently published and sold several thousand copies). Then travels a lot… Opens me up a lot… Puts me in Hungarian… Go on a one-year world tour (which takes me through New Zealand, Australia and the United States among others) and ends up I’d rather last three!… Then put myself in Russian. In the meantime, I published The Gift of Languages (a Personal MBA for living languages), then a phonetics course, gave about twenty webinars and finally designed the training I would have liked to have had to learn languages –  the training Online English course Click & Speak™– now used by a thousand people.

With English, the world opens up to youAround the world to speak English and other languages

All of this…because I didn’t listen in school, preferred learning things IN English to school methods, and spending three years playing an online video game!

No, it’s not the traditional method taught in school…but everyone has to make their own way, no one else can do it for you.