How Did I Learn English?

[To read the Bahasa Indonesia version of this post, klik here.]

People often ask me about it.

They wondering how could I communicate in English easily. And I’m wondering why they are wondering.

One friend told his sister that I’d been overseas (which I haven’t)—I have no idea where did he get that nonsense. And maybe for that reason, his sister trust me soooo… much, that she asked me to translate some papers for her final project. Well, ten or more papers, I guess.

(Yeah, right. So much for some papers.)

Another friend, whose now studying in Melbourne, chat with me through sms once. He asked something to me and I answered it in English. His first reply is this, “Wow, your English’s good.”

My only reply is this, “HUH?”

I was confused. I never thought that way. I said, “I think it’s your English that’s good, not mine. It’s you who speak English everyday in English-speaking country, right? That’s make your English far more better than me. Me? I rarely speak English here.”

“Yes. But you use English confidently! And that makes you sound good.”

“Oh…, okay. If you say so.”

Here’s another similar incident. There are this three guys, students from US, went to Bandung last year. Friends from The (English) Center in Jl. Setiabudi invite them to speak in a religious discussion held in Mesjid Salman, ITB.

I was there. I found it interesting and I managed to ask something to the speakers.

Guess what? Even before I finished my question, one of them said: “Wow, your English is goood…” with an amazed tone in his voice.

In front of a hundred-and-more people. My jaw’s dropped.

Huh? What’s that suppose to do with my question? Isn’t that you who speak English since you’re born? It’s like he never met Indonesian who could speak English.

I kept wondering. (I never thought my English was already good enough.)

Listen, I’m not being bigheaded here. But those people think that my English is darn good!

So, here I am, trying to answer the question, “How did I learn English?”. There’s nothing special, really. I often want to retort, “How did you learn English, anyway? Because I learned it just like everybody does.”

(But I didn’t, ofcourse, for politeness sake ^_^)

Well, my formal answer would be: I took an English course at LB LIA when I was in high school.

And I don’t know wether they believe it or not.


What Happened, Back There

I didn’t really think that I’d learn English well until my second year in college. Before that, I was stuck in something I called traditional-and-partial learning method. Typically this: you got one or some paragraphs, you read it, and then you fill in the blanks for the questions listed bellow the passage. Afterwards you get some examples about English structure, then you practise five to ten questions about the structure.

Just like everybody does in Junior and Senior High School.

In fact, I only learn a some part of English skills—mostly technical—at public school: reading, grammar, basic vocabulary, and some conversation that ended up only for understanding practise. No chance to speak in English, and writing in English mostly happened only when I answering the questions about the a passage. Writing in English was rarely practised.

I mean, really, really rarely practised.

No wonder I cannot read my English-written math textbook easily on my second year in college. My TOEFL score is only a little above 500 (institutional test, where writting test excluded). And I’m still facing difficulties to communicate in English. I mean, when I want to express something in English, I often lost in the middle because I cannot find the right word to express it correctly. Vocab problem. I was also rely on Bahasa-line-text whenever I watch western movies. And that made me loose the precious moments to really understand what was happened in the movie.

So what am I doing all these years? I feel I haven’t had enough. I feel like I hadn’t learn English at all. All the lesson I took during my study in school seems useless.

My English was not improving at all. I need to get out of this poor-English-ability. I’d dream of having international TOEFL score more than 600 (writing test included), able to communicate in English fluently (like Ikram did–well hello, Kram? Heheh…), and can simply understand lots of books written in English. And maybe write one.

I need a breakthrough.


My Breakthrough

I consider it as learning English in a more fun way.

On my second year in college, I forced my self to read a novel from Stephen King, “Four Past Midnight”. It consist of four mistery stories, “The Langoliers”, “Secret Window” (already filmed with Johnny Depp as the main actor), “Library Police”, and “Sun Dog”.

I could only manage to read the first two stories that time, with only little picture in my head what are those stories all about. I could only catch the gist because of my lack of vocab. There are blanks in my head when I found words I didn’t understand. But I carried on.

Just like my cousin said once: read, read, and read. Keep reading…

I read several English books in various topics since then. I even read children’s book written in English. When I read it, I reallized that my English can be compared with a nine years old child whose mother tongue is English.

So I’m a ‘child’ in English. And that’s how I learned English: like a child.

That’s reading skill. Now we talk about speaking-listening skill.

Alhamdulillah there are millions of songs and movies. I learned to pronounce the words in English correctly mostly from songs. And I learned to listen and understand English conversation mostly when I watched movie. Of course without Bahasa-line-text on the screen.

Don’t you realize that our eyes would stick to the line-text when we watch movies that contains it and doesn’t really listen to what the characters said? That’s why, after years of watching western movies, our English-listening and conversation skills improved very little; because our eyes stuck on Bahasa-text.

That’s why I’m very happy when I watched movies without Bahasa-text. It forces me to listen what the actor or actress talking about. (I keep telling my friends to watch western movies without Bahasa-text or with English-text only if they want to improve their English-conversation skill amazingly fast.)

The chance to improve my English-writing skill came when my friend’s sister asked me to translate some psychiatry journals and papers, and another friend from Planologi ITB asked me to translate her city-planning textbooks. Those part-time job (I’ve been paid for translating) made me check the English-English dictionary so often. I also learned how to use correct English grammar.

And the most interesting discovery is this: if you know the meaning or the definition of a word in English, you will easily find its meaning in Bahasa Indonesia. So you don’t need to open English-Indonesia dictionary. Take this for example:

prowl•er [prówlər]
(plural prowl•ers)

1. somebody prowling with unlawful intent: somebody who moves stealthily around an area looking for an opportunity to commit a criminal act

Can you guess its match in Bahasa Indonesia? From some keywords somebody, moves around stealthily, and to commit criminal act, we can easily conclude what ‘prowler’ is.

Alhamdulillah another opportunity for improving my English came through my Planologi friend. She offered me a part-time job as a Math tutor for a student from Bandung International School (BIS). The requirement is ‘having a math background’ and ‘able to teach in English’ stressed in bold. I even being interviewed using English, to make sure that I could communicate in English.

At first, I thought I would teach an Indonesian who want to practise English badly. I found out later that I was being asked to teach math lesson to a British-nationality student. That’s why the parents stressed the ‘able to communicate using English’ so much.

Well, my student is a British. A grade seven student. Even though she—well, it’s a girl—claimed that she speaks plain British accent, sometimes I couldn’t catch her words. Me, who that time still learning to converse in English, got myself cornered.

My God! While I’m working myself hard to understand English conversation in American accent, she’s using that ‘kumur-kumur’ accent.

For example, she pronounced ‘our town’ similarly to ‘athan’ (azan). Like this: “Aaw… thaan.” It took me three times saying, “Sorry?” to understand that she was saying something that what would pronounced ‘aweer taaun’ in American accent, but without ‘r’ in word ‘our’ and without ‘w’ in ‘town’.

Masya Allaaaah!

But, somehow, I can get through it…


The Point Is…

In summary, in the last five years, I learned English:
1. by reading English-written books –> reading skill
2. when I listen to western songs and watching movies without Bahasa-text –> listening skill
3. while I’m tutoring math to BIS students (I have two regular pupils now) –> conversation skill
4. when I was translating study-materials for my friends –> writing skill, grammar

I’m grateful to have such opportunities to improve all aspect of my English skill. I try my best to find the best way for me to improve my English. I didn’t have to pay anything (except when I bought books or records); I get paid for translating those study materials and tutoring math in English. That’s why I call it a fun way to learn English. Well, yeah, sometimes I was forced to learn English, but I still consider it fun.

Well, that’s how I learned English. So, how did you learn English?

9 Responses to “How Did I Learn English?”
  1. Patricia says:

    Thank you for your post. I think maybe you are interested to have a look inside Palabea is an international community for learning languages and also for discovering other cultures. It´s free to join and I think it´s really good.

  2. eka says:

    oh great…..
    I am surprised when i read “how did I learn English”
    But according to me, i get difficulties to learn English. I have been tried to listen the English movie often but i do not understand also.
    If there is a western song, i also don’t understand what they said. How to come over about that
    Thank you

  3. sherlanova says:


    That’s a vocabulary problem.

    All you need to do is trying to read more ‘beginners/children’ english books. Or, try bilingual book, Indonesian-English one, ofcourse.

    Try to memorize 10 new words everyday. If you find it hard to to rote-memorizing (menghapal), just read children books. That’ll help your vocab.

    I hope this advice can answer your problem.

    Last thing: don’t give up!

  4. aulia says:

    Ehmm… an interesting article. Learning a language which is not our mother tongue is always difficult. But as what your friend mentioned….just be confident!! People learn from their mistake, aren’t they?? As a tip for others…..when I was in the 1st grade of junior high school, I had difficulties in learning English. The grammar and vocabulary made me nuts. So… what I did was always wrote a note of every grammar that I learnt and put it on the wall next to my bed. So everyday I could read and remember it. For vocabulary, I always made some kind of small card where I wrote the word in English and on the other side was the translation in Indonesian. It was really helpful.
    Anyway….learning English in my opinion is so much easier than learning other foreign language.

  5. sherlanova says:


    I mean, about that ‘learning English is so much easier than learning other…’

    As a matter of fact, I use my English to learn, for example, Jappanese (to read Jappanese Learning Book written in English), French, and a bit of this-and-that European language.

    Hopefully I could master another three different languages before age 30. Arabic included. And Latin, perhaps; the root of many European and English… Amin.

  6. Agung says:

    Hi Ales, I couldn’t agree more about ways that help you learning english. Well actually, it works for any kind of languages, don’t you think so?
    By watching movies/listening songs we practice our listening skill. By writing / speaking we practice our ability in making a good paragraphs and well-pronounced sentences.
    And talking about speaking, like my teacher in LIA said (who’s your teacher in LIA?), “Learning a language is learn how to speak the language”. That’s simple, but true. We always had reading and spelling sessions all the way. By doing this, he made us keep opening our dictionary to make sure every word is correctly pronounced. We were amazed. That was the first time we realized how important a dictionary is :p.
    Well, good luck with learning-other-language programs then. Nice post. You know, reading well-structured sentences feels like putting a piece of puzzle right in its place haha. I’ll put your blog in my blogroll, may i? Thanks,

  7. Adi Onggoboyo says:

    Wow wow wow… just remind you, I also one of the man who was helped by your kindness for translating Bahasa to good English :)) remember that?? (when I prepared for research API proposal) it have been 4 years ago hihihi…

  8. sherlanova says:

    Owh, iya yah?

    Hweh…saya udah gak ingat, bos.
    Yah, mudah2an sukses proposalnya…
    (telat banget yak?) :p

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