25 September, 2013

#BookReview & #AuthorInterview :: English Bites! My 'Fullproof' English Learning Formula by Manish Gupta

English Bites! My Fullproof English Learning Formula is the story of a man who goes from being tongue-tied in school to becoming a smooth talking banker. Through a series of hilarious personal adventures and misadventures, Manish Gupta provides easy solutions to problems faced by language learners. So, whether you're a vernacular speaker, a GRE/ GMAT/CAT/XAT aspirant or just a language nut, English Bites! will expand your vocabulary and improve your verbal ability. It may even help you love the English language a little more!
• Add over 1000 new words to your vocabulary and figure out easy and effective ways to expand your word bank.
• Combine etymology, mnemonics, jokes and anecdotes to better your understanding of the English language.
• Differentiate between similar sounding words and learn to use them right.
• Improve your general knowledge with trivia that spans brand names, automobiles, fine dining, love, money, banks, science and B-school jargon.

When the author approached me with a review request for this book, my initial reaction was to say ‘no’ because the blurb gave off a non-fiction, self-help vibe. Though I pick up non-fictions from time to time, self-help books are a big no-no for me. But then someone told me that this book could be counted as memoir because the author narrates his own story – and that got me curious! Is it a self-help book, or a memoir, or a self-help book in guise of a memoir, or a memoir in guise of self-help book, which is it?

The book is divided into different chapters depending upon the different phases of the author’s journey to learn English starting right from his school days. However, his main romance with the language started when he stepped out his hometown for his Engineering Degree as that’s when he first discovered that there were two categories of people - those who can speak English and those who cannot. After his Engineering Degree, he went ahead with his ambition of having a Management Degree. Soon after, he was wooed into the corporate world where he has achieved much success. In the meantime, he also met his soul mate and thus settled looking for a happily ever-after.

The author has been blunt and humorous in his narration. And all the while he narrated his story, he made sure to include some big words (do not worry as their meanings are explained in the very same page and you do not have to run for your dictionary every time!), some similar sounding words, some trivia  and enough jokes and anecdotes to keep you laughing/smiling throughout. 

As a student, I was too lazy to go find a dictionary every time I came across a new word, I would simply read and re-read the sentence or the passage till the word meant something to me! I now wish all our text books were like ‘English Bites’ – a fun way to learn! I have learnt quite a few new words and while I will try and incorporate some of them in my daily conversations and my reviews, there were also certain humungous words like ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ that I will happily spend my life without using. 

In the end, this is a book that is best read one chapter a day because even though it makes learning fun, one needs time to absorb and retain it. A must read for EVERYONE…

Manish Gupta is a banking professional. When not crunching numbers he is busy engaging with and examining the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the English language. He also likes trivia, travelling, adventure sports, delving into human psychology, and giving professorial discourses to colleagues, family and friends, and practically anyone who can give him a patient hearing. An engineering graduate from Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh and an MBA from XLRI, Jamshedpur, he lives in Mumbai with his wife Deepali, a medical professional, and daughters Tamanna and Prakriti.

You have shown us that there’s a fun way to learn. Was that your main intention when you started writing ‘English Bites’?
To answer this question, we need to get a little bit into my background. I grew up in Rohtak, a small and sleepy town in Haryana in the 1970s and 80s. The only English I spoke was in school and that too to respond to questions of my teachers in the class. I looked down at English as an alien tongue merely suited to the narrow field of academia and with no particular use once someone got into the real economy.
As a result, I was horrible in all aspects of communication. My active vocabulary was extremely limited, pronunciations & spellings were terrible (as I refused to accept English as a non-phonetic language that it largely is), sentence construction was poor, and my fluency was severely compromised.
The thought of improving my English started in Class XI after facing acute embarrassment in front of my third and final crush (and her family) when I could not speak even one correct sentence of English with a foreigner we met during a family vacation (and she did).
This thought took a serious turn once I landed-up at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh and came face-to-face with far more fluent and erudite specimens from convent schools from metros and towns much bigger than my hometown. I also noticed how I used to get tongue-tied while attempting to make a small conversation in English with or even in front of the convent educated colleagues and that hurt…really hard.
This thought was further strengthened when I realised to my horror that English had long outgrown the narrow confines of academia and become extremely relevant and in fact an absolute necessity in the real economy. So much so, that I would need to face group discussions and interviews where my proficiency in this language will be put to the real test to get into one of the best engineering jobs offered on campus.
Having lived all my school life in disdain for this alien tongue, the grossly neglected subject of English made me realize its importance, its vastness, its complexity, and my far less than self proclaimed ‘photographic memory’ all at once. I needed something quick and in large doses to beat the convent educated types in their own game and seal the best job offered in the campus in my name and after gaining some industry experience, successfully compete with them once again for admission into a top-tier MBA program.
Let me confess here that I had drifted towards an MBA after realising that no specialist (read post-graduate) medico girl will consent to marry a Bachelor of Engineering in an arranged marriage situation I had found myself in after many crushed crushes.  Marrying a medico was a childhood dream; the flexibility of working hours that profession allows (a must for raising a happy family) is only a later realisation.
Hence, I set aside the word lists, my failed attempts at mugging, and started creating interesting stories and anecdotes to make indelible imprints of this foreign language in my mind. This was the genesis of the book. It took a lot of research and creativity, but it was a matter of survivability. It was the only thing that could have rescued me from definite depression and elevated me to think and speak like an erudite gentleman.
Once I started revising the book in 2008, I had two dominant thoughts in my mind. The first thought was that this is an opportunity to spread a culture of making teaching (not necessarily limited to language learning) less bookish and pedantic and making LEARNING more FUN. The second and equally, if not more, powerful thought was to put in my bit to make sure that language does not become a handicap for anyone to realize their ambitions and dreams!

How long did it take you to write this book?
You may find it hard to believe but this manuscript was in the making for over 20 years and this has influenced a lot of content in the book. It started as an idea in my second year of engineering way back in 1989-1990 when two of my closet friends and I resolved to publish a book each before we turned 21. This, we agreed, had several advantages.
->   Till Class XII, I stayed in the campus of a girls’ college with our row house facing the girls’ hostel and had left this beautiful environment to join Mechanical Engineering at Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh (a subject no girl dared to join in our year and many years before and after). While this led to a deep appreciation and understanding of how God re-balances our lives, it also made our resolve to attract attention from the few girls from other depts., amid very strong competition, even harder. What better way to attract attention that project our multi-faceted personalities, mastery over the English language (we had declared we were writing books in English medium), and great sense of humour (my book was supposed to be a FUN book).
->   Make us look precocious in the eyes of potential employers after Engineering, interviewers during the MBA admission process, and potential parents and other family members of the post-graduate medico girl I was destined to marry in an arranged marriage situation that I had found myself in after many crushed crushes.
->    Give us an additional source of annuity income plus a decent advance, with which to fund the MBA education. Annuity income stream was reserved for annual vacations in exotic foreign locales.
I thought I had written a masterpiece by the time our final placements ended (spoiling my grades in the process) and was still a few months shy of turning 21. My other friends, who were writing on ‘quizzing’ and ‘poetry’, had pulled out of this pledge while they were still in their teens.
My manuscript then hibernated for 20 years as I got busy with my first job at Tata Motors, an MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur, my banking career at Citibank, and family life. The manuscript was preserved on a 3.5 inch diskette in Microsoft Word 2000 that refused to open on my old PC, when I thought of reviving my work of art in the year 2008.
Fortunately, the handwritten version (‘manuscript’ in the real sense of the word) had survived well on loose sheets of paper, which I promptly transferred on my PC and started editing and expanding it at the same time. By the time I finished in 4 years (working on weekends), I had landed up re-writing the entire book.  

What has been the most difficult stage in this whole process?
Connecting the random pieces of mnemonics, anecdotes, and jokes into a cohesive story that started on page 1 and ended on page 334.

How has being a published author affected/changed your life?
Becoming an author has been an extremely surreal and uplifting experience for me. Having started reading books outside the curricula only after I joined engineering, I started with a feeling of awe and admiration for the writers of non-academic books, which only grew stronger with time. Now I feel that I am a part of their tribe though still at the initial steps of a long journey towards excellence in writing. My perspective on life hasn’t had any radical shift after the publication of my book but the added dimension (after academia, profession, family & friends) this publication brings to my narrative makes me feel more creatively fulfilled and complete. I am at peace with myself having fulfilled a long cherished dream of sharing my ideas, research, and experiences on making English learning FUN with all.

What has been the response like? Is it anything like what you had in mind for your book?
As a book in the category of Non-fiction/Self-help and with a novel like storyline, I was expecting the book to be well received. I am sure that with more word-of-mouth publicity, the book will become a bigger success in the times to come.

There is always at least one person who hates your book - how do you deal with it?
There is only one person who doesn’t like my book and unfortunately he has not read it. The sub-title of the book “My ‘Fullproof’ English Learning Formula” has really pissed him off. He left this comment on uread.com and gave the book 1 star.

What’s your opinion of our current educational system? Where is it going wrong?
In India, 4% of children never go to school, 42% drop out before they finish primary school, and 90% drop out before entering college. In government schools, as per one study, 25% of the teachers are absent on any given day. On the days they are present, only 50% are likely to be teaching at any given time. This is distressing and a sad reflection of the state of affairs in the vast majority of schools in our country. Private schools, by and large, provide better quality education, but they are beyond the reach of the masses.
In my view, government needs to get out of school education, handover the existing infrastructure to responsible corporate houses, change laws that allow them to make a small profit, and subsidise their costs so that they become efficient and well-run institutions. The subsidy can be given directly to schools to allow them to provide varying levels of tuition waivers to the children of lower income families. Government can create a robust regulatory and supervisory framework (on the lines of TRAI, IRDA, SEBI, RBI, etc.) for the education sector.
I am sure these measures will also help in improving the teaching methods and in elevating the standard and motivation levels of our teachers.

What kind of books do you personally read?
I stick mostly to non-fiction, and there are far too many favourite books and authors to mention. But if you ask me to pick a few - I have loved the simple and relatable humour in books by Sam Levenson, the life skills taught by Dale Carnegie, and the seminal work on English etymology by Norman Lewis and Wilfred Funk.
In the recent past, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed books on Mind, Passion, and Happiness by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Dr. Carol S. Dweck, David Rock, and Ken Robinson. I am currently reading “The Secret Life of Words” by Henry Hitchings, “Entry From Backside Only” by Binoo K. John, and re-reading “Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight” by Rujuta Diwekar. I believe in reading fewer books but revising profound and/or interesting passages from books that I meticulously underline and highlight in the first reading. I am often shocked at the relatively small size of my hippocampus, the seat of memory in the brain, and hence keen that I internalise the lessons though a rigorous revision.

Besides your job and writing, what else interests you?
Till recently, I used to work as a Managing Director and Head of Sales for Treasury and Trade Solutions division of a major multinational bank in India. I have now decided to take a plunge in the field of education, training, consulting, and executive coaching and will shortly start working with an organization that works for the underprivileged children at the school level.
In my personal life, I now live by the principle of learning one new skill every year (pity, I understood and adopted this only a few years ago) and have dabbled in adventure sports (like skiing, paragliding, bungee jumping) and getting off the beaten track while travelling. I plan to hone my moderate skills in singing, gardening, and cooking next. I also like to delve into human psychology and waiting for the day when someone will actually pay me for my wise counsel.

Tell us about that one person who has the biggest influence on your life.
It is hard to pin-point one person and I have had a fairly well rounded support from family, teachers, and friends in the process of growing up. I am not sure if I really miss that one person who could act as my beacon.  

So, what’s brewing?
I guess when you write a book, you give it your all. My stock of ideas is now empty but it doesn’t mean that I will not write another book. Book sales and readers’ feedback and appreciation are extremely strong motivators in rapidly refilling one’s reservoir and giving new ideas and different perspectives to make more meaningful and interesting books. However, I would like to stick to writing in a similar genre (laugh as you learn). Feel strongly about and need to put in my bit to make sure that that language does not become a handicap for anyone to realize their ambitions and dreams!

Is there anything that you would like to say to the people who are yet to pick up your book?
The book is a crazy mix of facts, fiction, and real-life. It is full of amusing incidents, anecdotes, jokes, and a lot of interesting trivia. If any one of you believes that English language is a handicap (big or small) in your career advancement, your social acceptability, and affects your self confidence, you can take a look at English Bites! If you are a language nut, you can take a bite too. There is something in there for you too to chew, relish, and cherish.
The book is the story of my life. It begins when I am in high school and much of the damage to my understanding and grip over the English language has already been done. It ends when, even after spending 20 years as a devoted student of the English language, and having achieved my goals of getting into engineering, securing one of the best jobs engineering has to offer, getting into a top-tier MBA program, a medico wife, kids attending convent school, and a reasonably senior position in a multinational bank, I am stumped by new discoveries every other day. So much so that I find some unfamiliar English words in the nursery rhymes of my kids. My extended student life as far as English language is concerned continues and it’s an exciting journey. Come, join the fun.

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  1. Dear Debdatta,

    Thanks very much for a wonderful interview and an incisive review. I am not able to make up my mind whether you are a better reviewer or a better interviewer.....but you XL in both. I am glad that you enjoyed the book and gained something out of it. I am also relieved that the book lived up to your expectation.

    I am counting on your support to spread the good word about the book esp. when people ask you for recommendation on books to improve their language. And I am sure, given your background and the accomplishments in this field, there are just so many of them who keep seeking your guidance.

    Many thanks & best regards, Manish
    Twitter: @English_Bites
    Facebook Account: www.facebook.com/manishdeepaligupta
    Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/EnglishBitesBook

  2. Thanks for sharing information it is very useful for study

    Model Answer - IELTS