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In this new “Author’s Corner” series, distinguished authors share expert Manhattan-minded advice and insights for NYC travelers and locals alike. This month, I chatted with NYC native Lisa Lieberman Doctor, internationally known writing coach and author ofAccidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing, who gave thoughtful feedback on some of the best ways to learn English in Manhattan, whether just traveling through the city on a short vacation, or relocating here long term from abroad. Here’s what she had to say:

For visitors looking to improve their English in NYC, but who are short on time, what would be your best advice?

Conversing with native speakers is always an effective way for visitors to a new city to improve their language skills. The problem is that many new speakers of English are reluctant to converse because of a faulty belief that they might “get it wrong.”

These visitors would benefit from knowing that Americans—and especially New Yorkers—are more interested in honest communication than they are in grammatical correctness. We tend to look beyond the words; we talk with our hands and our faces and our entire bodies. It’s of no concern to us if a visitor says, “Yesterday I go at the museum and I love how I see.” Incorrect word usage and verb conjugation doesn’t preclude us from understanding what the visitor is trying to say. We’re more interested in the experience the person had at the museum than the correctness with which they express it.

My suggestion for new English speakers is to go into a department store or a supermarket and speak to the salespeople with confidence. New Yorkers are very accustomed to having visitors from all over the world visit and relocate to their city. They hear a multitude of foreign accents every day.

New York has been a melting pot for centuries, so my advice is to speak with as many people in English as possible, and not worry about verb tense or grammar. Having a meaningful conversation with another human being will give visitors the boost of confidence they need when they realize they’re being understood, and that “getting it right” is not the issue.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that new speakers eschew conventional methods of learning English. The method I propose—writing and speaking from the heart—augments traditional learning. It doesn’t replace it.

What would you recommend to newcomer residents to NYC who are also new speakers of English—how can they improve their English while living here long term?

Language is a living entity that requires constant practice, so I wholeheartedly recommend that new English speakers find ways to speak openly and candidly with others as often as possible. There are book groups, knitting groups, adult education classes in a variety of subjects from film, theater, literature, and music to personal and professional development; New York teems with group settings where conversation is required. This is an excellent way to go from the ESL textbook to conversing in the real world.

I strongly believe that the natural instinct of most people is to help others. When new speakers show their interest in improving their language skills, they’ll be guided along the way by native speakers who are eager to help. As a native New Yorker, born and raised in Queens, I’m proud to say that we are particularly tolerant of our multicultural history.

It behooves everyone, native speakers and newcomers alike, to communicate with each other with ease and self-assurance. Isn’t that the purpose of language, to express oneself and be understood? There’s no better way for humans to relate to each other than to connect empathically through open communication.

What do you say to those afraid of being misunderstood while communicating with busy native New Yorkers? 

To those new speakers I say this: Please don’t be afraid!

Try this: Imagine yourself back home in your own country, where you speak your native language with confidence. You’re sitting on a bus and the woman beside you says, in your native language, “Excuse me, yesterday I come to this city. What it is like, all the days here?” Her grammar and usage are incorrect, but you surely understand what she’s trying to say. Would you laugh at her? Would you turn away and think she’s stupid?

Of course not. You would recognize that she’s new to your language, is eager to converse with you about the nature of daily life in your city, and she’s bold enough to begin a conversation. You’d probably speak slowly, use hand gestures, and find words that she’d understand. You’d be curious to know where she’s from and what her impressions are of your city. Those who speak a new language incorrectly are not stupid, and their use of language is not “broken.”

I call my new book Accidental Poetry because the words of new speakers take on their own lovely poetic quality. If you begin a conversation with a busy New Yorker by saying, “Excuse me, I am new to English,” I am certain you’ll be responded to in a friendly manner. Of course, in any culture, including New York, there are those who are too preoccupied or not interested in conversing. Do not be daunted by this. It’s the rare individual who will not respond in a helpful and polite manner.

New Yorkers are often mischaracterized as being unfriendly, but it’s quite the opposite. We love talking, and we love learning. Almost all of our ancestors arrived here from other parts of the world, so if you’re new to the city and to the English language, get out there and communicate with your fellow New Yorkers!

What exercises in your book would work well for English-language students looking to use their NYC travels and experiences as subject matter?

All of them! The exercises in Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing are designed to allow new speakers of English to write from the heart without worrying about grammatical correctness.

For those looking to use their New York City experiences as subject matter, I’d recommend the first chapter, “Awakening the Six Senses.” New York is filled with a dizzying array of sounds, tastes, and scents, from the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked pizza and knishes, to the acrid stench of a back-alley dumpster; from the lovely song of a blue jay nesting in a Central Park elm tree, to the blaring taxi horns on Seventh Avenue.

The exercises are not only designed for the present moment—for example, “What was the first taste you experienced this morning?”—but, they also conjure past experiences—like “What memories are brought about by the sound of the rain?” Subsequent chapters focus on the lighter and darker emotional colors: relationships with the nuclear family, romantic relationships, and epiphanies as we grow and evolve. An example is, “When have you grasped for hope, only to have it elude you?”

Each exercise allows the new speaker to write their stories and see firsthand how easy it is to communicate in a new language. They can then transition from writing from the heart to speaking with the same natural ease and candor.

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Keep up with author Lisa Lieberman Doctor via her website at, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Her new book, Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing, goes on sale March 26, 2015.

Posted in Lisa's Blog Posts, Lisa's Press.

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