English By Radio
There is no need to speak once again about the advantage of the knowledge of English. Even in the Soviet times you would get a 10% rise in salary if you knew English. And nowadays you cannot actually do much without English. It is especially important for seamen. I remember hearing a commercial: a crewing company needs people to sail under a foreign flag, English is a must. Anyway, English has been considered the maritime language since olden times, it is England that became the greatest sea power setting the fashion back in the 16th century, the Mistress of the seas according to contemporaries.
However, it is not an easy task to master a language. You must study a lot, attend classes — which is a problem for seamen. And the point is practice. The author of this article shares his experience in learning the language using the radio.
Until I discovered the radio for myself, I had been studying English with varying success. I did not manage to finish a language school due to financial problems, and unfortunately I had no practice. As a result I could hardly speak, and listening comprehension was incomprehensible, sorry for the pun. It would go on that way quite long until one fine day I found an old (made in 1982) radio VEF 202 that used to be my grandfather’s, and started monkeying around out of curiosity. I came across a whole lot of stuff in the air. It turned out that the BBC and VOA still lived and were fine, seeing that no one was jamming them any more, and broadcasted in Russian as well as in native English at that. But when I had heard an English lesson, I realized that it was something like a windfall. It was actually the first time that I had heard a clear, correct and slow English speech from a real American’s mouth. And who else would then explain to me in detail in Russian what he had said and then repeat the unscrambled passage?
I need hardly mention that I started to actively listen to those lessons. Simultaneously I listened to the BBC World Service broadcasting in English. To my great embarrassment I must confess that at first I did not understand a jot… Being able to tell English from German was actually a success. This fact, though, did not discourage me at whatever. I had an aim. Day in and day out, or even night in and out I would persistently listen. And it did bear fruit. A few days later I was already able to tell some simple words like yes and no. After a few weeks I would understand entire phrases, then sentences… and after a few months I suddenly realized that I could understand virtually everything! And it was not only my ability to understand, but also conversational skills that improved. Before I could hardly string together a few words when meeting a foreigner. Now I could speak without difficulty, though with mistakes and accent — but the point was that I could understand and people could understand me. I even had an interview with an American and we spoke only in English, without resorting to Russian once.
…So, the radio can not only entertain but also teach. It is especially useful for those who are not able to study with a teacher. I would like to list a few more arguments for those skeptical.
English by radio can be
All you need is a shortwave radio, that is a radio capable of receiving short radio waves.
What is short wave? Many people do not even have an idea of its existence and properties (but its properties are great). For the majority, the familiarity with the radio is limited to ultrashort wave (or very high frequency — VHF), usually referred to as FM (Frequency Modulation), and, at best, middle wave (MW), often marked as ÀÌ (Amplitude Modulation) on the radios built in walkmen and taperecorders. But while these bands are chiefly populated by local stations within a town, short wave enables listening literally to the entire world… and from anywhere. You can listen to the BBC from London, Deutsche Welle from Colon, etc., and in Russian, English and many other languages at that. Information at first hand — and no advertising.
Many radiostations broadcast language lessons. In particular, BBC and VOA radio lessons are broadcast with explanations both in Russian and entirely in English. For beginners they specially repeat the dialog, after it has been taken to pieces, explained and studied through, in order to solidify the stuff. At the beginning of a lesson the actual words and expression are given, carefully read aloud for you by a real Englishman or American. Lessons repeat, so if you still did not get something, you can listen to a repetition. A lesson never lasts longer than twenty minutes, so it is not tiresome.
Let us get back, however, to short wave, or shortly SW. The length varies between 100 and 10 meters, which corresponds to the frequencies of 3 to 30 MHz (megahertz; 1 MHz =1000 kHz). The following radio bands are quite common:
- free (except for your electricity bill)
- on your own (you do not need a teacher)
- at any level (from elementary to advanced)
- in any amount (5 minutes a day to 10 hours a week)
- at any suitable time
- anywhere (at home, onboard)
A great property of short wave is its ability to travel very far (thousands kilometers) at a relatively low power of the transmitter, which is not achievable at VHF — it propagates only within the direct visibility, like light. At the same time frequency modulation that is responsible for quality sound, is not applicable to shortwave. SW uses amplitude modulation (AM) which is much more liable to interference. Another serious shortcoming of SW is fading, that is signal disappearance. To fight it, radiostations usually broadcast at a few frequencies simultaneously. Interference from adjacent stations can also significantly worsen the reception.
How to improve the reception of the whimsical shortwave? First of all, you should not limit yourself to a frequency. Propagation conditions sometimes change every few minutes, let alone hours and days. So if you have well tuned to a frequency and the others cannot be heard well, the situation can reverse in no time. Then, use your radio near a window. You can try making an antenna. (And indeed, if your television cannot do without an antenna with the transmitter located five to ten kilometers away at that, it is not natural to listen to London without an antenna). A piece of copper wire a few meters long will do, if you stretch it on the windowframe, better outside. However, an antenna is essential only for lower bands of 49 and 41 m. Sometimes it can even make the reception worse. As for middle wave, the reception can at times be improved if you touch the antenna with your hand. Actually, you should experiment with it.
What kind of radio will you need? First of all, it must receive the SW bands shown above, and fully at that, that is the entire frequency ranges. For example, if the technical data reads the following frequency ranges: 49 m 5.95-6.2, 41 m 7.1-7.3, 31 m 9.5-9.8, 25 m 11.7-11.9, 22 m 13.65-13.75, 19 m 15.1-15.5, 16 m 17.6-17.9 MHz, this receiver might not receive many of the frequencies that you need. The best is a digital tuning receiver, it provides the best comfort and, as a rule, receives all the necessary frequencies. The built-in receiver in a taperecorder will do as a last resort. Its main advantage is the possibility of recording lessons to a cassette, so as to listen to unclear passages later, memorize something or keep the recording for the future and occasionally refresh the same stuff in your memory (it is even better than listen to something new every time). There are several types of built-in taperecorder radios. All of them receive VHF (FM) and MW (AM) and besides many can receive one or two bands more. Usually it is either SW or LW (long wave). The latter is quite useless nowadays. So, when buying a tape recorder, pay attention to its radio. It must receive SW. If it receives LW, it surely does not receive SW and therefore will be useless for your language studies over the radio.
By the way, a sailor can easily but a good cheap radio abroad.
I, for one, use a Siemens RK 757 digital tuning radio made in Germany.
In conclusion I will list the English lessons schedule as it was in August, 1998. I guess that it does not require explanations, but I want to warn that it routinely changes. Actually, all radiostations make routine changes to their schedule. During a broadcasting season which lasts from April through October or from November through March, the changes are normally negligible, but when a season changes, which coincides with the shift between summer and winter time, the broadcasting scheme changes rather drastically. This time the time shift will happen on 25 October, so the schedule listed below will on the whole be valid until that time. For those wishing to start listening to the BBC World Service without delay, here are their main frequencies: 6.18, 6.195, 9.41 MHz at the dark, 12.095 nearly round-the-clock, 15.565, 15.575 è 17.64 MHz during daylight.
So, put on your headphones, tune in to the BBC and head for the victory!
- 49 m 5.8— 6.2 MHz
- 41 m 7.1— 7.6 MHz
- 31 m 9.4—10.0 MHz
- 25 m 11.6—12.1 MHz
- 22 m 13.6—13.9 MHz
- 19 m 15.1—15.7 MHz
- 16 m 17.5—17.9 MHz
First published in “Navigation” maritime journal (Odessa), December 1998 issue.