How to Learn English

I’ve written a lot about my approach to learning languages. Currently I can speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Portuguese, Korean and some Macedonian. And of course, I can speak English, which is my native tongue.

Although I’ve often written from the perspective of an English-speaking person learning another language, today I’d like to flip it. Suppose you’re reading my blog from another country and you’d really like to learn English. How should you do it?

Many of the strategies I’ll suggest here are the same for any language, but I’m also going to focus on a few of the problems (and advantages) learners of English have.

Table of Contents:

  1. Step One: Assess Your Level
    1. Beginners
    2. Intermediate, with Weaknesses
    3. Advanced, but Want to Get Even Better
  2. Step Two: Find the Right Learning Activity
    1. Best Learning Methods for Beginners
    2. Best Learning Methods for Intermediates
    3. Best Learning Methods for Advanced Students
  3. Step Three: Find the Right Motivation to Learn English
    1. Find content you like to read and write
    2. Make real friends in English
    3. Start (or join) and “English Corner”
    4. Set goals and watch your progress
  4. Best Resources

The Best Way to Learn English

The best way to learn English is through immersion. This is easiest when you can travel to the country and institute an only-English policy from the first day you land.

Of course, most of the people asking for my advice on this matter don’t have such a great option. They may not be able to travel to an English speaking country. Alternatively, they may not be able to afford pricey English tutors and classes.
How can you learn English then?

A Good Strategy for Learning English (When Travel and Tutors Aren’t an Option)

Instead, I’d like to focus on an easier strategy for learning English. This one should work:

  • Even if you have a very limited budget to learn English.
  • You cannot travel to another country to learn via immersion.
  • You have no access to native speakers.

Step One: Assess Your English Level

Assess Your Level

Roughly, I’m going to divide the advice of this section into three categories:

Category One: Beginners

If you’re a beginner, you’re probably reading this article through Google Translate, or you’re reading a version someone else translated. If you’re understanding everything I’ve written so far, then at least for your reading comprehension, you’re not in this category.

That said, it’s possible to be a beginner as a speaker, even if your reading and writing are good. Many people I’ve met in China, for instance, have excellent written English, but they’re afraid to speak because they don’t practice enough.

Which brings us to the second category.

Category Two: Intermediate Level (With Specific Weaknesses)

At this level, you may be reading this article in English, without too much difficulty. You may even have high levels of English competency in some areas, but you are weak in others.

This happens quite frequently as a result of a normal classroom-style language learning experience. There, you may have to study quite a bit to pass written or reading comprehension exams, but you don’t have many genuine opportunities to speak or listen.

It’s rarer, but still possible, to have an opposite problem—where you can speak fairly well, but have low reading comprehension or writing skills. I see this a lot more often with Chinese learners as there are many who learn to speak but never learn the characters. However, it does happen occasionally for English learners.

Category Three: Decent English, But Need Even Better

The third category are intermediate-to-advanced English students. Your English level is good. You can read, write, listen and speak. But you aren’t where you need to be to conduct business, study abroad or score high marks on difficult language tests.

In this category, your studying task is harder because you’ve already learned so much. Now, to get better, you need to learn tens of thousands of words, and rack up thousands of hours of practice to make a real improvement. It will be hard, but it is still doable.

Step Two: Find the Right Learning Activity

Choose Your Learning Activity

To find the right activity to improve your English, you need to follow basic learning principles. We want to find a task that, when repeated, will allow your English skills to reliably improve.

Let’s look at how this should appear for each category of learner:

Category One: Beginners

Absolute beginners should start by memorizing basic phrase patterns in the language. My go-to recommendation for this is Pimsleur, but if you cannot afford this, then you can simply get some sentences and their translations from a free phrase book and input them into a spaced repetition system like Anki.

Once this is done, you can start down one of three tasks, depending on your background:

  1. Speaking practice. Get a friend, tutor or language partner, and agree to speak with them in English for 10-15 minutes at a time. This will help build conversational proficiency, and get you used to thinking in English.
  2. Vocabulary addition. Memorize more vocabulary by doing more flashcards to learn more words. This can be helpful if you’re starting off without much background in English.
  3. Grammar and textbook practice. Doing sentence-building drills can be helpful to master the grammar and form normal sentences.

I would prefer speaking practice to the other two drills, if you can only pick one. However, if you have more time to devote, you might want to do all three.

Category Two: Intermediate

If you have a noticeable weakness in either speaking, reading, writing or listening, now is your time to focus exclusively on a practice which will build up the weaker skill.

For poor speakers, I recommend finding a language partner and engaging in speaking practice. This doesn’t need to be a native speaker. Only someone who also wants to get better English. The goal is volume here, not perfection. Even if you occasionally miss mistakes because you’re not talking with native speakers, the extra practice on the things you do get right will be worth it.

For poor listeners, I recommend watching more English television, radio, podcasts and movies. The goal should be comprehensible input. Which means if you don’t understand anything, you may want to watch once with subtitles, and then another time without. Watching shows you previously watched with subtitles also helps because you won’t lose the plot if you get confused.

For poor readers, I recommend reading more in English. If your reading level is poor, look for graded readers. Alternatively, you may want to find an app that can help you click on words you don’t understand to offer their translation. I used this to learn to read in Chinese and found it very helpful.

For poor writers, you need to write. Start a blog, or write small essays on iTalki.com and ask for corrections/feedback. The more you write, the better you’ll get.

Category Three: Advanced

Since you’re already decent at English, the goal here should be trying to find ways to increase the volume of English practice in your life. Volume is going to be your road to success, more than specialized tricks or tactics.

Ask yourself how you can reorganize your life to introduce more English, in realistic ways.

Some possible steps:

  1. Set a goal to only read websites in English
  2. Only watch videos in English
  3. Listen to English music
  4. Participate in English-only forums
  5. If you play games, try using a headset and talking in English to people you play with online

You may even want to go further. Find a friend who is also at your level, with the same goal, and make a pact to only speak in English with each other. The more people you can make this pact with, and stick to it, the more practice you’ll get.

Eventually, you might want to make English-speaking friends online through your immersion efforts. This can give you access to more native speakers and corrections/updates to your language skills.

This is hard. It involves considerable upheaval of your life to make English immersion doable even in a country where it isn’t the principle language. It’s okay if you can only do some of these ideas, but the more volume of English practice you can create, the faster your progress will be.

Step Three: Find The Right Motivation to Learn English

Find Motivation to Learn English

The last step was about how to learn English. This step is about finding the reason to learn English.

Many people who ask me for advice on learning English are struggling because they don’t really want to do it. They know that learning English will benefit their careers, or make it possible to study and work abroad, but they don’t really want to spend hours studying the language.

Unfortunately, if you don’t want to study, you won’t study. No advice I can give you will let you put in the hundreds or thousands of hours necessary to reach complete fluency in English. Only if you truly enjoy studying, can you do it.

The final step, therefore, is to engineer your life so using English is fun. Here’s some ways to do that:

1. Find content you like to read and watch in English.

Spend a lot of time to try to find television shows, blogs, podcasts and movies you’ll want to watch in English. You don’t want studying to be a chore, you want it to be enjoyable (if challenging) so don’t settle for boring learning materials.

2. Make real friends in English.

The internet enables you to communicate with people around the world. Making English-speaking friends isn’t always easy, but remember—they don’t need to be native English speakers for you to benefit. People around the world are trying to learn English, so if you are from Russia, and your friend is from Germany, you can still practice together.

One place you can do this is iTalki.com, which allows for language exchanges and practice partners.

3. Start an “English Corner”

Have a group of friend who all want to learn English? Pick a date and a location and meet up there every week to have conversations only in English. You can try to find ones like this on meetup.com if you can’t start your own.

I go to one for learning Chinese here in Canada each week, and it’s allowed me to practice my speaking skills even though I’m no longer in an immersive environment.

4. Set goals and watch your progress.

My final suggestion is to set a goal. This could be a score on an exam like IELTS or TOEFL, or it could be a goal of holding a conversation without needing a dictionary, or making friends using only English.

Setting goals help you focus your learning efforts onto something concrete. It’s good to have two kinds of goals: long-term goals you one-day want to achieve, and short-term goals you think you could reach in a few months of practice. Shorter goals will help you stay motivated, while long-term ones will remind you why you’re working so hard.

Best Resources for Learning English

Here is a short list of some tools I recommend for learning English. Note, I have excluded resources that I haven’t found helpful for learning other languages, but your experience may vary. Feel something is missing here? Send me an email and let me know and I can try to keep this up-to-date!

  1. Vocabulary acquisition
    1. Anki – Open source flashcard apps. You can find pre-made decks or make your own to study.
    2. Memrise – A popular flashcard app. Less flexibility than Anki, but the pre-made decks are high-quality.
    3. DuoLingo – Very popular. I don’t like it as much, for reasons I explain here, but you may find it helpful for reading skills.
  2. Tutoring and language partners
    1. iTalki.com – Great for finding partners, online tutors or for getting feedback
    2. LiveMocha – Find language exchange partners.
    3. Meetup.com – Are there English “corners” in your area? Find out
  3. Books
    1. Graded readers – Plenty of these available if you don’t feel comfortable reading native English text
    2. Textbooks – Good for explanations of language features
    3. Test-specific prep guides – If your main goal is a high IELTS or TOEFL score, best to use one of these
  4. Other
    1. Pimsleur – Useful for learning in beginning stages. I don’t recommend more than Level One.
    2. LingQ – Read and listen to improve your English
    3. Google Translate – Not always correct, but it can be helpful for working on native-level media.
    4. BBC Learning English – Articles and advice

Don’t Get Discouraged!

Everyone can learn English, including you. It may seem frustrating or scary to imagine how many hours you need to become fluent, but if you make small changes to your habits, those can add up to big investments over time.

Above all—don’t give up! No matter where you are today, you can learn it if you put in enough practice, over enough time. The only mistake you can make is to stop trying.

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