I get a lot of messages from English learners. One of the most popular questions is, “How can I improve my English?” After 8 years of teaching English, I still don’t have a complete answer for that question, because the answer depends on the person asking the question and his/her current level of English.
One thing I have discovered is that most English learners need to change the way they learn English.
Many English learners think they need to memorize grammar rules and memorize lots of new words. They think that reading should be difficult because if it’s not difficult, they won’t learn anything.
That’s how many people learned English in school.
Is that how you learned English? Now, as a result, you know a lot of grammar rules and you know a lot of words, but you struggle to put a sentence together and you can’t understand natural spoken English.
You are not alone. This is very common.
You need to become an independent English learner. You need to learn how to learn English.
1. There is no magic secret to learning English. Stop waiting for one.
I get the feeling that many English learners want me to tell them a secret. They think that once they know this secret, it will be easy for them to learn English quickly.
There is no quick and easy way to learn English. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, because there are a lot of things to learn!
The easiest and quickest way to learn English is to learn English like you learned your native language. (Your native language is sometimes called your mother tongue.)
You didn’t learn your native language by memorizing grammar rules. You didn’t learn your native language by talking to other people who were also learning your native language. You learned your native language by listening to the people around you: your parents, your family, people on TV, people in movies. You may have learned some grammar rules in school, but you could already speak your native language by the time you started school. Over time, you improved with more listening and reading, and a lot of practice.
That’s what you need to do in English.
2. Stop memorizing and obsessing over grammar rules.
Native speakers don’t memorize grammar rules. In fact, in some English-speaking countries, we don’t even learn grammar rules in school! I had never heard of a gerund or the present perfect tense until I started teaching English.
Of course, you need to understand English grammar. You need to understand how English grammar is different from grammar in your language. The worst thing you can do is think in your language and then try to translate that into English. Your sentences end up sounding strange and unnatural in English.
For example, in Latin languages like Spanish and Italian you don’t need to say the subject of the sentence because it’s part of the way the verb is conjugated. I hear a lot of Spanish and Italian speakers say in English, “Is good.” What is good? “Is good” sounds fine in Spanish and Italian, but it sounds lazy in English, because an English sentence needs a subject. That’s important to know!
However, not everything in English can be explained by rules. Sometimes, when the question is “Why?” the answer is “Because that’s the way it is.” Asking “Why?” or obsessing over small details and exceptions to rules is not going to help you improve your English.
Native speakers don’t always follow grammar rules anyway.
I am not going to publish many grammar posts on this website anymore. I want students to focus on learning sentences instead of rules. I closed the comments on existing grammar posts on this website because so many English learners were worrying about small details and it was taking up a lot of my time answering questions that were not going to help anyone improve his/her English.
You will learn more English grammar by reading and listening, not by memorizing grammar rules.
3. Focus on core vocabulary and collocations.
You need to learn vocabulary, but memorizing long lists of words is not going to help you improve your English.
First, learn the right words. There are over a million words in English, but some words are more important to learn than others.
Ninety percent of everything that native speakers say and write comes from just 7000 words. That’s not a lot compared to the total number of words in English.
These 7000 words are the core vocabulary of English. These are the words you need to learn.
Next, you need to learn the words that go together, like “throw a party” or “pay cash (for something).” These are called collocations. Collocations are words that go together in a way that sounds natural and correct to a native English speakers.
The most important thing to know about collocations is that English collocations are very different from collocations in your language. That’s why you can’t just translate words from your language into English. We don’t say “make a party” or “make sports” in English. The collocations in English are “throw/have a party” or “play sports.”
Here are some collocations that I have used in this blog post:
(it) depends on
put (something) together
a lot of
as a result
follow a rule
4. Read. Everything. Anything.
This is the part that English learners often avoid because they can’t find something to read at their level, or they think reading has to be difficult.
When I was studying French, I thought reading had to be difficult if I was going to learn anything. I thought that I needed to learn as many new words as possible. This is not true! You should not be reading a book that has more than one or two new words per page.
Again: You should not be reading a book that has more than one or two new words per page.
Reading isn’t fun or interesting if you have to stop and look up new words in a dictionary every sentence. If there are more than one or two new words on a page, you won’t be able to remember those words or, worse, you will mix up the meanings of the words.
When you read for fun, you learn English without even realizing it. You get used to natural English sentence structure. You can understand new words without having to look them up in a dictionary.
This is where I will be focusing my efforts now. I will help you find interesting books at your level that you can read for fun.
5. Listen. To everything. Anything.
Listening to a native speaker for just 15 minutes a day can make a difference, even if you don’t understand everything the speaker is saying. (Fifteen minutes is the minimum amount of time you should be listening to English. More is better!)
Obviously it is more enjoyable if you can understand what the speaker is saying, but even if you can’t understand what the speaker is saying, you are still learning something about spoken English: You are getting used to the rhythm of natural spoken English.
You are also learning to match sounds with words. The pronunciation of an English word often does not match the spelling of that word. You can’t look at an English word and know how it is pronounced. In English, you need to hear the word to know how it is pronounced.
If you don’t know the correct pronunciation of a word, how will you know when you hear that word? You will think you are hearing a different word.
When you encounter a new word, look it up in a dictionary for English learners, like the Macmillan Online Dictionary or the Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary. Click on the speaker icon to hear someone say the word. Try to imitate what you hear. Both dictionaries also include the IPA transcription of words, so if you know the IPA, you will now how to pronounce the word.
The best way to learn is to listen to a native speaker while reading the words, and then try to imitate what you hear. The best way to learn is to listen to the English Teacher Melanie podcast, my series of listening lessons.
6. Speak. Write. Try not to make mistakes.
Listening and reading are inputs, information that you receive and take in. Speaking and writing are outputs, information that you produce from inputs. You cannot speak or write in English without listening or reading first. You need to listen to English and read English before you can speak or write in English.
In the blog post 4 Truths About Learning English, I said that native speakers don’t care if you make a mistake. This is true. It’s OK to make a mistake.
Try not to make mistakes all the time. Try your best to say or write something properly. If you are not sure of the spelling of a word, take the time to check a dictionary.
If you make the same mistake over and over, it becomes a habit. Habits are very hard to change or break. It becomes very difficult to improve your English if you first have to change what you know. Your brain gets used to speaking or writing English, even if you’re doing it wrong. It’s difficult to train your brain to do something differently.
I have taught many students who said they wanted to improve their English, but they didn’t want to change the way they already spoke English, even if they were wrong. It’s very hard to change the way you speak English, even if you’re wrong, if that’s the way you have spoken English for a long time.
In English-speaking cultures, it’s rude to correct someone’s mistakes. A native speaker who is not a teacher will not tell you or correct you when you make a mistake. This is important to understand.
In a perfect world, everyone learning English would have their own English tutor who could correct their mistakes. It is possible, however, to learn English without you’re own private teacher.
You need to read. You need to listen. You need to focus on core vocabulary and collocations. You need to be an independent learner.