As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I face the question “How can I improve my English” on a daily basis, so I have decided to put down some of the advice I give my students plus some extra help derived from my interest in personal development.
The good news is that if you are reading this, you have already taken the first step – recognising a need for improvement and doing something about it. That suggests motivation to dedicate time and effort to that goal, which is clearly the most important factor in improving anything, but which, frankly, I find most lacking among many students. But you need to be more specific than that, creating a plan and being disciplined in implementing it. So this is my…
How can I improve my English? First Golden Rule: Self-Discipline
There is only a certain amount that a teacher or trainer can do. As the ancient English proverb says, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. At the end of the day, the time a student spends alone studying and using the language has a direct impact on results and your ability to improve English. So, make a plan and stick to it. As my students (especially of business English) hear me say a lot “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” (an old military saying that can apply to virtually any activity).
“Make a plan and stick to it”
In order for the plan to succeed, it needs to be realistic. Just as with your New Year’s Resolutions to go to the gym or spend more time with your kids or friends (or, these days, less time on Facebook!), there is absolutely no point in setting objectives which look and feel good but which are too ambitious to maintain in your daily life. Your plan to improve English must be equally realistic and start small – you can always build up over time.
Write down everything. Start off by working out how much free time you have after taking into account work, housework and a certain amount of leisure time – I think the latter is important as you can end up resenting time spent studying and so stop, whereas if you know you have a minimum amount dedicated to enjoying yourself, this natural feeling is reduced. Then decide on how much time you will spend on improving your English. This could be a weekly amount and/or a daily amount. As a general rule, little and often is always better than a lot in one go. My students are also sick of hearing me say “15 minutes every day!” as a rough guide to a regular but manageable amount of time; frankly even five minutes every day is better than nothing – by checking the BBC or CNN website for the headlines and maybe reading one, even short, article, every day, you’ll be surprised how quickly you will improve. The important thing is to have some contact with English every day, if possible. Think about it: if you are asking yourself “How can I improve my English?”, you should also ask yourself “How much time am I prepared to spend improving my English?”
“Reinforce the language learnt in class at home”
During class, you receive a lot of input, and while this is practised in class, without reinforcement at home, there is a real danger of it remaining as input – that is, you will never really use the language learnt (output). Clearly it is not always possible to practice language on your own, but here are a few tips I give my students:
- Google search for new words and expressions learnt in class. The idea here is to find a number of different examples of the language in use in a native context. This has a number of benefits: for a start, it forces you to spend time thinking about the word or phrase and it’s meaning, thus increasing the chances you will remember it; also, especially at an advanced level, new language is often only presented in one context, whereas to use it effectively, you need to know when it is or isn’t appropriate to use it. Now, of course, with the Internet being full of non-native English (of which there are approximately three times as many speakers as natives!) there will inevitably be inaccuracies, so where possible, try to use sites of well-known native companies (the difference between native and non-native language and communication will be the subject of a future article). Finally, make sure you use “quotation marks” in the case of phrases and expressions to turn up only exact matches for the language you are looking for.
- Write sentences using the new language. Instead of waiting until the next lesson to practise output, have a go at writing 2-3 sentences yourself, then show them to your teacher for feedback. Most teachers worth their salt will be happy that you have gone to the effort of thinking about and practising the language and indeed I often set this as formal homework, especially with areas like the dreaded phrasal verbs.
- Participate in online discussion forums. There are forums for every subject imaginable online, so it’s probable you can ask a question or even answer one using the new language. If you can’t find an exact match, create your own topic. For my local students in Lleida, you can head over to the English in Lleida discussion forums and get posting now!
How can I improve my English? Second Golden Rule: Passion
It may sound odd to talk about passion in the context of learning a language but you have to admit it sounds a lot stronger and by definition more emotive than “interest”, which is one of the most used (and over-used) words in the English language, and “interesting” is probably used sarcastically almost as often as in its true sense. Clearly if you are learning English, at least as an adult, you must have some motivation and interest, if only because your boss is paying for courses and your salary and prospects depend on your English communication skills! Try to harness the positive aspects of that motivation and use them to fuel a growing passion for self-improvement and results. Here are some ideas:
- Your life goals: Where do want to be? How successful do you want to be? Focus on these questions and write down the answers. If you are learning English as a foreign language, you already have a competitive edge over those that don’t. If learning in a company, the chances are you are also in a forward-thinking professional environment which will help you achieve your goals, especially if you continually improve English skills.
- Eliminate negative thoughts. This is key to fostering a passionate approach to learning yet it is a common problem amongst language learners, especially those who start later in life who often feel frustrated if they can’t grasp a concept or remember vocabulary quickly and unfavourably and unfairly compare themselves to their children, whose neural network is still being constructed and are inevitably better at absorbing knowledge than us. Whenever you feel yourself thinking negatively, STOP! Remove negative language from your native lexicon and change “I can’t” for “I can” and “I will”. You may not believe it at first, but a positive attitude in learning as in health, has been proven to improve effectiveness and results.
- Celebrate success. No matter how small. To help eliminate negative thoughts, make sure you spend a few moments congratulating yourself on your achievements, no matter how small. Maybe you have remembered a key piece of vocabulary in class and your teacher or other students have noticed and been impressed, or perhaps you have improved your grade in a writing task. As you think about it, pay attention to your emotions, and remember how good it feels. Whenever you feel frustrated, think back to those moments of success and remind yourself you CAN do it! Borrowing from self-development theory and speaking from experience, it helps, when thinking bout successes, to create a visual image around them, perhaps associating them with your favourite place or simply your favourite colours. By creating a visual memory you will reinforce the positive feelings, and the stronger you make the colours, the stronger the emotional impact will be. Finally, press a finger and thumb together and press tightly; this will create a physical impression of the memory too, which you can use to induce the emotional positivity surrounding your success. Again, the more you practice this, the easier it will become.
“Harness interest and motivation and turn it into passion”
By focussing on your goals and successes and fostering a positive attitude, you can generate a passion for continuous improvement in English and indeed generally. My formula, therefore, to answer the question “How can I improve my English?”, as with anything is:
Self-Discipline + Passion = Results