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Why you need to take charge of your English learning

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Before you can start speaking and writing in English, you have to learn how things are said in English. You do this by getting input — reading and listening to the correct English sentences of other people (ideally, native speakers).

Most English learners get their input from English classes. In this article, I will argue that English classes simply do not give you enough input to speak English fluently, and that you need to get English input outside of the classroom if you want to be fluent. I will also give two other reasons to take things into your own hands and get English input on your own.

Amount of input

  1. 1. What do I mean by fluency? I mean being able to write and speak almost as easily — and almost as correctly — as in your native language. To be fluent, you don’t need to speak with a native-like accent and you don’t need to always choose the most natural way to say something.
  2. 2. By pages, I mean typical pages in a paperback book.
  3. 3. By hours of audio, I mean hours of non-stop talking, as in a radio interview.

To speak English fluently1, you need a lot of input. I needed about 1,000,000 sentences over 3 years — on average, 6400 sentences per week — to get from basic reading skills and very poor speaking/writing skills to fluency. That’s the equivalent of 60 pages2 and 6 hours of audio3 per week.

If you want to become fluent, the question you need to ask yourself is: can English classes give me 60 pages and 6 hours of input per week? A typical English course consists of 2 lessons a week, 1.5 hours each. But let’s assume you have the time and money to attend an intensive course — 4 times a week, 1.5 hours each.

In such a course, you spend 6 hours per week in class. How much input are you getting? Let’s see:

  1. Teachers provide little input. Most of them try to keep quiet and let the students talk. (This is supposed to help students speak sooner, but has the opposite effect.) When they speak, they speak quite slowly, with frequent pauses. 10 minutes of listening to a teacher gives you perhaps 5 minutes of “non-stop” input. In addition, some teachers like to switch to their native language instead of speaking English.
  2. Other students also provide little input because they talk even more slowly than the teacher and they often make mistakes.
  3. A lot of time is wasted on exercises that give you almost no input, for example: “divide these adjectives into two groups”, “rearrange the words to make a sentence” or “answer these questions about the text above”. There are also breaks, during which nothing happens.
  4. If a text is read in class, it is typically very short (< 3 pages). If a recording is played, it is short as well (< 10 minutes).

If you consider all of the above, it becomes obvious that no more than 1/3 of the total lesson time is spent listening to correct English sentences. This includes recordings played by the teacher and correct sentences spoken by the teacher and other students. What about reading? The average amount of text that you read in an English class is probably no more than 3 pages per 45-minute lesson (including texts in the textbook and teacher handouts).

If you do the math, an intensive English course gives you no more than 2 hours of spoken input and 24 pages of written input per week. That’s about 2,000 sentences per week. This means that it would take 9 years (with no breaks!) of intensive English courses to get 1,000,000 sentences. (With normal, twice-a-week courses it would take 18 years.)

Rate of input

Some of you may be thinking: “Great! So I will just take intensive courses for 9 years and become fluent in English!” Not so fast. You see, the total amount of input is not everything. You also need the right rate of input. A 100-meter walk is not the same as a 100-meter dash.

Why can’t you get your input slowly? Because of forgetting. Here’s how it works:

  1. When you learn a new word, it stays in your memory for some time (usually 1-30 days) and then you forget it. For example, let’s say the word is genuine and it will stay in your memory for 14 days.
  2. How can you remember the word for more than 14 days? You need to review it. If you see another sentence with the word genuine in the next 14 days, your memory of the word will become stronger and you will remember it for a much longer time.
  3. What is the chance that you will see another sentence with the word genuine in the next 14 days? It depends on how many English sentences you will see in that period. If you get 4,000 sentences (intensive English course), the chance of coming across genuine is about 3 times smaller than if you get 12,000 sentences.
  4. Therefore, with less input, you are making it much more likely that the new word will be gone after 1-30 days.

So if you’re getting your input slowly, you are hurting your progress in two completely separate ways:

  1. You’re learning new things more slowly.
  2. You’re accelerating forgetting. You’re losing “old things” more quickly because you’re not reviewing them often enough.

That is why a learner who gets 1,000,000 sentences over 9 years will achieve much less than a learner who gets 1,000,000 sentences over 3 years. The first learner will keep forgetting a large part of his knowledge because of insufficient reviews. The second learner will be getting more frequent reviews, so he will be losing less knowledge.

The bottom line is that English courses — even intensive ones — simply give you input too slowly to achieve fluency in a reasonable time (if at all). If you want to speak fluent English, you have to take things into your own hands and immerse yourself in input — podcasts and audiobooks, videos and movies, websites and books.

Fun

As I’ve explained above, I believe that getting input outside of the classroom is the only road to fluency. But there are reasons to get input on your own even if fluency is not your goal.

One such reason is fun. When you choose your own sources of input, you can choose things that you really care about. Instead of reading some random article in your English textbook, you can read a Harry Potter book, an e-mail message from a friend, an Internet forum with relationship advice, or perhaps news about your favorite football club. Instead of listening to a boring recording in class, you can watch your favorite TV series or a video podcast about computer technology.

Now, of course, fun is good in itself; but it also has beneficial effects:

  • If your input is fun, you get it much more willingly and spend more time on it. In fact, once you get a taste of all the amazing content you can get in English, it may be difficult to tear yourself away!
  • Fun leads to stronger memories. When you see or hear something that matters to you, you can remember much more. For example, if you’re reading some article that your teacher gave you, you usually want to read it quickly and be done with it. But suppose you’re reading the lyrics of a new song by your favorite band. You are much more likely to repeat them to yourself and keep them in your memory — together with all the grammar and vocabulary!

Authenticity

The final — and the least important — reason to take charge of your English learning is authenticity. I believe it is important to learn from real American and British content instead of resources prepared especially for English learners. If you hear something in a podcast or read it on a blog, you know it is really used in the English-speaking world.

By contrast, textbooks used in English classes often try to teach “proper” English, stripped of any informal expressions, such as crap, sucks or stuff. Their authors probably disapprove of such phrases and believe that learners don’t need them. But most learners would choose relaxed, natural language — the language of regular educated Americans and Britons — over the artificial language of English textbooks.

A related problem is that English teaching is dominated by British English (at least here in Europe), while the real world is dominated by American English. Although in recent years British textbooks (and teachers) have started teaching American vocabulary, they still treat American English as a second-class citizen. If you want to get an accurate picture of the language used in the English-speaking world, you will need to go beyond English classes and start getting real-life input on your own.