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What is necessary to learn English well?

Changing your life

Learning English requires action. You may know all the learning tips, but if you don’t start doing things, you will achieve nothing. The fact is, if you want to learn to speak English well, you must change your life. Here are some examples of things you will have to do:

  • read a book in English for an hour every day, analyzing the grammar in sentences and looking up words in an English dictionary
  • listen to an audiobook or other recording in English, stopping it frequently, trying to understand what is being said, and trying to imitate the speaker’s pronunciation
  • spend 30 minutes in the afternoon practicing the pronunciation of the English “r” sound
  • carefully write an e-mail message in English, using a dictionary or a Web search every 20 seconds to make sure every word is correct, and taking 5 minutes to write one sentence
  • think about an English sentence you’ve read, wondering if it could say “a” instead of “the” in the sentence, and trying to find similar sentences on the Web to find out the answer
  • walk down the street and build simple English sentences in your head (talking to yourself in English about the things you see around you)

What kind of person would do all these crazy things? Only one kind. The kind of person who enjoys doing them. If you want to learn to speak English well, you’re going to have to become that person. Have you ever heard of anyone who became successful by doing something he hated?

The problem

The problem with learning and teaching English as a foreign language is that all English learners want to speak English well; however, most learners don’t want to spend time on learning English on their own. (Which is probably why they sign up for English classes and hope their teacher will force knowledge into their heads.)

This lack of motivation means that learners basically don’t spend their own time on learning English, and if they do, they don’t do it regularly. For example, a typical learner might study English phrasal verbs for 12 hours before an English exam. However, he will not read a book in English for 30 minutes every day. He just doesn’t feel that learning English is pleasant enough, so he will only do it if he has to. The problem is that a huge one-time effort gives you nothing, while small, everyday activities will give you a lot.

Negative attitudes

One of the reasons why people don’t want to spend their time on learning English is that they associate learning English with unpleasant things. When they think “learning English”, they think about boring English classes, boring exercises and boring homework. Even if they know they need English in their career, that might not be very motivating if the job itself is boring! In their minds, learning English is something they have to do, not something they want to do.

Typical learner vs. motivated learner

Paula is a typical learner of English with a generally low level of motivation. She has occasional moments of high motivation — like the day before her English test or that time when she couldn’t communicate with a foreign customer who called her at work. These kind of situations make her think “I’ve got to do something about my English!”. However, they happen very rarely — less than once a month. So even if she studies quite intensively (e.g. for two whole days before an exam), the results are poor, because she forgets 90% of the things she learned within a month. This is no surprise: The way human memory works, you need to review things all the time; otherwise you just forget them.

Now let’s look at a different English learner: Judy. Judy reads a special novel for English learners (written in simplified English) almost every day for 30 minutes. She bought an English-English dictionary and uses it to look up English words whenever she doesn’t understand a sentence in her book. It was hard to study regularly at the beginning: Reading books and using a dictionary were not “normal activities” for her. And every English sentence was a challenge.

But now, after only two weeks, she can read much faster. While reading, she often sees words that she has learned in the past two weeks. When she recognizes such a word, she doesn’t have to look it up in a dictionary and she knows she has made good progress. Judy feels she has learned a lot of English recently, and she is eager to learn more. Every day, she looks forward to reading her book. The book gives her the chance to use what she has learned (enjoy her progress) and to learn even more. Because she reads regularly, she forgets little and her vocabulary keeps growing.

Judy is on the right track. She will soon be able to read English-language newspapers and other resources written for native speakers.

What to do?

If you are like Paula and don’t feel like reading in English in your free time, focusing your attention on English sentences, or practicing the pronunciation of the “r” sound, you will have to do something about it. There are many techniques to help you with motivation, but the best one is probably to do something fun.

If you can use your English to watch a funny video on the Internet, read an article about your favorite band, or communicate with smart people on a discussion forum, you will begin to think of English as your key to fun. When you think “English”, you will no longer think about boring classes, difficult grammar rules or lists of words to memorize — you will think about a funny TV show, your favorite band and people you like. In your mind, English will no longer be another boring subject at school — it will be the way to have fun every day.