How to Improve Your English

There are many reasons why people from all over the world might need to improve their English: for business, for pleasure or because they have gone to live in an English speaking country. It’s easy to feel like your English skills are at a standstill — and it’s all easy to get around that too! With a little diligence, you can be talking like a near-native in no time.


Part 1 of 3: Expanding Your Knowledge

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    Label things in your house. Grab that pad of Post-Its you have laying around that you rarely ever use and start labeling the things around you. Even if you already know the simple stuff, do it anyway. Just thinking of these things in English before you think of it in your native tongue will get you thinking faster and when it takes less effort, you’ll feel the progress you’re making.

    • Try to get to the point where you think of these things in English without hesitation. Sit down on your bed and go through all the labels in your house in your head. If there’s something you can’t remember, get up and go check what it is. And when you’ve hit this level, label other stuff! Graduate from “window” to “window pane,’ from “couch” to “cushion,” from “shirt” to “cotton blouse.” With English, there’s always another level!
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    Keep a notebook. As you go about your day, there’s bound to be some English words that you run into that you don’t fully understand. This is when you whip out your handy dandy notebook! Scribble down the word and then when you go home, you can look it up. Instead of thinking, “Gosh, what was that word I saw on the menu at the cafe?” you’ll flip right to the page and learn a new word!

    • If that’s a little 2003 for you, just whip out your smartphone. Start a note (or whatever app you want to use) that’s dedicated to new English words. Then every so often you can refer back to it and make sure you remember them all!
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    Surround yourself with English speakers. If you have a few friends who are great at speaking English, hang out with them! Invite them over to dinner! So, your home becomes an English hub. Find a tutor to do some one-on-one with. Do a language exchange, where you can teach them your language and they can teach you theirs. Immerse yourself in it as much as you can!

    • What it boils down to is that you must avoid your native language as much as possible. It’s tempting to get home from work and sit down, turn on your TV, and revert back to your native tongue with those you live with. Don’t do it! Set time aside to speak English every night, even if it’s just for an hour. Keep the TV to English, keep the radio to English, keep everything to English as much as possible.
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    Read children’s magazines and books. They are attractive, they tend to have many short articles or simple plot lines, and they come in many subjects (science, literature, self-improvement). But more importantly, they are well-illustrated. The pictures will allow you to understand many words without having to use a dictionary. You’ll go faster and get more enjoyment out of it!

    • When it comes to books, after you get to know the characters and the vocabulary used in the series, your reading gets easier and you will begin to be able to read more quickly, while still picking up expressions and vocabulary from one volume to the next. Try Nancy Drew, Animorphs, Sweet Valley Twins or any of a number of other easy series books which are widely available in libraries.
      • If your level is above that, read anything. There’s young adult fiction and plain ol’ fiction that can up your language-learning skills and envelop you in a whole new world. It’s best to choose something with a lot of dialogue — it’s more like real life!
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    Figure out how YOU learn . Everyone has their own learning style. Some people learn with their hands, some with their eyes, some with their ears, and some are a combination of the three. Your best friend may be able to recite English poetry after hearing it once when you need to see it to understand. Once you figure out how youlearn, you can cater your studying habits to your abilities.

    • And what’s more, you can stop wasting time on methods that don’t work for you. If your teacher talks and talks and you remember nothing, you can start taking notes. If you’re reading a book and can’t remember a thing, you can start reading it aloud to yourself. There’s ways around everything!
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    Learn root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Even English speakers could stand to learn root words! Since there are so many words in this dang language (around 750,000 in certain methods of counting [1] — way more than other comparable languages [2] ), learning root words can help cut you to the chase. When you see it, if you know the root word, you may not even have to look it up!

    • Let’s say you run into the sentence, “It was an acephaleous society.” You’re thinking, “Uhh…what the heck?!” But back up. Think about it for a second. You know that “a-” means without: amoral, asexual, asymmetrical. You know that “cephal” means “head”: encephalitis, encephalogram. And you know that “-ous” marks an adjective: ambitious, delicious, glamorous. All of a sudden you know that that means, “It was a society without a head, without a leader.” Boom! Who needs a dictionary? Not you.
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    Read English language newspapers. Some newspapers use more complex language than others, so choose the right one for you. Remember that you can start with the headlines and then progress to reading the articles as you gain confidence. You can go at your own pace and pick the articles that are interesting. At least read the comics!

    • If you have friends who are learning too, turn it into a discussion! Have everyone bring an article they found interesting and talk about it — in English, of course. You can study and talk about the happenings of the world simultaneously!
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    Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you haven’t had half a dozen teachers that have told you this, you were probably taught by robots. Making mistakes is crucial. If you don’t, you won’t learn what’s right and wrong, you won’t take risks, and you won’t truly grasp the concepts you’re learning. It’s unfortunate, it is, but it’s necessary.

    • This is why most people stop learning and plateau. They’re afraid to talk to native speakers, they’re afraid to go outside their comfort zone, they’re afraid to truly expand and grow. Can you imagine if Edison would’ve stopped at his first mistake?!


Part 2 of 3: Using Technology

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    Watch English language DVDs. Television and films are good too, but it’s better if you have something you can watch over and over and over and over. You can really get down the content, start noticing things you never noticed before, and your brain can relax instead of flailing about, trying to keep up. Ask some friends if they have a series you can borrow!

    • Thanks to satellite TV, British, American and Australian television programmes and films are widely available all over the world. Try recording them! Watch with subtitles at first and then without them as you gain confidence. The better you get, the more you’ll look forward to “studying.”
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    Listen to the radio. The BBC World Service is just one excellent source of spoken English and even broadcasts programs for learners. Have it on in the background while you go about doing your household tasks. Just streaming English all the time can help you learn it passively. You don’t have to sit down and stare at your radio — just let it soak in!

    • Radio a little too old-fashioned? You’ve no excuse — there’s internet radio, too, you know! There are podcasts on virtually every subject and the classics like NPR and “This American Life” can all be found online.
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    Use the Internet. You can listen to the radio online, watch TV clips, read articles, and even play games to improve your English. You can even chat with people! There are also many pages on the web dedicated to teaching English as a foreign language. Real people are better, but the Internet is still a great tool.

    • Both the BBC and Wikipedia have versions of their site aimed at ESL learners. But there are also dozens of other websites that offer worksheets, articles, word problems, and stories that are at graded levels, too.
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    Use “correcting” websites. If you’re not in a class or don’t have a native speaker at your disposal, it may seem pretty hard to get better at writing. How do you know if you’re doing it correctly? Simple! Use websites that will correct your work! Search through Google to find websites that assist in correcting your grammar – many which are free of charge. Again, no excuses!

    • It’s easy to forget about the writing skill. But doing this, too, as much as you can, will make serious waves in your improvements. Write your emails in English, write yourself notes in English, write your blog in English. Even if you can’t correct it, make it habit.
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    Listen to a song a day. Not only is it fun, but you will learn words and pronunciation. And new music! Pick one each day and study it until you know it by heart. Find a genre that appeals to you and choose some songs that don’t go too fast — hardcore rap is not a good place to start when it comes to learning English! Think the Beatles, Michael Buble, Elvis, or even musical theatre.

    • This can be a substitution to listening to the radio. Have the songs you’ve been learning playing in the background and sing along! And then, who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself at karaoke next weekend!
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    Buy English language-learning CDs. Rosetta Stone can cost a pretty penny, but it’s useful. Some even offer accessibility to a native speaker! But that’s not the only kid on the block — there’s Pimsleur and Michel Thomas as well, just to name two more. Each advocates a different type of learning — which one would work best for you?

    • Ask around if anyone in your circle has these CDs already. There’s no point in paying for them twice! And some of the stuff can be found online, too. You just gotta get a little creative!


Part 3 of 3: Going the Extra Mile

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    Practice speaking English wherever you can. Seriously. Take every tiny opportunity. If you live in an English speaking country then this is easier, but if not then you can talk to visitors. Don’t be shy, and don’t worry about making mistakes – just have a go! Even saying, “A cup of coffee to go, please,” will help remove your nerves for when a true debate breaks out!

    • You can create opportunities, too! If you see someone you think speaks English that’s taking a photo, ask them if they’d like you to take it for them. If you go to a restaurant that has an English menu, ask for it. It’s these little things that truly set mediocre English speakers apart from the more natural ones!
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    Listen to your body’s clock. The same way we all have styles of learning, we all have times that are better for us, too. Your morning class may be a good class, but you can’t pay attention because your brain is just getting out of bed and brushing its teeth. Notice when you’re most alert — and then take that time out of your day to study!

    • Most people will have periods of heightened alertness in the late morning and then in the evening, though this doesn’t go for everyone. If you can, rework your schedule so your intake of English falls into the time when your brain can take the most advantage of it.
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    Learn the IPA. That stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet, by the way. Seriously. It may seem like a lot of work, but it’ll be so useful and so handy once you know it. You can look up a word in any dictionary and know exactly how it’s pronounced. You can see the differences between American, British, and Australian English. You can look at your own pronunciation and see what vowels you’re actuallymaking. And it’s fascinating!

    • ɪts ˈlaɪk ə ˈsiːkrət koʊd! (It’s like a secret code!) Pass notes with your friends! But remember, each accent is slightly different. If you run into a weird pronunciation, take note of whether it’s general American, RP, or other.
      • ˈsɪriəsli, ˈɪts ˈɑːsəm.
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    Record yourself. You probably know how it should sound, but how does it sound when the words come out of your mouth? Probably a bit different. So record yourself! Then you can go back and notice your strengths and weaknesses. It’s a little hard listening to your own voice at first (you may feel self-conscious), but it does go away. And it’s a surefire way to see your progress!

    • Take the time to learn pronunciation patterns. Because English is a conglomeration of a bunch of languages, there’s no hard and fast rule, but there are general patterns. Two syllable verbs have a stress on the second syllable (project), whereas 2 syllable nouns (project) and adjectives (happy) stress the first. And, in general, the stress goes on the ante-penultimate syllable (though this isn’t always true): photographer, continuous, national, et cetera. Does your speech mirror this?
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    Take different style classes. If you’re lucky enough to be in an English class, supplement your main one with another that’s of a different style. In a group class? Take a one-on-one thing. In a speaking class? Take a writing. Worried about pronunciation? Take an accent-reduction class. Practicing different skills in different environments is the only (and quickest) way to get better.

    • If that’s not an option, get creative. Start a study group or meet up with a friend for some one-on-one or small group conversation time. Get a penpal or use Skype. There are other ways besides classes (that often cost money) to get your English fix!
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    Think outside of the box. Sometimes opportunities have to be created. And sometimes those opportunities might seem a little contrived or make you feel silly, but they’re worth it! Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

    • Call up customer service about any product — one you have or one you don’t. Ask them about their products, their services, their plans, your options if you’re interested, and just make conversation. For free!
    • Host a dinner for tourists! Advertise that you’ll offer an authentic meal in exchange for English conversation. Many tourists are looking for something a bit off the beaten path. That path could lead to your dinner table!
    • Start a club. You’d be surprised how many people are in your exact situation. You can avoid the costs of a class by banding together with a few people and pooling your resources. Meet at the same time at the same place every week and you may start attracting attention!

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