70 Ways to Improve Your English
By: Alex Case
Even for people who don’t have to write in English, writing can be a great way of properly learning the kind of vocabulary. You need to describe your own life and interests, and of thinking about how to stop making grammar mistakes. The problem most people have is that they don’t know what to write about. One traditional way to make sure you write every day in English is to write an English diary (journal) and a more up to date way of doing this is to write a blog. Popular topics include your language learning experience, your experience studying abroad, your local area, your language or translations of your local news into English.
Another daily writing task that can work for people who would be bored by writing about their own routines in a diary is to write about the news that you read and listen to everyday. If you include your predictions for how you think the story will develop (e.g. “I think Hillary will become president”), this can give you a good reason to read old entries another time, at which time you can also correct the mistakes you have made and generally improve what you have written.
Some websites offer a weekly or even daily short English lesson sent to your email account. If your mobile phone has an e-mail address, it is also possible to have the tips sent to your phone to read on the way to work or school. Please note, however, that such services are not usually graded very well to the levels of different students and they should be used as a little added extra or revision in your English studies rather than as a replacement for something you or your teacher have chosen more carefully as what you need to learn.
Although buying music on the internet is becoming more popular in many countries, not so many people know that you can download speech radio such as audio books (an actor reading out a novel) and speech radio. Not only is this better practice for your English than listening to English music, from sources like Scientific American, BBC and Australia’s ABC Radio it is also free.
Even listening to music while doing something else can help a little for things like getting used to the natural rhythm and tone of English speech, although the more time and attention you give to a song the more you will learn from listening to it again in the future.
Although just listening to a song in English can be a good way of really learning the words of the chorus in an easily memorable way, if you want to really get something out of listening to English music you will need to take some time to read the lyrics of the song with a dictionary. If the lyrics are not given in the CD booklet, you may be able to find them on the internet, but please note that some lyrics sites deliberately put a few errors into their lyrics for copyright reasons. Once you have read and understood the lyrics, if you then listen and read at the same time, this can be a good way of understanding how sounds change in fast, natural, informal speech.
The next stage after understanding and memorizing a song is obviously to sing it. Although some words have their pronunciation changed completely to fit in with a song, most of the words have the same sounds and stressed syllables as in normal speech. Remembering which words rhyme at the end of each line can also be a good way of starting to learn English pronunciation.
Another motivating and easy way to make yourself write in English is to write a review for a site such as Amazon or Internet Movie Database. Many non-native speakers write reviews on sites like this and if you have some special understanding of the book, music or film due to your first language or knowing the artist personally, that would be very interesting for the English speakers who read and write reviews on the site.
Switching your search engine to the English language version of msn, yahoo, Google etc. can not only be a good way of practicing fast reading for specific information in English, but could also give you a wider choice of sites to choose from and give you an idea of what foreigners are writing about your country and area.
Although most language learners under Advanced level would probably learn more from reading a graded reader or something from the internet than they would from reading an original book written for English speakers, for some people reading something like Harry Potter in the original can be a great motivator to improve their English. To make this easier for you and make sure that it motivates you rather than just making your tired, try reading a book that you already know the story of. This not only makes it easier to understand and guess vocabulary, but you are also more likely to remember the language in it. If you have not read the book before, reading a plot summary from the internet can also help in the same way.
Another way of making sure books are easier to understand is to choose a book that was originally translated into English, preferably from your own language. Even if you haven’t read the book in your own language, you will find the English is written in a slightly simplified way that is more similar to how your own language is written than a book originally written in English would be.
If you have given up with a book in English or are reading it very slowly, try skimming through the first ten pages or skipping them completely. The start of most books tend to be mainly description and are therefore full of difficult vocabulary and don’t have a clear story line yet to help you understand what is happening and to motivate you to turn the next page. If the book is still too difficult even after the introductory part is finished, it is probably time to give that book up for now and try it again after you have read some easier things.
Opening up books before you buy one and flicking through them to find one with lots of direct dialogue in it has several advantages. If there is less text on the page due to all the speech marks etc, this can make it easier to read and easier to write translations on. Dialogue is also much easier to understand than descriptive parts of a book, and is much more like the language you will want to learn in order to be able to speak English.
Even more than books with lots of dialogue, comics can be easy to understand and full of idiomatic language as it is actually spoken. There can be difficulties with slang, it can be difficult to understand jokes and/or dialogue written how people speak rather than with normal spellings, so try to choose comics carefully. Usually, serious or adventure comics are easier to understand than funny ones.
Nowadays most big cities in the world have an English language magazine and/ or online guide to the movies, plays, exhibitions that are on in the city that week. Reading this in English is not only good value, but it could also guide you to places that English speakers are interested in and where you might hear some English spoken around you.
Like books, if you can read two versions of the same magazine (Newsweek in your language and in English, for example), that could make understanding it much easier.
Although you cannot expect to come out of a very short course speaking much better English than when you started it, if you continue studying a little over the following weeks and months, the knowledge you gained then will gradually come out and mean that your level of speaking, listening etc. are better than they would have been if you hadn’t taken that course. This positive effect can still be true up to a year later.
The more time you can spend studying English the better, but studying periodic intensive courses with a few hours of study a week in between is probably better value for money than any other system as it gives your brain time to subconsciously learn and start using the new language you have learnt before you introduce the next new “chunk” of language.
Another good way to combine two different kinds of classes is to study both in a group class and one to one. Having a one to one teacher, even if just a couple of times a month, will mean that you can be taught exactly the language that you need, that you will have more time to speak, and that you can have as much error correction as you like.
The benefits of having a group class are often less clear to students, but they include the fact that you will learn to deal with several people speaking at once, have a chance to practice skills such as interrupting people, and will hear a range of different viewpoints and topics.
Recent research has shown that elder children tend to be a couple of IQ points above their younger siblings, and the most likely reason is that explaining things to their little brothers and sisters gives them an intellectual boost. In the same way, teaching someone lower level than you the English you already know is a great way of permanently fixing that knowledge in your own brain.
Even if you don’t need to speak English at work, English lessons can be a fun and reasonably priced way for your company to spend their training budget in a popular way.
Even if you are not listening carefully, it will help you get a feel for natural English rhythm and intonation.
Although such games can have quite random language and are unlikely to improve your ability to speak English on their own, the next time you hear or read the same language elsewhere it will be really fixed in your brain by the fact you have played a game with it in already. It is also a nice way of taking a break from your other English studies while also doing some English. To make sure it really is a break and to avoid wasting time learning language from the game that is not much used in daily life, don’t bother writing down any new language you see in the game, but just try to learn it from playing the game again.
As you are doing your chores, try creating sentences describing what you are doing, e.g. ‘I am unscrewing the ketchup bottle cap’. This gets you used to thinking in English without translating, and can be a good way of seeing what simple vocabulary that is around you everyday you don’t know yet.
For people who can’t understand a film without subtitles but find themselves not listening at all when reading subtitles in their own language, this should be the way of watching a film that you should aim for. If it is too difficult to watch the whole film this way, try watching the (usually important) first 10 or 15 minutes of the film with subtitles in your own language, switch to English subtitles after that, and only switch back to subtitles in your own language if you get totally lost following the story of the film.
If you are finding English films with English subtitles too difficult or you can’t find English films with English subtitles in your local video shop, this is a good second best option. Looking for local films with English subtitles can also sometimes be a good sign of quality, as it means the producers of the film are expecting it to be popular internationally as well.
Again, this is not as good practice as English language films with English subtitles, but is more relaxing, can be easier to find suitable DVDs for, and is also possible with VHS.
This can not only save you money on DVDs, but will mean that you can really learn the language without having to study it. Some comedies can also get funnier the more you watch them, especially if you watch them with no subtitles and so understand a little more each time you watch it.
One thing that holds many language learners back is actually trying too hard and tackling something that their brain is not ready for yet. Checking your level with a level check test on the internet, by taking an English language test (FCE, CAE, IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL etc.), or by taking a free trial level check and/ or lesson in a language school will help you find out what your level is and so choose suitable self-study materials.
Most researchers agree that people learn most when reading something they understand almost all of. If there are one or two words per page that you have never seen before, that is about the right level. If there are three or more on every page, you should switch to something easier and come back later.
These are books that are especially written for language learners like you, e.g. Penguin Readers. Although it can be difficult to find something as interesting as things written in newspapers or on the internet, in terms of learning the language only people who need to read for their work or an exam usually gain more from reading things written for graded readers. Graded readers of classic books like Charles Dickens also have the benefit of giving you a lot of knowledge about the literature, and culture more generally, of English speaking countries in a short time.
Although using a dictionary has been shown to help with both short term and long term learning of vocabulary, the fact that using it slows reading down can stop some people reading in English at all. Reading a whole book quickly through just for pleasure from time to time will help you remember how fun reading in another language can be.
At the opposite extreme, it can be hard work but very satisfying to get to the end of a book knowing that you have learnt every word in it. See other tips on this page to make sure it is a book that is easy enough to do this with and to ensure that the vocabulary you learn is useful.
Although some of the vocabulary you can learn from things made for children can be a bit strange (lots of animal names and maybe animal noises, including baby names for things), the fact that not only the language but the structure of the story is simplified can make it an easy and motivating thing to watch. Like good language learning materials, the same language is also often repeated to make it memorable, and the use of catchy songs etc. can increase this positive effect on your memory.
This is very similar to watching English children’s movies, but with the added advantage of there being more illustrations than adult books, which both helps you to understand the story and makes the page brighter and more motivating to read.
Even if you don’t often find time to go through your vocab list and it keeps on building up, just the act of choosing which words you need to learn and writing them down on a special list can help you learn them.
If ticking off words on a vocabulary list on the train to work is inconvenient or embarrassing for you, you can keep your list of words to learn as an entry in your electronic dictionary, as a mobile phone to do list or as a text file in your MP3 player (e.g. iPod). Although the time spent transferring the information between different formats like these may seem wasted, in fact any time you spend using the vocabulary like this will help you learn it.
One way to stop yourself translating and therefore increase your speed of comprehension and production is to learn all your vocabulary without the use of your own first language. Ways you can write a vocab list in only English include with synonyms (words with the same meaning, e.g. “tall” and “high”); with opposites (“high” and “low”); with pronunciation factors such as number of syllables (the number of beats, e.g. three for “de- ci- sion”) and the word stress (the syllable that is pronounced louder and longer, e.g. the second syllable in “baNAna”); and gapped sentences (e.g. “I am not _________________ in science fiction” for the word “interested”).
Crossing out or deleting words, sentences or whole pages that you have learnt can be a great motivator, and save your list of things to learn becoming too big to handle.
One of the things that can put most people off learning is a stack of half finished books or a huge list vocabulary waiting to be learnt. Simply getting rid of all that and starting again with something new from zero can be a great motivator and get your studies underway again.
The easiest vocabulary to learn is the vocabulary of things you see and use everyday. If you can write the names of things around you on slips of paper and stick them on the real thing, this is a great way of learning useful vocabulary. If you can leave them there over the following days and weeks, this is a very easy way of revising the vocabulary until it is properly learnt.
For people who can’t put labels on real things, the next best option is to take a photo of a real place in your life like your office, print it out, and then draw lines to all of the things you can see in the picture and label them in English with the help of a dictionary. You can do the same thing with places you pass through everyday like the station. Because you will see the same thing again and again, it should be easy to really learn the words for those things.
This is a popular method of making sure you use English everyday for people who don’t often speak English and can’t think of things to write about. The fact that you are writing about real things that have happened to you means that any words you look up in the dictionary will be vocabulary that is useful for you and easy to learn.
The closest thing to speaking for people who don’t have the chance to speak English is online chat, as you have to think and respond quickly, and the language is short and informal just like speech.
You can make this easier by reading the news in English first, or even just by reading or listening to the news in your own language.
Freebie newspapers like “Metro” in London are usually the easiest to understand, followed by mid-brow titles like “The Daily Express” or “The Daily Mail” in English. Popular newspapers like “The Sun” are more difficult because of the idiomatic, slangy use of language and the number of jokes in the headlines and articles.
For people who find writing a diary about things that happen to them everyday boring, the best thing is to let your imagination go and write about whatever comes into your head. The advantage of this is that if you can’t think of how to say something in English, you can just change the story to something that is easier to explain. Perhaps the easiest way to start writing fiction in English is with a diary, changing any details you like to make it more interesting and adding more and more fantasy as the weeks go on.
This is quite similar to how babies learn, by listening, watching and copying. It is also good for your health!
Although you may never hear or get the chance to say exactly that line, having one memorable example of an English grammatical form in your head can make it much easier to learn other examples of the same grammar as you hear them. It is also something you can practice over and over without being as boring as grammatical drills.
This can not only improve your fluency while you are drinking, but can also improve your confidence in future days and weeks by showing you that you can communicate what you want to say.
Films often have the same words many times, so if you look up important words the first or second time you hear them, you should have learnt them by the end of the film. It is easier to use a dictionary if you watch with English subtitles.
Although there are many sounds in English, there are even more spellings. By learning the phonemic script and writing vocabulary down with it, you can both add another stage to your vocabulary learning that should help you learn it more thoroughly, and improve your pronunciation. It can also make things easier for you by stopping you trying to pronounce different spellings of the same pronunciation different ways.
Many people think that English spelling is random, but in fact most words follow some kind of rule, e.g. the “magic E” that changes the pronunciation of “mad” and “made”.
For people who don’t have much or any correction of pronunciation from a teacher, recording yourself and listening back makes it easier to hear whether you are really making the English sounds that you are trying to or not.
Although most programmes that claim to tell you when you are pronouncing correctly or not don’t actually do that, listening many times and seeing how your voice changes as you try to match the sounds and waveform given by a pronunciation CD ROM can be good practice and more motivating than just recording your own voice.
Learning similar words together can both expand your overall vocabulary and make them easier to learn by forming links between the words in your brain.
This is not only a good opportunity to speak English in situations where you really have to make yourself understood in order to live, but it is also a good motivator to study English seriously in the weeks and months before your trip.
If possible, also try to use English even when you could use your own language, e.g. when you pick a guided tour of a museum or historic place or when you book a flight on the internet, and try to avoid package tours.
Especially if you are artistic, this can be a better way of learning vocabulary than writing translations or example sentences.
No tips on how to do this here, but everyone agrees that getting or even just looking for a date in English can be a great motivator to improve your language skills.
Swapping lessons and conversation with someone who wants to learn your language can be a good alternative for those who aren’t looking for romance, or can sometimes lead onto dating for those who are!
Even if you don’t need to take an exam and don’t want to or can’t take a special course to study for it, paying to take an exam like TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS or FCE can really motivate you take your English studies seriously.
E.g. try to speak like Robert De Niro. Students who say they want to sound more like a native speaker have the problem that native speakers don’t sound all that much like each other. Choosing one model can make the task of improving your pronunciation more clear, and is quite fun. Doing an impression of that person also makes a good party trick.
Trying to use a bilingual dictionary less and switching to a monolingual one can help you to stop translating in you head when you are speaking or listening, and other useful English vocabulary can come up while you are using the dictionary.
Many people find this a bit false or embarrassing, but if you think of it as a study club and set a particular time and/ or place, it is no different from studying Maths together.
As well as having a menu in English and being a good way of finding out something about the culture of English speaking countries, you might also find there are free English language listings magazines, English language sports on the TV and/ or foreign people you can speak to.
Although most electronic dictionaries are not as good as paper ones for the amount of information they give you about each word, some of them have the very useful function of saying the word with the correct pronunciation.
Most electronic dictionaries also have a button which you can push to see the last 30 or more words you looked up. By deleting words you decide are useless or you have already learnt from this list, you can use it as a “to do list” of words to learn that you can look at several times a day in the train etc.
Changing the operating language of your mobile phone, video recorder etc. to English can be an easy way of making sure you use the language everyday.
Deciding how many hours you want to study, how many words you want to learn or what score you want to get in a test are all good ways of making sure you do extra study.