‘Tips from our teachers’ is a regular series we run on our blog where we ask our teachers to shares tips and advice on improving their language skills.
English is the one truly global language
Given the status of English as the unofficial lingua franca of the world, one of the most interesting parts of the language is getting to hear so many different people express themselves in a shared single language. Needless to say there is no shortage of varying native English accents and dialects in the world, but I find those who’ve learnt English as a foreign language more fascinating to listen to. The way in which we speak foreign languages can inadvertently provide others with information surrounding our culture and our own native language. Be it by the tone we use, the politeness of our language (or lack thereof) or the grammatical errors we make when we speak, we provide others with a glimpse into our own lives and upbringing.
Not only is this interesting, it can be educational if you live in the country of the non-native speaker in question or if you’re learning their language. I’ve learnt a fair bit about Spain and Italy as a result of hearing Spaniards and Italians speak English and my Spanish and Italian have improved enormously in the process.
Making mistakes is an important part of learning
The most important part of learning any language is to not fear making mistakes. Too often learners beat themselves up over the slightest of grammatical errors, as if they should be ashamed of themselves for having not expressed themselves perfectly. In his speech to the University of the Arts in 2012, Neil Gaiman stated: “I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something”. In the same vein, it’s vital for those learning languages to embrace making mistakes and realise that they form an integral part of the learning process.
Put simply: if you’re making mistakes, it’s because you’re putting into practice what you’ve learnt and you’re trying to get better. This should only ever be something to be applauded, not to be scorned! The sooner a language learner stops worrying about the imperfections of their language and instead, put into practice what they’ve learnt in their studies, the sooner they’ll feel more comfortable expressing themselves and the quicker their language skills will improve. So long as somebody has the drive to improve at something in life, I believe that any mistakes made in the process can only ever be lucrative opportunities.
To keep improving, you just need practice
To put it bluntly, simply using the language at every given opportunity is the quickest way to fluency. The best way to learn a language is through immersion and thus communicating with native speakers is invaluable. Language exchanges are great for improving listening and speaking skills and most towns should have a bars or place where language nights or tandems are held.
For those with busier schedules, don’t underestimate small adjustments to your everyday life to expose you to more English. Instead of reading your national newspapers in your native language, why not try reading an article a day in the language you’re learning from a different country? If you incessantly use social media, why not change your language settings to reflect the one you’re learning? Ultimately, anything which exposes you to more of the language you’re learning can only be positive.
Whatever you do, it’s important to be consistent and to develop a routine of sorts: watching TV in the language you’re learning for 5 hours non-stop once a month will be nowhere near as effective as doing so for 30 minutes every day for a month.
Try video games for entertainment and language practise
I find video games an unconventional and under-appreciated tool for learning English. Video games can be an incredible way of improving at a language. Point and click adventures and RPG games can be especially effective due to their slow-paced and free-roaming natures respectively.
Video games tend to include a lot of dialogue but as opposed to TV or film where the viewer is a passive observer, video game require that players prove their comprehension of what they’ve read and heard in the game via their interaction with the game itself. In other words, video games actively check to see whether or not the player has understood its events and therefore render it nigh-on impossible to progress without fully understanding what’s taken place prior. In this sense, video games offer a unique experience that can be a great way of practising listening and reading skills.
The only drawbacks in comparison with TV and film are the need for high levels of concentration and the difficulty in finding a suitable video game to play.
Also use Memrise, the BBC, and VOA
For extra studying exercises and grammar reviews, you can’t go wrong with BBC Learning English and VOA Learning English. Both websites are easy to navigate according to level and have particularly good listening exercises (each with transcripts available). Most of their exercises and materials aren’t too long, making them great for those with time to dedicate to their English in their free time.
Vocabulary is always one of the most annoying parts of learning a language and I have little to recommend. Nonetheless, Memrise (both an app and a website) is what I use for the languages I’m learning. There are plenty of ready-made courses available which cover all manner of different areas of vocabulary, but I personally find making my own “courses” filled with the vocabulary I need to learn works best. It’d be an exaggeration to say Memrise makes learning vocabulary “fun” but there are undoubtedly worse resources out there.
Also check out what Rhys has to say about improving your English speaking skills and vocabulary in this blog post.