The other day I was teaching an upper-intermediate student who had difficulties presenting her ideas about a process. She said she finds writing much easier than speaking.
“You should start an audio diary,” I suggested.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
A lot of advice about how to get better at English listening says that students need to understand almost everything in their independent study materials. I disagree with it because this is a useful guideline but it is not a rule; it is useful for a lot of people, but not everyone.
Think about this: young children do not understand television programmes for adults but often want to watch them. This is because they want to be like adults. You want to be like a native-English-speaking adult therefore your exposure to English should include media for native-English-speaking adults.
Some people will disagree with me. They think getting students who are not ready to listen to advanced materials to listen to media above their level will turn them off English, leading them to give up or be stuck in level. I do not believe this. I believe that if you want to improve your language skills, you will try advanced materials that you are interested in, which is the important thing to remember, and then either succeed the first time, persevere and then succeed or give up and try again in the future.
If you study with materials that a teacher thinks are good you are not studying based on your own interests so your motivation to continue is not high enough to keep learning, especially new, difficult things.
Choose podcasts at random. Try some videos on YouTube or from your local video shop. Watch lectures about things you want to know about.
Think about vocabulary you know about the topic of the material. Think about the purpose of the material and who it is for. Write down new words you hear and what you think they mean. Check your dictionary later. Can you summarise the media? Do you agree with the opinion of the speaker or speakers?
Take notes if you have time or have space. Repeat your materials as many (or as few) times as you like. Listen to anything and everything that interests you. Most importantly, don’t forget that it’s OK to leave something behind when it’s too difficult now or too boring. Anything that is truly important will be engaging enough to build knowledge about quickly, even if you can’t understand some of the material immediately.
Download a listening sheet to help you when you listen to English next time.
One of the things a lot of students worry about is making English-speaking friends, or how to find them. It is much the same as finding friends that speak your own language.
Don’t look to people just because they are native English speakers
This is a big one. Nobody wants to feel used but this is how it can feel if you just want to speak to people because they are native speakers. Not only this, but you are limiting yourself: there are some great non-native speakers out there and most non-natives tend to speak English most frequently to other non-natives.
Have something interesting to talk about
When you start a conversation on something that the other person has no idea about or has no experience of, you are starting a conversation that is going to fail. Keep it simple but normal. Ask the other person or people about themselves and be willing to listen but also ready to talk about yourself, too.
Don’t interrupt busy people
I am usually willing to talk to anybody even though giving people the chance to speak English is something I get paid to do. Note that I said ‘usually’. This does not include:
- while waiting in line at the post office or for the ATM,
- while listening to my iPod,
- while I am visibly angry or annoyed
- while I am with my family and my son is not behaving well.
Basically, think about whether you would want to give me a chance to practise my Japanese, or any language I may or may not be learning.
Don’t start a conversation and then get shy
If you have the confidence to start a conversation, keep it going. It is a two-way deal. Ask questions if you don’t have the confidence to say a lot.
Find something in common
If you want to make friends, try to find something in common. If you play sports, why not try to meet people at a sporting event or club? If you like eating and drinking, see if there are any international dining clubs.
I hope this helps. Do you have any tips? Leave a comment to help others!
I’ve written about learning new skills such as cooking and learning the specialist vocabulary can help you get great English. How about computer programming? You like computers and the internet because you’re using a computer now (even a phone is a computer nowadays) unless you had someone print out this page for you. Why not learn to program using English?
Learning a few basics about programming or web design is not difficult to do. If you make mistakes, it is really difficult to break your computer unless you are trying to change your computer’s basic functions.
Codecademy is an interesting place to start practising basic programming and all of the instructions are in English.
You could also look into programming Ruby or Python because both have large communities discussing problem solving in English.
Stack Overflow is also a useful site for solving problems. One of my former students said he improved his English by reading Stack Overflow every day.
“I want to use English,” my students say, “but I don’t have anyone to talk to apart from you.”
“What about writing a diary?” I suggest.
“I never keep to it. I always abandon it after a week or so.”
In which case, here are some other suggestions.
The first one is from my student who makes her to-do list in English every day. It’s a daily habit and it means she keeps using English and it has to be clear.
Next is the logbook, which is not quite a diary, but a list of the things you have done. It might be a list of the study activities you have done, or in the case of the artist Austin Kleon, a list of all the day’s notable activities. I keep one about this website (in English, my mother tongue) and one about my running (in Japanese, my second language). I have found that the more you do this, the more motivated you become to keep going with your goals so it’s definitely worth trying.
If you know any other easy ways to use English every day leave a comment to share your idea with others.
I always recommend my students to write an English diary. The reason is simple: you should write every day because you need to practise as often as you can. It doesn’t need to be long; a few sentences is fine. It’s an easy way to write about things you have learned. It is also a useful way to practise longer sentences because you can think longer about a written sentence. Due to this it can also help your speaking, too. When you write your diary and find you don’t know how to express your ideas, you know you need to find some new, useful vocabulary so it helps you assess yourself.
Remember, you are writing your English diary for yourself. Take a look at your diary sometimes and check the sentences. Are they correct? Is there a better way to say what you wanted to say? Make a note in a different coloured pen or pencil.
Also, remember, if you miss a day or two, don’t worry. Write next time you remember. If you write just before bedtime or in your lunch break it is easier to keep the habit.
I usually recommend paper diaries because they are smaller and easier to write in quickly, but some people keep blogs. Here are some examples:
You could also start using Twitter in English. Don’t forget to follow me at @getgreatenglish! Evernote is also good for people who want to keep a diary on their mobile phone.
To develop fluency in your speech, there is only one way: speak.
To improve you must practise. Practise any way you can. Read aloud, repeat along to podcasts or videos (using the pause button to help you), talk to yourself. Do anything to speak English.
To check you are getting better, record yourself speaking English once a week and listen to the recording. Do you sound better than last week? Do you sound better than last month? Last year?
If you want fluency practice, you can book a lesson with me, face-to-face or on Skype, by sending an email through the contact page.