New English word? Translate any word using double click.
The problem: No progress
After some time learning English, many EFL* students at some point feel that they have reached a level and that they are no longer making any progress. It is a feeling which will be familiar to many of you, and I have experienced myself as a language student. Now as a teacher, I would like to tell you some free tricks and resources you can use to get past this period of stagnation.
* English as a Foreign Language (as opposed to English – literature and grammar – studied by English speakers).
Why does this happen?
– You’re at a higher level. As a teacher, one of my most rewarding classes is that of ‘false starters’, those adults who studied English at school but remember next to nothing. When you start from zero the rate of progress is astonishing, and it is easy to get them to a hold a basic conversation in typical everyday situations in a relatively short time. However, after one or two school years it is impossible to keep the same momentum.
At the beginning it’s all about using a limited amount of words in an intelligent way so that you can be understood. Later you have to move beyond this and learn more vocabulary and more structures, as well as correcting the basic errors from before. It’s logical that you notice that your progress is slower.
– You are improving, but you don’t realise it. I remember this quite clearly from when I first went to live in Spain. At the start everybody would congratulate me on my level of Spanish (“You speak really well!”), but after some months I noticed that people stopped saying this. I started to doubt – what had happened? I had this same sensation of stagnation. As far as I could see, I was learning nothing new.
In fact, I was improving. Sometimes it is not just about learning ‘new’ things, but consolidating our knowledge – improving our pronunciation, developing fluency, learning to be more agile with the structures we have learnt…. and what I later realised is that the best sign of improvement is when people stop congratulating you on your English (in my case, Spanish). Think about it – who are you more likely to congratulate for speaking your language – a foreign exchange student who has spent 3 months in your country, or a foreigner who is married and has children in your country, and who speaks the language almost perfectly? Now, having lived in Spain for years and speaking the language on a daily basis, I do not like it on the (very rare) occasions that somebody tells me I speak Spanish very well.
So don’t worry – you’re on the right track!
– Lack of time or focus. When talking about the learning process, I like to use the example of keeping fit and healthy. One month before our summer holidays on the beach, for example, we tend to start taking things seriously – eating healthier food, doing more exercise, trying to get a better figure. But when we return to our daily lives and summer turns to autumn that rhythm is harder to keep.
The same thing happens when we’re trying to learn English. One thing is those first few months when we feel enthusiastic and we are putting a lot of effort into what we are doing, but over time something happens – it’s called ‘everyday life’: work, moving house, looking after a relative, helping the kids with their studies…. It all takes up your time and makes it difficult to keep focused and keep learning.
The solution: What can I do?
Be patient. The typical answer to designed to annoy people. I’m not telling you anything new, am I? In fact, this is very important. Just as miracle diets cannot replace regular exercise and a good diet, there is no use looking for a secret formula, because it’s no secret: It’s called perseverance.
It always annoys me to hear about the latest methods: English in 1,000 words, English in 6 months, special techniques tested in CIA laboratories…. It’s no secret that you can maintain a basic conversation with a limited vocabulary, but to suggest that you can ‘learn English’ in this way is wonderful from a marketing point of view, but from a teacher’s viewpoint it is deceitful. Forget miracle methods – people have been learning other people’s way of speaking since prehistory. It’s all about contact with the language.
Get good habits. This is the answer. Again, it’s the same as keeping a healthy lifestyle. It’s not about spending one week running 12 miles and eating nothing but salad every day. It’s about adapting your lifestyle. For example: How do you get to work/class? Do you drive? No? It doesn’t matter – if you take public transport or walk, it’s all the same. You’ve got six minutes, right? Time enough for two BBC podcasts each day – one on your way there, and another on the way back.
That’s just an example – at intermediate level, some of you might find it a bit easy, so let me give you a longer list:
1 Get the BBC app. If you want to keep up-to-date, you’ll be practising your English and getting the news from the world’s most reliable source. ‘The Guardian’ app is another option. Longer articles than the BBC, with columnists and opinion, which give you a different angle on the language. Why ‘The Guardian’ and not ‘The Times’ or another newspaper? Because it’s free! You’re not going to catch me on my political opinions!
2. Radio anywhere in the world . This is a great page! Here I’ve put you through to BBC radio 5 (news and sport) although I would also recommend BBC radio 4 and World Service (look for it in the ‘search’ button). The great thing about this is that you can select by location, so as an English learner you can start switching between accents – Jamaica, Australia, Ireland, India, USA, South Africa, Scotland…. it’s all there!
3. Watch TV in English. Although it’s best to be selective. Action films loaded with colloquial language that even I would not use is not very helpful. Series or films which are based on everyday life (Desperate Housewives, The Big Band Theory, Romantic comedies) or historical (Downtown Abbey, The Remains Of The Day), documentaries, chat shows….. There are three things to bear in mind: 1) Change the type of programme you watch – switch from documentary to chat show, then to the news , then to a series… 2) Set a limit and keep to it: 5 minutes? 10? 20? It’s best to watch a smaller amount and concentrate than watch one hour one day without understanding anything – because the following day you’re not going to continue! 3) Subtitles in English if you must, but NEVER in your language.
4. Speaking classes. This is the difficult part if you don’t want to spend money. As a general rule you can learn English completely free nowadays with the internet (Take my page as an example). But Speaking is essential. There is no alternative, and if you are not lucky enough to find a free speaking partner, you should think of paying. Make sure that it is a speaking class – no grammar exercises or textbooks. You could also consider individual Skype classes– more expensive, but progress guaranteed.
5. Reading books. Choose one that is suitable for your level. If it’s too difficult, you will lose interest. If it’s too easy, you won’t learn much. Get a book that is accompanied by a podcast or audio transcript. Listen to the first chapter before reading, to see how much you understand. Repeat once or twice, if necessary. Then read the first chapter without listening, paying careful attention to the parts you did not understand, and then finally listen to the audio again, now that you understand it. Repeat the process with each chapter.
6. Listening exercises. There is a big difference between listening to series or the radio and ‘getting the gist’ (understanding the general idea) and doing a listening test from a Cambridge exam, which requires you to have a much better understanding. It doesn’t have to be every day. Just plan yourself one ‘Listening Exam Night’ during the week (It sounds fun, doesn’t it?) and you can also see how well you are improving. It’s not usually more than fifteen minutes, depending on the exam.
7. Write something. Especially if you’re not speaking, writing is a great way of improving your English. Even if there is nobody to correct you, you can correct yourself. Think of a topic, start writing and immediately you will start to have doubts – Should I use ‘as’ or ‘like’? Is there another way of saying ‘look’? These are questions you can look for on the web. You can then check your spelling mistakes with your computer’s spellcheck, and install this great grammar check app on your computer.
8. Leave the grammar until last. This is, in my opinion, one of the great mistakes. When we want to learn English after a period of inactivity, we reach for the grammar book. Don’t do it – put it back. When you are talking or writing you will realise that you need to read about certain aspects of the language – The third conditional? The present perfect? – and then you can look at the grammar. Remember: when you have a specific doubt, not as a routine.
9. Put mobile / apps / computer settings in English. Easy enough, and it’s surprising what you can learn just from this simple step. What do you use to write – Microsoft Word? OpenOffice? If you change it to English there is a whole world of vocabulary at your fingertips.
10)Look around you and see how you can learn. For example, have you got a teenage child who is learning English at school? Get him to explain what he has learnt in class each day. This is just an example of opportunities that are waiting and how you can include them in your everyday life.
11) Join social network groups
Another great opportunity can be found on social networks. Make a list of 5 things that you are interested in: Gardening, Heavy metal, Cats, Rugby, Cooking, Architecture, Surfing, Travel….. Now go and join English language social groups and start interacting – commenting, chatting and practising your language.
12) Find a learning partner. Again, it’s the same as going to the gym. Everybody has days when they just do not have the energy to open a book or put the TV channel in English. That’s when having another person to encourage you is an amazing help. It’s also a question of old-fashioned rivalry – You can’t allow your next-door neighbour to think you’re stupid, can you?
Just to repeat the two basic messages: This is a marathon, not a 100-metre race, and the best thing you can do is establish a rhythm that you can keep in the life that you lead. In this case, progress is inevitable, and you will no longer feel that sensation of going nowhere.
Do you have any other suggestions? Let us all know!