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My top 15 tips for learning English


to have an ear for languages – to be able to hear and listen to foreign languages accurately and to interpret them or reproduce them well. If you’ve got an ear for foreign languages, well, you can do anything. 

Standard British English – the way British English is used in speaking and writing, a level that is generally agreed and accepted by educational authorities, and is the standard used in the teaching of English as a foreign language. Standard British English, also known as RP, is traditionally used in Oxford and Cambridge universities, adopted by many speakers elsewhere in England, and widely used in broadcasting.

philology – this is the study of words, especially the history and development of the words in a particular language or group of languages. A person who does this is a philologist. He is studying philology, particularly in the area of American poetry.

descriptive – here, an adjective to describe somebody or a grammar book that explains grammatical patterns that British speakers and writers generally use when speaking and writing, and that occur regularly, even if they are not necessarily correct. English language teachers should be descriptive in their approach to teaching foreign students.

prescriptive – here, an adjective to describe individuals or grammar books that tell people how English should be used, often ignoring the facts and evidence available, and what they believe are the correct and incorrect stylistic choices but are not always in the ways that many people understand or is even generally accepted as Standard English. A lot of grammar books issued in the 18th century, whose prescriptive rules were often Latin-based, still influence many people, particularly people who think of themselves being well-educated.

fibs, to fib – short, unimportant lies. If someone is telling these, they are a fibber; they are telling fibs. She tells fibs just like everybody else. Mary said her little sister was fibbing about being ill because she didn’t want to go to school.

sheer cost of something – here, the absolute, highest, most or extreme amount of the price of something. In other words, expensive to the point that it would not be affordable. The sheer cost of staying for three days in London meant we could not visit the city.

to overhear – to hear what someone is saying when they are not talking to you and they do not know that you are listening. Did you overhear her say that she knows Magda Gessler?

native tongue – the first language of a person and not having learned it as a foreign language. Her native tongue is Portuguese, not Spanish.

piles of something – a lot of something, perhaps even too much of something for someone to deal with. I’ve got piles of work to catch up on after taking two weeks holiday.

previously – an adverb used to say how much earlier one event was than another event, or to emphasise something that happened before the period you are talking about. This is sometimes used instead of ‘before’. He had lived abroad previously. Previously I had to take three buses before I got my own car.

technique – a particular method of doing an activity, usually a method that involves practical skills. There are many techniques used in teaching English to a foreign student.

to configure – here, to set up something like a computer or phone application so that it is ready for use for your purposes. How easy was it to configure the app on your phone? Did you configure it properly?

Pearson English Readers – these are books published by Pearson Education, a British-owned education publishing company. They provide an extensive collection of classic literature, modern best-selling authors, film titles, non-fiction and original stories that engage and motivate students as they enjoy reading books in language they can understand. With Pearson English Graded Readers, learners will be motivated to read and improve their reading skills, and become life-long readers.

lektor – in Poland, this is one person who reads the translation over all the original voices on films and programmes on TV. The speaker or ‘lektor’ often reads simplified translations as the original dialogue can be spoken very quickly and Polish syntax often requires more vocabulary.

to maintain your enthusiasm – to continue to have great eagerness in something which you like and enjoy or which you think is important, and not let this eagerness stop or grow weaker. It’s getting more and more difficult to maintain my enthusiasm for my job.

to test your patience – to annoy you so much that it is very difficult for you to stay calm. He was beginning to test my patience with asking me so many questions.

Warmer: How long have you been studying English? Where have you had English lessons? Do you have an ear for languages? Do you have any personal advice on how to learn English? Do you do any additional exercises to your classwork? Did you enjoy doing any extra English work set by your teachers at school or at any language schools?

My top 15 tips for learning English


By Roger Hartopp, originally published on the Typical Errors in English website, with updates added October 2022




That’s a good way to start a text. You’re reading something I wrote in Standard British English and so you believe it. And why shouldn’t you?

Often many students concentrate only on the English provided by the people who teach it. Universities do, of course, give you plenty of work on the language, even immersing you in the subject if you are studying English for a degree or diploma.

Unfortunately we don’t all have that opportunity, so students will turn to language schools, experienced native speakers, and graduates of English philology. They can all teach you plenty of new vocabulary. The usage of grammar. How to use the language in normal conversation, hopefully being descriptive and not prescriptive. But if you’re learning English at a language school, then learning the language is not only about having two lessons a week and thinking that those two lessons you paid good money for is helpful enough. BAD NEWS! It is not possible to learn English only in the classroom or online for no more than two hours a week.

You won’t become perfect speakers in one year. Unless you PRACTISE using the language, everything learnt in the classroom will soon be forgotten once you leave it. You’ll change back to your native language and never use English again... until the next lesson! I sincerely hope this isn’t you, but the fact you’ve chosen this topic suggests that you are serious in your studies.

So what do you do if your only contact with English is within the classroom? It is NOT a problem, particularly if you live in any large city. Here are my top FIFTEEN tips for practising English outside the language school.

1. Always do your homework. In reality not many students do this because they don’t have time (lies!), they forget (fibs!) or just hate doing it and so won’t (true!). Homework allows more practice on what you’ve learnt, and helps you to look at the language in writing. It’s also a valuable piece of self-study; maybe it’ll encourage you to look ahead into your course books, and perhaps make you buy additional materials like grammar books, with wonderful publications such as Typical Errors in English and its website. If you haven’t already done so, do this straight after the lesson! I’m told they are very good…

2. Go to a language school in an English-speaking country. To be fair this remains a dream because of the sheer cost, particularly if it’s a language school in North America or Australia. So if you afford it, the UK may well be the best bet where you are likely to be surrounded by British English. There are some who will argue that the country's increasing cosmopolitan-ness makes this more and more difficult, particularly in London where you’re likely to overhear several different languages! I know this will hurt, but try to avoid meeting anyone from your home country as the temptation to slip back into your native tongue will be just too great.

3. Spend at least thirty minutes a day, every day, on your English. We teachers aren’t all horrible and nasty and give you piles of homework because even we haven’t got time to check it all, so there’s a good chance any homework we give you will take you less than 30 minutes to do. If so, then give yourself some extra written work. All the language bookshops offer books that help you to practise everything about the language without a teacher (but they are not replacements for a teacher!). Typical Errors in English is, even if I say so myself, an entertaining read, something most grammar books fail to do. But if I had to choose other publications, then these would be the series of books published by CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, particularly those grammar books by Raymond Murphy which explain in simple terms – and by using examples – how English grammar works, and then sets you exercises. Martin Hewings has the same book for advanced students. But I’m working on TEE to be better...

4. Talk to your fellow students in English. If you’re in a group, practise with the other students before the lesson, during the breaks and after the class! Even better, if your fellow students come from the same company or workplace, then you have excellent opportunities to practise your English at work – although you will probably have to keep that to small talk. Serious business would probably have to be kept in your native language!

5. Don’t switch off! It is so easy to walk out of that classroom after an English lesson... and then think only in your native language! Think of it as switching off a light; the room becomes dark as it is 'emptied' of this light. If you switch off the English in your head, then you’re in danger of emptying your head – you’ll soon forget a lot of what you have learnt unless you have a particularly good memory or ear for languages. Keep thinking the language as much as you possibly can – doing the homework at the earliest opportunity helps a lot.

6. If you miss a lesson, find out what you missed. There's nothing more annoying than you coming to a group lesson after a two week holiday (or a day off due to business or illness) and not knowing what happened previously. Don’t expect the teacher to help you on this during lesson time – they and the other students will be eager to move on. Check any online forums or systems that your school may have that keeps you informed. Look at your coursebook and student book so you know what you’ve missed and what to expect in the next lesson.

7. Be prepared! Again, check with the school forums and online facilities, and then look at your course books and find out what you might expect in your next lesson – and read them. If you come prepared, the next lesson will be so much easier.

8. Write down everything new and write down examples of their use. This is particularly so with new words and phrases. I have a technique with one conversation student with every new word I introduce: the word is written down, and we come up with one or two questions and answers that makes use of the word, to put it into context. Once we have collected many new words, we play a question-and-answer game where one of us uses one word from the list we have collected (and memorised) and the other has to answer the question, using a different word from the list. This encourages creative thinking and imagination, and it’s fun!

9. If they speak English, use them. If you have a friend or colleague at work who can speak English, or even a member of the family, practise with them!

10. Access the Internet. 80 per cent of web traffic is in English. There are several websites that have been written to at least an intermediate level, Wikipedia being the obvious example. Listening is not a problem – the BBC’s radio services are available online anywhere in the world (except for live sport).

11. Download an English language learners app. There are several free applications available such as LearnEnglish, Duolingo, Xeropan and Babbel (although some do come with in-app purchases, so be careful), which can help you with new vocabulary and grammar, depending how you configure the app. This means being able to practise anytime, anywhere!

12. Read a good book. There are plenty of places to access English language stories, but there are also plenty of books, particularly in the Pearson English Readers range, that take classic and contemporary novels and present them for learners of English. If you have an i-Pad, tablet or Kindle, there are also several books – some even free – for download from Amazon.

13. Listen to a good book. There are plenty of audiobooks on the market, even in language bookshops and maybe the English section of your local library (if you still have one). Find a quiet room, put on the headphones and feel yourself getting 'absorbed' into the story. BBC Radio 4 and 4 Extra often have books read, and dramas performed, many of which – from an app called BBC Sounds – are available to download as podcasts!

14. Make use of satellite, cable, streaming services, or an English language movie you bought on DVD. There are many free English language TV channels available (unfortunately these are mainly news, shopping and religion) you can watch and listen to. But you can pay to watch BBC channels on cable subscription services, plus there’s Netflix and Amazon shows in English! Use English subtitles! Get rid of the lektor! Hear the language in action!

15. Maintain your enthusiasm! Well this is rather obvious, but to do something for so long will test your patience. But you had to go through all this at school or further education. If you let your enthusiasm slip for any length of time, it’ll be very hard to get it back again.

So there you go. Now I don't expect you to follow every single one of these tips, but I would say that try to at least follow a minimum of 8. A reasonable amount is 10, enthusiasm beyond all expectations would be any number beyond 12!

  1. According to the text, why should you continue to practise your English outside of the classroom?

  2. Why is it good to always do your homework?

  3. How many minutes a day should you practise speaking English?

  4. What is it good to do with your fellow students in the classroom?

  5. What shouldn’t you do as soon as you finish your English lesson?

  6. What should you do if you miss a group lesson?

  7. What should you do to learn new vocabulary?

  8. Do you have any family members or colleagues who speak English? What should you do if this is the case?

  9. From where is it possible to listen to books for free?

  10. What should you do if you are watching TV shows and movies on streaming services or satellite/cable channels?

  11. How many of these tips do you practise? Do you feel you could do better with learning English in your free time?

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