My top 15 tips for learning English

When I worked on this list some five-six years ago, I thought ten tips would be enough - but after talking to another student, I found that not only was this not really enough, I now had to take in some changes and developments as far as modern life is concerned. Ah yes, modern life. That is the favourite phrase in our household - it is the standard excuse for everything that annoys us that, in fact, should not be doing so.


So let me begin these tips in the same way that I presented the last version.


Often many students concentrate only on the English provided by the people who teach it. Universities do, of course, give you plenty of work if you are studying English for a degree or diploma – after all, you will be immersed in the subject. But we do not 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.

But if you are 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 which you have paid good money is good enough. It is not possible to learn English only in the classroom. You will not become perfect speakers in one year. Unless you PRACTISE using it, everything you have learned will soon be forgotten. But many of these students leave the classroom, change back to their native language and never use English again... until the next lesson! Now I hope this is something you are careful not to do, and perhaps looking at this website or even the book this website is based is proof enough 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. It is surprising how many students do not do this! Homework gives you more practise on what you have learnt, and it helps you to look at the language in writing. It is also a valuable piece of self-study. It can even encourage you to look ahead into your coursebooks, and perhaps make you buy additional materials such as grammar books to help you. Well, you're looking at this website. Now if you haven't already got it, go and get the book!


2. GO TO A LANGUAGE SCHOOL IN AN ENGLISH-SPEAKING COUNTRY. Okay, for many, this can only be a dream because of the cost, particularly if you want to go to a language school in North America or Australia. So the UK may well be the best bet, the obvious reason being that you are surrounded by the language. There are some who will argue that the country's increasing cosmopolitan-ness makes this increasingly difficult, particularly in London. Try to avoid meeting anyone from your country - the temptation to slip back to your native language will be just too great.

3. SPEND AT LEAST THIRTY MINUTES A DAY, EVERY DAY, ON YOUR ENGLISH. Your homework might take you less than 30 minutes to do, so give yourself some extra written work. All the language bookshops offer books that help you to practice everything about the language without a teacher (but they are not replacements for a teacher!). Typical Errors of English is, even if I say so myself, excellent for central European students as it covers their most common errors, particularly in Poland - and hopefully an entertaining read, something most grammar books fail to do. But my favourites are the series of books published by CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS. The most popular books are the grammar books by Raymond Murphy which explain in simple terms and examples how English grammar works and then sets you exercises. Martin Hewings has the same book for advanced students. But we're working on TEE to be better...

4. TALK TO YOUR FELLOW STUDENTS IN ENGLISH. If you are in a group, practise with the other students before the lesson, during the breaks and after the lesson! Even better, if your fellow students come from the same company, then you have excellent opportunities to practise your English at work – although you will probably have to keep that practise to small talk. I am sure the serious business would 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! An analogy might be when you switch off a light, then the room becomes dark and it is 'emptied' of light. If you switch off the English in your head, then you are in danger of emptying your head - you will 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 in the last lessons. Do not always expect the teacher to help you on this during lesson time - he 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. Study your books so you know what you have missed and what to expect in the next lesson.

7. BE PREPARED! Again, check with the school or its online facilities, and look at your course books and find out what will be 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. Sometimes this encourages some creative thinking and imagination, but it's also 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, practice with them!

10. ACCESS THE INTERNET. It is believed that over 80 per cent of web traffic is in English. There are many websites 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. READ A GOOD BOOK. There are plenty of places where you can buy 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.


12. LISTEN TO A GOOD BOOK. There are plenty of audiobooks on the market, even in language bookshops. Find a quiet room, put on the headphones and feel yourself getting 'absorbed'. BBC Radio 4 and 4 extra often has books read and dramas performed, many of which are available to download!

13. MAKE USE OF SATELLITE AND CABLE. Listen to the language: I am sure there are many English language channels available (although these are mainly news) - that you can listen to. Hear the language in action!

14. RENT AN ENGLISH LANGUAGE DVD. If, after all that study, you want to see a good movie - rent a DVD. Watch an English language DVD with the English subtitles on. Even better, turn off the subtitles and just listen.


15. YOU MUST MAINTAIN YOUR ENTHUSIASM! Again, this is rather obvious, but sometimes to carry on with something for so long can really get a person tired. But you had to go through this process during your studies, and if you let that enthusiasm slip for any length of time, it is going to 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 - you would be doing very well if you are - but I would say that try to at least follow a minimum of 10. A reasonable amount is 12, enthusiasm beyond expectations would be all 15!


But maybe you think you are doing okay, or maybe you know you are doing something not quite right, but you are not sure why. So why not try the Good student quiz - if you dare! You will be asked a few direct questions, so it would be best if you did this exercise on your own... you might be pleasently surprised. I really hope you will not be awfully shocked...