People often ask me: How did you manage to learn English so well? I have quite a baggage of my own experience and it took me long, and it was not an easy walk. A major part of my teaching job is dedicated to thinking over finding quicker solutions. I want to be the person with hands full of efficient advice because for me there was no such a person. I had to do it myself, on my own.
What I will be trying to do in this article is I will be trying to persuade you that learning a foreign language is actually possible. It is VERY possible.
And you don’t need to spend money on language courses in England (come on, it’s a real fortune), and you don’t need the best teacher in the world with the best methodology in the world. Of course, they can help at some stage and make thing just nicer and faster (sometimes), but they are NOT NECESSARY. It’s just a strong wish to do it, understanding why you are doing it and some discipline!. How can we define this ‘some’ in ‘some discipline’? This will directly depend on your ‘wish’ and ‘why’.
Let’s start with some numbers:
- I studied English at school for 8 years
- I had English as my major at a good Russian university for 5 years
- I received a CPE (Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English – the highest level possible) certificate in 2013, the year when I first went to an English-speaking country in my life. So, I learnt it all by myself, with little opportunity to travel and limited access to native speakers.
So, it was a long way. Do I know English perfectly? No, of course, no. But I am fluent. I’ve been repeatedly praised for my accent and grammar accuracy. I was one of the strongest at grammar and structure in my CELTA (Cambridge Certification for Teaching English to Adults) group. I still have zones for improvement (because it’s never enough vocabulary, right?), but I am very confident about my English.
So let’s ask some questions which could generate some lessons to get from my story.
Why did it take so long?
If you already counted, it took 13 years before starting an actual career. And this number looks terrifyingly long. But it is not the scariest thing about it. What is?
It’s that, when I just started teaching after getting my university diploma, I couldn’t speak or understand any live English speech. Almost nothing (sorry, my first students, I hope it was not too bad, after all). I felt uncomfortable and the words refused to connect into something beautiful. I could make sentences not longer than 4-5 words, and no complex grammar, please. No way. And listening was a real torture. I couldn’t even get a general idea(( no, no. By the way, how I managed to survive five years of university with this ‘rare’ talent, it’s more the story about defense mechanisms (maybe, one day I will write about it too). I could read. Yeah, it took me 13 years to learn enough words to understand some adapted texts, that’s all.
So, the first important point is – we don’t count the years of learning which was not focused and when we were not in control of our learning process.
I was a demonstration of this sad truth: If I can’t use a language, I don’t know it.
Of course, I knew a lot. But I felt so awkward when using it, I couldn’t deal with all the knowledge I had.
After I started teaching, [bctt tweet=”I felt so ashamed about all my problems with English that I took active measures and actually learnt the language.” username=”StordarLearn”] It took me 2 years. Only 2. That is the period that, according to my own and students’ experience, I usually recommend.
It will take you about 2 years to learn to use the language if you start at a beginner level.
If your initial level is not Beginner, you might need from 6 to 16 months, depending on your goal and discipline. It is not that long at all. You just need to focus and actually learn.
In our schools and universities, they just put the information in you, using you as a ‘storage facility’. There is no understanding of structure. There are no learning goals. There is no active student’s attitude. And there is so little chance of actual practice. I hardly said a word both at school or university. You can’t learn a language if you don’t speak it. Not possible at all. There is no LEARNING happening there. That’s why I used the word ‘studying’ when said about it. It’s just a never stopping non-directed STUDYING. Well, I enjoy ‘studying’ too, it is an interesting process in itself. But first, we need to start with ‘learning how to do it’ (in our case, how to speak and understand) and then you can go on with ‘studying’ however long you want.
So, please stop counting those years you kind-of ‘been learning’ a language. Concentrate on directed efforts with a clear goal of using English (or any other language you learn) in a real context. How long has it been happening for you? Has it?
How did I work with my English?
So, I had to learn English. What did I need to do?
First, I understood my priorities: I needed to talk to my students.
And I understood my pain zone: I wanted to be able to understand speaking English and I wanted to feel comfortable when speaking: not to be lost for words, and not to get stuck in the middle of the phrase feeling words being wooden bricks which didn’t want to make up into something complete.
Next, I understood how I learnt the best. I believe in learning style. I am a kinesthetic. I never learn through just reading a book. I need to do it myself: feel it through muscles. And you need to be informed of how you learn for the most effective. I am telling about learning style and how they can help on my podcast, but there is also much information on this available through the internet, You shouldn’t just spend hours on some exercises because it is a well-marketed programme. Ask yourself after every practice you have: What can I do after it? What did I get? What exactly did I learn today? And you only do what works.
So, I made a ‘learning map’ for myself. I would spend 60% of time on my first priority: speaking (producing speech), 30% – on my second priority: listening, and I also spent 10% of my time on brushing up my grammar because I was teaching. So, I was in search of ways of explaining grammar to my students. This was important too. I will not concentrate here on that particular part because it is more about teaching skills, but not speaking English.
Now, I only chose the activities which could be placed to a proper place on my map. I needed to produce speech (and don’t forget, it was 2002 and we didn’t have smartphones with apps back then, and the Internet connection was limited, and even finding language partners through Skype or Facebook was not real, because the social networks were not real 🙂 I only had books from the library.
The easiest part was with listening. You just listen to it. There is no secret here. You just listen to the same recording several times. First, without a transcript, just trying to catch at least something. (And sometimes it’s nothing)) and it’s ok too, just don’t lose patience). Then I listened to it looking at the text, paying attention to the translation, and writing down some words and phrases which I wanted to remember for later use to a special notebook. Then, after some pause (an hour, or even a day), I did it again without the text to catch with my ears what my brain already remembered. But sometimes I couldn’t hear it again. And I did it again and again. Believe me, if you listen to 20 texts in some particular period of time – you will improve. You will. There is no other way. It just needs to be 20 texts. Not 1. Not even 5. And this work should be consistent for some period of time. Let’s say 3 months. If you survive 3 months, you will go on with it, I know. When you learn a language, the key is repetition and discipline. If you are looking for a ‘magic pill’, it is not here. And please call me if you find one.
Speaking was a bit tricky because opportunities for practice were limited. But the rule is: the more you already know, the more you have to produce yourself. You can’t learn to speak reading a book or listening to a podcast or even watching your favourite TV show. The same as you can’t create a blog only reading about creating blogs. If you don’t write the posts, you have no blog, we all know that.
You need to PRODUCE some speech.
Productive skills are: speaking and writing. When we talk about writing as a separate functional skill (writing for business or academic purposes), it is very different from speaking in terms of vocabulary, text organisation and many other things. But if we are learning fluency, it can be a good tool at some stage. So, I did many things: I spoke to myself aloud, I spoke to the mirror imagining some students on the other side. Remember I told you about the words I put into a magical notebook after listening practice? I always used them for my own sentences, made stories using this vocabulary, put them on the cards and put this cards in front of me during the lesson and tried to use them at least 3 times during my workday. Of course, I spoke to my students and it was always a plan: Today you will say 3 more sentences. Tomorrow you will make up 5 more questions. I set myself micro-goals for my bigger goal – to speak in order to learn how to speak. It is simple as that. Nothing more than that.
I would never want you to go through that unbelievably difficult road I undertook. And thanks to the God of the Internet and Technology, we don’t have to anymore. Now you can easily replace my monotonous textbook listenings repeated hundreds of times with wonderful Youtube speaking channels or podcasts. You can use great apps on finding language partners or use apps too record yourself or even make a podcast out of your own practice. It’s all so much easier these days. You can even go for a travel and speak to native speakers and learn from them. I didn’t have this luxury back then. It was a hard road for me, yes. If all things I have described here feel like a real torture to you, please don’t get scared. Remember, I had a very big goal – learning English to create a career out of it. And I lived in Russia, without any contact to the English-speaking world. This is just my story, and it made me more determined and made me very strong.
How can it be faster for you?
But it shouldn’t be like that for people who are learning the language for practical purposes (or even for a hobby), not a career. It is still a quite a long process, but it is not hard anymore. It can be really enjoyable. But it should be PROLONGED in time: to help your brain process all the information and create a map of another linguistic reality inside your head. You need time for that.
And you need a balance of production and information. All the information (words, constructions, grammar) should be immediately put into practice or , if you didn’t do it before, should be practiced later. You need to produce THE SAME AMOUNT of time you learn something.
So, if you studied English at school and never practiced (only listened to the teacher, read texts and wrote words down into a particular notebook), now you need to speak non-stop for a couple of months. Only speaking. You can’t learn anything new for a while but only to try to use even that little YOU THINK you remember. Just motivate yourself to PRODUCE. If you went to a language school for a year spending most time on listening and reading and being able to only say 3-5 phrases at every class, count for yourself how many hours you now need to speak to somebody to get that BALANCE OF PRODUCTION AND INFORMATION. You could easily go for half a year) from my experience. Don’t pay attention to the feeling that you say too easy, incorrect or too stupid phrases. Just give yourself time. And make ‘baby steps’ like I did: “Today I will say three sentences and tomorrow I will make it four”. Just balance what you know and what you DO.
When I have students of non-beginner levels, I always start with just talking. Sometimes for a year. Of course, we together create a map with the destination of the real-life goals. But I am very attentive to the amount of PRODUCTION they do. I will tell more about my teaching methods later. For now, I think you get the idea.
The main rule: you PRODUCE the biggest amount of time possible.
I love my incredibly hard way to becoming a professional I am now because it gave me so much time to fall in love with the language and the culture I have chosen for myself to communicate. I am so enthusiastic about English, my students have no choice but to like it too. For me, it is work which has made me a responsible and sensitive professional. I know the pain of feeling awkward. But I also know the fulfillment of getting rid of this awkwardness. That’s why it’s easy for me to believe in my students. My first assumption: IT’S POSSIBLE.
But it’s only possible following the rules. My rules are:
- you can learn a language yourself, or you could use some help to make the process more interesting and enjoyable, but you have to be IN CONTROL of your learning process;
- not all learning is productive, and learning should be differentiated from ‘studying’. Collecting the information is not learning when we talk about learning a language;
- learning a language takes TIME. It is not necessarily hard, but it is a prolonged process which should be supported by a ROUTINE because you are creating a new linguistic reality inside your brain;
- you need to know what you want to be able to do and how you learn the best. It’s great to know your learning style or, at least, learn the ways which work for you to DO REAL THINGS;
- you need a map with your final destination (a real thing to do – e.g. signing new clients in negotiations) and with balance of skills you need to this (e.g. speaking skills – 65%, listening skills – 25%, writing skills – 5%, and reading skills – 5%) and exact activities which DEVELOP these skills.
I hope you get the idea. Now, I am also planning to share some stories of my students who chose to walk this way to English fluency with me. I am fascinated by these stories and I think they could be motivational for many people. But I would also like to hear yours.
Please comment below and share your experiences with me. Let’s make your language learning more productive together.