Ways to improve English – introduction
Before I start, I would like to say that although the focus is on ways to improve English, most of what I say about modern language learning aids could apply to any language.
When I think back to when I first started learning German, there wasn’t much in the way of learning material. Specifically, there was:
- no internet
- no smart phones
- expensive international telephone calls
- VHS cassettes only in one language
These days, there are many more options, some of which you might not expect.
Yes, reading – it’s one of the best ways to improve English, or any other language. This can be physical books, kindle or other ebooks. To a large extent, it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as it’s well-written. Any genre, author etc. will help. Check out this post for a great way to get your hands on lots of discounted and free ebooks.
Ideally, you should read something that you find enjoyable. That way, the learning comes for free. If you find a word or expression that you don’t know, take the time to find out what it means. Don’t just carry on. Let me elaborate.
Try to guess the meaning, based on the context. Then put the book down and go and find out what the word or expression means. There may be more than one possible meaning, so make sure that you keep the context in mind. Then go back to the book and see if the meaning makes sense. You will find that the ability to guess the meaning will improve with practice, something that is extremely valuable in an exam situation. For extra learning benefit, you can make a note of these words and phrases in a notebook and look at it from time to time to refresh your memory.
If you’re new to the language and find reading difficult, then see if you can find children’s books. I’m serious. This will give you the practice that you need, at a level that is sensible. Don’t worry about the fact that you have a children’s book in your hands. What matters is that you have found material that helps you progress.
For advanced learners (and bearing in mind that this site has a Business English slant), try reading newspapers or magazines with business-related topics. Not only will this help with the language, but you will be better informed about the business world in general.
DVD / BluRay
The film really needs to be in the language you’re learning. I would avoid translated films, as dubbing makes it unnatural to watch as a learner. If you’re looking for ways to improve English, then you have a huge amount of material at your disposal.
Modern films on a digital format are wonderful learning resources. You can pause, replay, change the language, change / enable subtitles etc. at the push of a button. It doesn’t get much easier than this.
This is my suggestion to making the most of this amazing learning resource.
- choose a film that you really like and know well
- switch to the original language (i.e. the one you’re learning)
- watch the film, repeating and/or pausing as necessary
- switch to your native language as a last resort, then back, once you understand
As in the reading above, if you hear a word or phrase that you don’t know, pause the film and take the time to look it up.
A word about dictionaries
A couple of times, I said that you should look up words if the meaning is unclear. I recommend using an old-fashioned paper-based dictionary – you know, that thing gathering dust on the shelf.
If you use an electronic dictionary or online tool, you get the answer too quickly. This has the unfortunate effect of being forgotten, equally as quickly. If you’re looking the word up in a dictionary, it takes longer, but you remember it longer.
Obviously, if you’re on the move and you’re missing a word for the taxi driver, then by all means, use an electronic dictionary. The paper dictionary recommendation is for learning purposes.
There are many sites, both paid and free, that offer learning resources. However, the quality is very diverse and if in doubt, ask a native speaker to have a look for you.
I looked at online courses in detail in this post. YouTube videos deserve a special mention. There is a wide range of videos available in many languages, but again, ask a native speaker for check if you have any doubts as to the quality and correctness.
Yep, you read that right – online games. Even if the game is available in your native language, play it in the language you’re learning. You will get lots of reading and listening practice.
Pro tip for any younger people reading this: when your parents shout up the stairs, asking what you’re doing, just tell them you’re practising English 😉
If you’re playing an MMORPG, such as World of Warcrack, you will most likely be in a guild. Try joining one that speaks the language you’re learning. Join them on TeamSpeak, Ventrilo, Mumble, Skype etc. You will get good practice at listening to different voices, as well as speaking. Because they’re your guildies, they won’t be unkind and will be more patient than 99% of the population. If this isn’t the case, then find a guild with better people.
One problem is the ‘kewl kidzz’ who think it’s hilarious to write in ‘1337 5p34k’ (leet speak), which won’t help you in the slightest.
Another problem is the fact that a lot of non-native speakers are present, who might write poorly. Before you start screaming ‘racist’ at me, the problem is that you will see something written incorrectly, which start to look correct if you see it often enough. This isn’t good and once you form bad habits, they can be very hard to get rid of. At the risk of committing the same crime, people will write things like ‘if u wanna’ instead of ‘if you want to’.
There are many groups on Facebook that are dedicated to learning a wide variety of languages. As with so many things online, the quality varies, but there are good groups around. You just need to find them.
Avoid those where the group owner is only interested in harvesting engagement. You can spot these easily, because the majority of posts are just wordless images with mathematical puzzles, which have numerical answers. These provide absolutely no language learning benefit. Most of the time, the answers are also mathematically wrong, so groups like this only serve to increase the levels of general ignorance. Needless to say, just avoid these groups and concentrate on finding some good ones.
Ideally, I would recommend some now, but there are problems with this. Firstly, the owner can delete them. Furthermore, the language, level and flavour might not suit your needs.
However, I hope you will forgive me for mentioning my own Facebook group, English Language Learners Online. This is a group for learners at all levels, who want a supportive place to ask any questions about learning English. Click on the image above to join us.
Of all the ways to improve English, this is probably the worst resource for a learner. I’ve lost count of the number of times a student has come into the class and asked about the meaning of a song s/he heard on the radio.
Trying to understand song lyrics is usually a complete waste of time.
There are several reasons for this:
- unclear diction
- meaningless drivel
- forced rhymes
The most important reason, though? The song wasn’t written with your learning requirements in mind. It was written to express something, usually an emotion or feeling. The term ‘artistic license’ springs to mind. A great number of ‘sins’ are committed in the name of artistic license. By all means, enjoy the song – just ignore it as a learning aid.
If you’re still not convinced, imagine this real-life scene, as witnessed by your humble servant.
The neighbour’s five-year-old son heard a song on the radio he liked and was seen running naked around the garden singing “I’m horny, so horny horny horny” at the top of his lungs. Priceless.
Ways to improve English – conclusion
Today, there are many modern language learning aids available to anyone who wishes to learn or improve a language. I hope this post has been helpful in deciding which to use and which to leave alone.
Is there anything missing from the list that you have found useful?
Do you have any other ways to improve English using the resources mentioned?
Please let us know about it in the comments below.
So many fun ways to encourage people to read. Reading and writing are becoming lost arts. Lots of people have no idea about spelling, word meaning or grammar. Everything is covered here in a way that’s not intimidating.
I read a lot and from time to time cannot find books that I want to read. This is a great resource for searching for and obtaining books to read. There are probably lots of readers out there who just can’t afford to pay the going price for books.
Thanks for commenting. You might like to check out a recent post that looks specifically at e-books and how to get them at a reduced price, or even free.
Derek, you took me back in time, when I first came to UK from sunny Italy with a basic school level English and learned ‘the lingo’ through every day life – exchanging a word with the shop assistant, listening to conversations on the train, and of course, when I finally found a job. I just loved it!!
The learning never ends of course, as English will always be my adopted language, never my mother tongue. But when you mention looking up on the big dusty book for the meaning of unknown words, let me add a little trick if I may: every time you learn a new word, try using it as often as you can in your every day conversation. This will help memorising it for life!
Thanks for your interesting comments. Good tip about the dictionary.
Learning never ends, true words.
Some great ideas Derek! Learning a second language is important and this gives us an edge on how to do it more efficiently and effectively. I am interested in this, so reading this may help get me motivated.
I made a feeble attempt to start my engines on getting back to the Spanish language, using a phone app. The problem is, the people on there are more interested in learning English and do not help as much with Spanish. One thing helped to reset my general settings and make my profile more clear, but I still had issues. Do you have any suggestions for this problem? Do you recommend using an app?
Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what app you mean, but it doesn’t sound like something that is helping you.
Have you considered looking on YouTube, or Udemy? I’ve checked Udemy and there is a range of courses available. Did you check out my post about Udemy?
Hey Derek, thanks so much for this priceless information on learning another language.
I have to admit, I have had the strong desire to learn another language before, but didn’t take the steps to do it. Part of that has been not knowing where to start, and not affording the other resources available that I did know about. This has been extremely helpful in knowing where to start.
I especially like the tip about starting with children’s books in the language I desire to learn. That makes SO much sense!
Now, what new language to start learning? So many to choose from.
Thanks for your comment. Good to know that you found it useful.
Actually, people say practice what you preach and I feel the exact same way as you about not getting in the habit of, for example; always using slang instead of correct usage of the word, or phrase. and I don’t know if you meant to write World of “Warcrack” on purpose or not but I thought I’d give you a heads up, and that was one of my favorite games a couple of years ago, and it really does teach you a lot. I enjoyed this post, very well thought out.
Hi Carmen, thanks for your kind comments.
Yes, World of Warcrack was deliberate – it can be quite addictive 🙂
It is a good post. today, there are many aids in learning any language, but the most important one need to use it orally and write frequently.
Thank for your comment – practise does help a lot, no arguments from me on that.