I’ll be honest with you. I’m writing this article to help not just you but also myself since I’m a language learner too and in need of a reminder from time to time. The tips I’m going to give are the things that worked great for me when when I was an aspiring English learner, and those I’ve been giving to my students as a teacher. I’ll also include what I’ve been doing when learning Japanese lately. The tips can and should help any language learner, no matter what language they are studying.
Even though the article is quite lengthy, I hope you’ll read it to the end and find my advice useful. Feel free to share any thoughts on the subject in the comments below. I’d love to know what’s on your mind. So…
Tip # 1. Have faith in textbooks
“Throw away your textbook as it won’t teach you real English.” You may have heard something along those lines. But that’s not entirely true. Even though textbooks (especially those for lower levels) won’t teach you street slang, neutral English is just as real as informal one. It’s methodologically right to introduce how are you? before what’s up bro?. Moreover, textbooks written for a specific level feature not just vocabulary a learner should know at the level. They also teach the necessary grammar and include materials for development of all language skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking). Not all textbooks are the same quality, of course. But you should have trust in those published by well-established companies as their educational products are created by professional linguists and methodologists.
Tip # 2. Have a grammar notebook
This tip is mostly for beginners, pre-intermediate and intermediate learners. Have a pretty thick notebook where you’d note down new grammar structures. Allocate as much space as you’d like for each topic (I’d do around 1-2 pages).
The heading should state what the topic is, then there should go the pattern and lots of examples. Use the notebook when reviewing the material, doing writing, speaking, etc. The point is it’s easier to have all the grammar close at hand than to have to leaf through a textbook or surf the Internet every time you try to remember something or check if you remember it correctly.
Tip # 3. Have a vocabulary notebook
This tip could be good for advanced learners as well as beginners. Even if you don’t review the vocabulary you write down, it’s alright because the most important thing here is writing itself. When you do, a few types of memory are at work. You may then forget that some word is already in the notebook and write it down again. That’s perfectly fine. Keep writing it down over and over again as you come across the word. Eventually, you’ll commit it to memory.
Tip # 4. Remember words and grammar in context and in clusters
Don’t try to memorize words out of context. Even if you succeed, you might be unable to actually use the word later. Take the word commit for example. Instead of trying to learn just commit, try learning a collocation or two: commit a crime / commit suicide / commit something to memory. Every time you see a new word, pay attention to how it’s used. The same can be true for grammar. Try memorizing a phrase using a tense you are learning, for example. How have you been? or As I have said before for the Present Perfect, for instance. Again, note the context in which a grammar pattern is used, then remember the whole phrase to use it in a similar context later. Not only will you remember that, you’ll also remember how the phrase is “built” almost effortlessly.
Tip # 5. Work with short texts and audio files
If you study a short text instead of a long one, you may be able to study it more thoroughly. You’d focus on a limited number of words and grammar patterns. Zeroing in on a few paragraphs is easier than doing the same for a whole book. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt a book, though – see tip #12 below.
The same approach works for audio files. Work with fragments of radio programs, news reports, etc. and make sure everything is clear about them: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation patterns, etc.
Tip # 6. Shadow and sing
Shadowing is reproducing what a speaker says as he/she speaks. Don’t confuse it with repetition because you repeat after someone said something. Shadowing is great for improving pronunciation as it can help you level up your accent and intonation among other things.
Not everyone attempts singing, but if you are blessed with a singing voice and an ear for music, or if you simply love singing, give this to a try. Singing in your target language will do you good – improve your articulation and also help you remember lots of vocabulary along the way.
Tip # 7. Speak through it all
All learners find it difficult to speak in their target language at first – it’s perfectly normal. You should get comfortable with being uncomfortable, accept the fact that mistakes are inevitable and just let your fears go. Allow yourself to make mistakes, to forget almost everything you’ve learned so far as you speak, and try to see the beauty in all of it. You are in the process of mastering a completely new language and you are doing great.
Try your best to find a speaking partner. These days there are lots of opportunities for that, and lots of them are free. If that’s impossible, speak to yourself, read aloud, shadow, sing. Get used to yourself speaking in your target language even if there’s no one there to reply.
Tip # 8. Make the most of your dictionary
Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced learner, you should try to make the most of this tip because a dictionary is a learner’s best friend. Beginners start with bilingual dictionaries – those giving a translation of a word, not it’s definition. But you can do better than just look up a word and see its direct translation. Check out example sentences given, and cultivate curiosity to go the extra mile. See additional meanings of the word you’re looking up, check out what some unknown words in the examples mean, etc., and when you’re ready move on and use a monolingual dictionary to see definitions in your target language. That’s very useful for language immersion and further vocabulary expansion.
Pay close attention not only to the translation/definition of a word but additional information provided for it. For example, if you look up detour, you’ll see that it’s a countable noun. Therefore, it is used with a when it’s singular. You can also see that it is used with the verb take, so the typical collocation would be take a detour. Knowing all of this, you can act on tip #4.
Tip # 9. Keep a diary in your target language
If there’s a person around you who can check your entries and correct any mistakes, it’s best. But if there’s no one like that by your side, and you are sure each entry is very far from being accurate and natural, cheer up. Writing, just like speaking, is a productive skill. So, when you are writing something, you are practicing expressing your thoughts and therefore communicate. But if when speaking, you don’t have time to think much about how you can say things better, look up any words you get stuck for, etc., when you are writing, you do have time for that. So, you understand what vocabulary you lack, you can easily look that up and use it in the context of your life.
Tip # 10. Get to the bottom of it
Remember that you should get curious 🧐. The famous English proverb goes, “curiosity killed the cat,” but that doesn’t apply here.
When you come up with a question, take time to find the answer to it. Don’t leave yourself guessing. Whether that’s something grammar-related or a nice expression you have in your first language and would like to know the equivalent to in your target language, satisfy your curiosity. There are sites like Stackexchange.com and numerous blogs (like this one) where you can do that.
Tip # 11. Proceed with caution
Tip #5 is about the benefits of short texts and audio files, but what kinds of texts and audio files should those be? This should depend on your level and interests. For your regular practice, take materials suitable for your level. This should spare you some frustration and, even more importantly, be more helpful in your particular circumstances. If an elementary English learner takes the original “Hamlet” for extensive reading, he/she will be overwhelmed by the language, and the book won’t even help them much practically – it’s written in Middle English, not modern English. So, even though “Hamlet” is a great work of literature, you should probably go for something published in this century if you want to level up your English.
Tip # 12. Attempt the unadapted (occasionally)
Proceeding with caution (tip #11) is safe, meaningful and helpful. That being said, it doesn’t mean that you should never go too far outside your comfort zone. (Actually, leaving your comfort zone when learning languages (and not only then) is always beneficial – that’s when you enter your growth zone; what I mean is it should still be informed by your level of ability.)
From time to time, attempt original materials (e.g. Internet articles or TV news stories). Do what you’d normally do – look up new vocabulary, try to make sense of new grammar used in them, etc. Depending on how difficult that is, you’ll get a pretty good idea about where you are in terms of your current level. It also can and should inspire you to keep up the good work. Praise yourself for the fact that you can already attempt something unadapted. It’s OK that you are still uncomfortable reading/listening to those materials. What matters is that you are moving in the right direction.
Tip # 13. Let your hobbies help
“What is learned without pleasure is forgotten without remorse” (Epictetus). So, in order to keep going even when the going gets tough, you need to have something to support your interest in language learning. Do you like cooking? Recipes can teach you a lot food and cooking vocabulary. Are you into arts and crafts? Try watching YouTube videos about your hobby in English – those can be good for virtually anything – from your listening skills to speaking, if you try shadowing (see tip #6). Some people hesitate to watch movies, short videos, etc. with subtitles, but there’s no need to. Subtitles don’t slow down your progress at all. If anything, they are beneficial to your vocabulary, reading, listening skills and even spelling.
Tip # 14. Build a habit
“Dripping water hollows out stone not through force but through persistence” (Ovid). How does that translate to language learning? You need to develop a habit of devoting time to learning your target language every day. Not once a week, not even twice or thrice. Every day. Does this sound daunting? It shouldn’t, especially because it can be a lot of fun (see tip #13). You don’t even have to make it all “perfect” – like sit at a desk and have some special devices and stuff at hand. You just need to do anything language learning related in a given moment. Imagine you are tired after a long day at work. You are finally home and has just had dinner. Lie down, take your smartphone and spend half an hour (or more if possible) reading news, watching an educational YouTube video or learning English with a website like this. Do whatever you want but do it with pleasure, do it regularly and remember that making time for language learning is your key habit. If you manage to build it, everything else will follow.
Tip #15. Celebrate achievements
Did you attempt an unadapted article and understand almost all of it? Did you spot a mistake made by yourself or someone else? Did you make yourself understood when speaking with a native speaker? Rejoice! Let those little and at the same time huge achievements motivate you to keep learning. You can do it! Can you see it? Learning a brand new language can be frustrating, but it’s worth it – it makes you smarter, so much more attentive to detail and culturally aware. In a word, it makes you richer. Stay patient and celebrate your progress, no matter how slow it may be because it doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you move forward.
Further reading: “How to Make Learning Enjoyable”
Do you have any other tips to share? Feel free to do that in the comments. Thank you for reading and good luck! 😉 🍀