Improving my English
I encountered a thread in a community group chat asking for advice on guiding someone through improving English skills. Some of the resources and ideas I shared were helpful, so I decided to write a longer blog post about it.
First, a few disclaimers:
I didn’t self-learn English - I had about 15 years of mandatory school courses and a fair share of instruction outside of the classroom
I had a heavy Polish accent until the second year of my undergrad, which disappeared by getting more comfortable with the language
I went to an English-speaking country for the first time when I was 25, so all my training was in Poland
These are some ideas that worked for me in the hope that they could be a good starting point for others to inspire their own explorations. Learning a language is like acquiring any other skill, it requires commitment and deliberate practice, with a lot of fun along the way.
It gets harder to set a goal the more comfortable one is with the language. Initially, my goal was to get good grades in school. Then I wanted to learn better English so I could read faster, because I had to sometimes rewatch parts of the subtitled movies.
Somebody spoiled the ending of the last Harry Potter book for me, because I was struggling through it for more than a week. Somebody else got praise for their beautiful accent and I was embarrassed about my hard Polish vowels. My Guild Wars team needed a translator for international runs. I wanted to go to New York for a few months to join a community of programmers.
My goals inflated as my confidence grew and I still see many ways I could improve: writing more American English, so my sentences are not Polish-long; flattening my too posh accent so people don’t think I’m trying to sound this way; using tenses and conditionals the way a native speaker would.
No matter where you are on your journey, try to set a goal that’s slightly outside of your reach and will motivate you to improve.
Switching to English
English classes were useful for learning the basics and making it a habit through homework and tests. What helped me get from being able to use the language to thinking in it was what I would do outside of the classroom.
I made sure to be surrounded by English through:
switching all my devices to English, especially since the Polish translations were often awkward
making sure to watch, read and listen only in English - binge watching “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Bones” and “Supernatural” helped, especially with English subtitles on and watching closely how people move their mouths when they speak, trying to mimic it
having conversations with myself - one of my friends phrased it better as having “mini presentations”, I’d sit in front of a mirror and answer questions in imaginary conversations out loud, talking about anything of interest (especially being one of the protagonists in a TV series I was hooked on)
memorizing standard sentences and learning how to replace certain words (a bit like Duolingo) - “I am eating cake” can easily become “I am eating pancakes”
learning about Polish grammar through English and Arabic studies - learning about the grammar of your own language or another language you know well helps with understanding grammar in general
writing more, even if I never posted it - especially short stories and programming tutorials, which require good structure and flow
interviewing people - talking to people on a daily basis while living in Poland, writing notes for the interviews and often rewatching parts of the recordings (which is super uncomfortable, but helpful)
moving to an English speaking country - I notice my brain being in English-mode more than half the time, even when I’m alone
English is notoriously irregular and hard to grasp. The pronunciation rules are often misleading, words have more synonyms than one could imagine and one can use it in a way that’s very hard to understand. (like this nightmare of a language test from South Korea)
When I encounter something new, I try to think of a pattern that can be a more general rule:
I noticed I’m using tenses differently than a native speaker would - one of my friends made me more mindful of the fact I use present perfect (have + past verb) more often; it was a revelation to me that the
-ingcontinuous tense is more natural for native speakers than the present simple form
I realized at some point that in English you want to have something in front of your noun 99% of the time, be it a particle or an article, which is not something we even have a notion of in Polish
my pronunciation improved when I started noting down words someone would be confused about, e.g. I often pronounce
spendthe same way, because in Polish we de-vocalize the last consonant and I was unknowingly doing it in other languages
Language learning is full of little “a-ha” moments and constant improvement. Looking for explanations and being more mindful of underlying patterns can help you get more comfortable.
Asking for feedback
It is hard and can initially be embarrassing to ask for feedback, especially if you’re surrounded by people who are more comfortable with English.
Ask someone you’d be comfortable getting feedback from
While still in school, your teacher is probably the best person to ask. It becomes tricky when you don’t have an instructor and have to ask your friends or coworkers to help you out. Make sure you’d be comfortable with them talking about your mistakes.
Understand what kind of feedback you need
Before I took my IELTS last year, I’d never think I needed to work on my speaking skills, but when I got a lower than expected score, I realized I was overconfident. Assess your skills as objectively as you can and think about which areas you’d need most help with. A good rule of thumb is looking for something you’re uncomfortable with. If you don’t like writing, maybe it’s time to start a blog and encourage yourself to write more.
Set ground rules
Helpful feedback is specific and focused on the issue - your English. Your friend might be a native speaker, a language teacher or just more comfortable with the language. For some reason they know something you don’t and you have a chance to learn from them. That’s great! Making mistakes is how you learn.
Some ideas that worked for me:
feedback is given in a way that’s not interrupting the flow of the conversation - otherwise it can make you feel uncomfortable
it should be focused on one aspect at a time - usually something that stands out the most, making the meaning unclear or inappropriate, e.g. don’t correct me on my particles if the tense I’m using makes everything confusing
the person giving feedback is open to explaining the issue in more detail - it’s not helpful to say “this is not right, you should say something different”
Example of good feedback
a friend, after I finished what I wanted to say: “By the way, you said you’d like feedback on your English. I noticed you are saying
polishwhen you mean
Polish. They sound nearly the same, but the difference is in the vowel - one is a long vowel.”
me, intrigued: “What’s this long vowel thing you are talking about? I have never heard about it!”
followed by a nice conversation about vowels in English
What was good about it:
they stated they’re giving me feedback I requested before to set up the context
they gave a specific example of what I was saying
they explained the more general context of the error
they were open to having a conversation afterwards, during which I learned more about the general rules and how native speakers perceive vowels in English
Example of bad feedback
during a longer conversation about buying books for learning Arabic
a classmate: “Well, I would never pronounce it
me, after an awkward silence: “Uhm.”
What was bad about it:
they were only pointing out the mistake, not giving the wider context
they focused on setting themselves up as more knowledgeable
they made me uncomfortable, because it was meant to be a joke on my behalf
Learning a language is hard at first, but as I got more comfortable, it became more natural and pleasurable. It’s not only useful, especially when you need it in a professional context, but also fun!
If you ever get discouraged, keep in mind that:
native speakers have the advantage of being surrounded by the language and thinking in it all the time - how comfortable are you in your mother language?
native speakers make mistakes - they omit particles, they use the wrong tense, they misremember a phrasal verb; I don’t know how many times I said
wziąśćin Polish even though the appropriate form is
wziąćand I have been corrected on it countless times
the fact that you have a foreign accent and sometimes make mistakes means you are learning - and that’s amazing!
Most of the resources I use are in English, be it programming language documentation or news sites. There are a few I tend to use more often, but this is a subjective mix of links that I enjoy that might be useful.
Reading blogs and watching vlogs about English is fun and helpful:
- Grammar Girl
- Merriam-Webster vlog
- engVid (Jade has the best lessons!)
General tools for longer reads:
- Readlang is a browser extension you can use for websites that helps you look up words quickly
- Pocket for saving longer articles
- using a tablet/ebook reader to read ebooks, especially using the built-in dictionaries to not interrupt your reading (try to understand the context of the word before you look it up)
- Hemingway a writing app, it’s hard to adjust not only your understanding of the grammar, but also your style to English, e.g. shorter sentences, more repetitiveness, simpler structures
- Grammarly for checking your grammar on the fly
Podcasts (any podcasting app will do):
- Invisibilia - talking about invisible things around us and science
- Note to Self - a podcast about our relationship with technology
- Rationally Speaking - rationality and skepticism
- Science For The People - various science
- Hidden Brain - mostly focused on science of human behavior