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How to Improve Your Written and Spoken English

How to Improve Your Written and Spoken English

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Reading Time: 10 minutes

It’s not fair, but it’s reality: to excel in many workplaces, you need to have some command of English. Most young professionals aren’t starting from scratch, given that some amount of English education is now required in most parts of the world. Still, maybe you slept through class, or perhaps it has been so long since you’ve used or studied it that you’ve lost much of your former prowess in the language. When quizzed, all you can come up with are simple verbs like “love,” “eat,” and “drink,” and basic nouns like “tacos” and “coffee” (if so, you picked good words to remember).

Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who has managed to retain quite a bit of vocabulary and grammar, you may nevertheless be frustrated by what you perceive as inadequate performance during real-life communication. Back when I was an English instructor, I would regularly have two or three students approach me after class to voice frustration over their struggle to converse. They were scoring high on vocabulary and grammar tests, but their efforts to synthesize those elements into speech or original writing often resulted in word salad. No doubt, this is a frustrating feeling. Trapped inside your own self, you’re fully aware of what’s going on around you but are unable to communicate to others that you’re following the conversation or that you have an opinion.

If you’ve ever experienced this while learning another language, you’re certainly not alone. Producing good utterances or writing in a second language is much more difficult than comprehending what you hear and read. This stage of language learning is called passive fluency: you can understand input just fine, but it’s difficult to produce good output.

No matter where on this spectrum you fall, don’t despair! With hard work, it is certainly possible to improve. While the subsequent recommendations are geared towards people who want to learn English, they’re applicable to almost any other target language.

Identify your goal

Almost everybody has his or her own idea of what success looks like. An aspiring diplomat might want to master vocabulary related to alliances, strategies, aid, economies, and trade. Journalists may want to be extremely proficient in comprehending and speaking colloquial language in order to interview people, but, if composing articles in their mother tongue, may not want to focus on writing and reading. Conversely, an analyst at a think tank might not care about speaking, but advanced reading comprehension is a must. If your significant other’s mother tongue is different, maybe you want to know enough to understand and communicate easily with his or her family. Goals and strategies for language learning will differ greatly from person to person, and that’s fine!

The best of the best: immersion in a target language-speaking country

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” the saying goes, but necessity has another metaphorical child: language acquisition. Obviously, not everyone has the time and/or money to do so, but if you can study abroad, work, or travel in Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the U.K., or any other English-speaking country (including some Caribbean islands), you’re virtually guaranteed to learn at least survival-level English. It’s hugely impractical to struggle through weeks (much less months) relying on Google Translate and extensive gesturing to ask a grocery store employee where the spinach is, or a doctor how to use your foreign insurance to pay for the medicine for the stomach bug you picked up.

Don’t be afraid to gently tell native speakers to stick to English so you can practice! Practically speaking, this is rarely a problem. Usually, it’s we English speakers who, when studying abroad, have to remind people that we’re trying to practice. Normally, this involves circuitous explanations in which we express that yes, even though they probably speak better English than we do their language, please indulge us. Nevertheless, if you happen to find a native English speaker who is also proficient and eager to practice your language, thank them for being accommodating while politely explaining that you’d like to practice English. You can always return the favor by setting up a language exchange or conversation partner arrangement.

Why is the immersion method so effective? The short answer is that it mimics how we naturally acquire language. Babies don’t learn their mother tongue in a classroom or via storybooks and grammar drills. Rather, they absorb the spoken language—embedded in real-life context—that is constantly produced around them (for more on human language acquisition mechanisms, read The Language Instinct, written by MIT and Harvard’s Dr. Steven Pinker). Moreover, immersion puts us in a sink or swim situation in which the need to function in daily life outweighs any qualms we might have about practicing in public.

Converse with native speakers without relocating

For the vast majority of people who cannot afford to jet off to a foreign country for half the year, there are still solutions! Find a community of (ideally, native) English speakers in your own country. Searching can be a daunting task, but it’s never a bad idea to check the websites, Facebook pages, and twitter accounts of Anglophone countries’ embassies to see if they’re sponsoring or hosting cultural events. Such gatherings are often full of English-speaking ex-pats.

Larger cities often have other milieus where English speakers are likely to congregate. Many a café’s wall is adorned with a bulletin board on which people post ads for conversation partners. If you’re in Amman, Jadal is one such café—it’s regularly populated with university students from the USA, Canada, and the U.K., eager to find a conversation partner. Most capitals have similar watering holes that are worth checking out.

Do you live in a small town where neither of these two options exist? You can always make use of the internet. Finding native speakers online can be a tricky business, and to avoid creepy mishaps, proceed with caution. Nevertheless, it can be done! Look for a tried and tested application or website to increase the odds of finding a quality conversation partner. One popular platform is iTalki, which connects teachers with prospective students. Speaky is another crowd favorite.

If you’re willing to spend money, you can take paid courses at a university or NGO. If you’re in the Middle East, you could go to your local AMIDEAST branch, an American NGO and non-profit that offers a variety of English courses taught by native speakers. Follow its social media page as well, because it occasionally hosts conversation hours or movie and discussion events that are a great way to forge connections with English speakers. The British Council, which has offices all around the world, is another excellent option, as it employs numerous qualified native speakers as instructors. Berlitz seems to be an extremely polarizing option, but, given its global presence, it’s worth mentioning.

Watch TV shows, movies, and the news with subtitles in the target language

There are many misconceptions surrounding language acquisition through television. The truth is, it’s a mixed bag. Unfortunately, sitting your baby or toddler in front of Sesame Street dubbed in Español will not a Spanish speaker make. There’s ample linguistic research to back this up. Dr. Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington has shown that exposing infants to Mandarin Chinese TV programs has no discernable effect on infants’ ability to discriminate between sounds in their mother tongue and sounds common in Mandarin Chinese. Notably, exposing infants of the same age to Mandarin speakers in real life did enhance this ability.

So, if watching a TV show in a target language isn’t enough to teach an infant, why is it that so many adults swear that it’s all thanks to Friends and Family Guy that they picked up such a good accent and extensive lexicon? This is especially confusing given that pre-pubescent humans acquire language much faster and better than adults, given the high plasticity of their brains. In this respect, a technique that produces any results for adults but none for infants is puzzling.

The answer is likely that by the time you’re an adult, you have more meta-awareness about language learning. You’re no longer a baby simply absorbing what’s going on around you, automatically building a grammar. Rather, you’re actively listening for how to say “please give me water” in the proper context, purposefully seeking out pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and phrases, and matching it with what you already know a language “should” have based on your mastery of your mother tongue.

The point is, you can use television as a means of improving your English, but you have to seriously engage with the medium. This means choosing both English audio and English subtitles. Lots of people find this objectionable because it means that they will occasionally struggle to follow along. There are two reasons to rely on English subtitles and not those in your mother tongue. First, you don’t want to accidentally slide into passive listening by focusing only on reading the translation in the subtitles. You’ll zone out and miss the spoken English, rendering the whole exercise moot.

There’s another pitfall to such an approach, one that is well-illustrated in a scene from Arrested Development. The main character, Michael, is put off by a grotesque conspiratorial wink his scheming mother gives him, so he tries to dissuade her from ever doing it again. He says, “I wonder how I can talk you out of ever making that face again.” On Netflix, the Spanish subtitles provided for this exchange fully capture the meaning: “Ojala pudiera convencerte de no volver a hacer esta cara.”

It’s a perfectly fine translation. However, if you were just starting to learn Spanish, you might mistakenly equate “I wonder how” with “ojala,” which would be wrong in other contexts. Ojala is more like “hopefully,” so the Spanish subtitles are literally closer to “I hope I can convince you.” Again, if you’re an intermediate or advanced speaker of Spanish, you’ll understand that you can perfectly capture a meaning without a literal translation. However, if you are a novice in the language, you might be misled. Though this example applies more to English speakers learning Spanish, the reverse holds true.

Yet another reason to use target language subtitles is that it allows you to pause the video, write down the word (it’s even better to record the linguistic and situational context in which it appeared), look it up in a dictionary, and review it later. It’s useful to engage multiple modes of language usage—speaking, listening, writing—when memorizing new vocabulary, and this method combines two (listening and writing). To really make it stick, try reading aloud the conversation with the emotion and inflection that the characters gave when delivering the line.

Learn vocabulary for activities that interest you

Speaking of associating feelings with learning, at least once a week, study vocabulary that personally interests you. Combining studying with entertainment can help you focus more intently and for a longer time. If you have an emotion or emotions associated with learning particular words, you may be more likely to remember them.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re passionate about cooking, and would like to know more about Louisiana creole food. Great! Creole cuisine’s history and terminology will provide you with a rich array of vocabulary in numerous categories: cooking methods (simmer, dice, sauté, season); foods (okra, carrots, onions, bell peppers, crawfish, gumbo, garlic, grits); spices (cayenne pepper, oregano, basil, thyme); and even history (creolization, appropriation, synthesis, innovation).

Find any topic you’re passionate about, be it cooking, sports, art, history, politics, science, etc.—and get learning!

Listen to podcasts in the target language

Got time to kill on the commute to and from work? Tired of looking at the same screen during your evening treadmill runs? Use the time wisely and tune into a podcast in English!

My personal favorites are NPR Politics and Gastropod. The former provides a balanced analysis of current developments in American politics, and the latter consists of quirky lessons about the history and science underlying foods. Once you find something you truly enjoy listening to, it will seem less like studying and more like entertainment.

Have phone calls with yourself

It sounds crazy, but it’s actually surprisingly effective for some people (including yours truly). To improve your spoken English, you need to get comfortable making all the sounds found in its phoneme inventory. You might have a near-native understanding of grammar and an impressive repertoire of advanced vocabulary, but if you don’t overcome the psychological barrier of speaking out loud, you’ll never achieve more than passive fluency.

Fake phone calls are nice because they relieve the pressure of performing in front of an audience, and they allow you to keep the “conversation” on topics of your choosing. This method is especially good for those with a theatrical flair. Once your tongue and mouth are accustomed to articulating the language, you’ll feel even better about conversing with other people.

Confront life with the target language

As you go about your day, try to describe what’s going on in real time in English. Annoyed that traffic is moving at a pace on par with cold molasses? Without translating from your mother tongue, try to describe the situation and how you feel in English. Have a busy day ahead? Go over (out loud, preferably) your schedule: I will drink my morning coffee and eat two boiled eggs, go running for 15 minutes at the gym, take a quick shower, drive to work, go out to dinner with friends, drive home, watch an episode of Twin Peaks, and sleep. Again, make a concerted effort to avoid translating—get yourself into the habit of thinking in English.

Talk around it

Most importantly, if during any of the previous exercises you stumble upon an idea you don’t yet know how to express in one word, try to talk around it! You can look up the word later, but on the spot, try to avoid freezing up and reverting to your mother tongue. This is so important for developing flexibility in any target language. For instance, if you don’t know the English word “fine,” substitute it in your sentence with “money you pay for breaking a traffic rule.”

Read

If your aim is to polish your written English, a wonderful way to start is by reading. Books, blogs, and physical and online publications like National Geographic, Time, The Economist, The New Yorker, Scientific American, The Atlantic, and Salon are great resources. They’re also a great way to improve reading comprehension, which is necessary if you ever plan to take the SAT or GRE in order to study at an American university.

At first pass, just focus on reading. If you come across a word or phrase you think is very important, write it down, along with the sentence/context in which it occurs. Don’t do this so frequently that you get bogged down, though. After you’ve read the book or article, go back, re-read it, and summarize each chapter (for books) or page (for articles) in English. You’ll be surprised at how much easier reading becomes.

Prepositions: the perpetual problem area

Prepositions: the perpetual problem area
Prepositions are the bane of many language learners’ existences. I personally think they are fun and more than a little fascinating, but most people vehemently disagree. I don’t envy students of English who must learn that “on the corner” and “at the corner” have slightly different meanings but are both correct, but “in the corner” is wrong, whereas “on the street” and “in the street” are acceptable but “at the street” is not.

Focus on stopping yourself from transferring your own mother tongue’s preposition rules over to English. When teaching Arabic speakers, for instance, I make sure to go over two common mistakes. The first involves possession. Arabic speakers tend to use “for” where we would normally use a possessive apostrophe. While “This is for Dalia” isn’t horribly wrong in English, it’s a sure sign that you’re not a native speaker. We would say “This is Dalia’s.” Similarly, we wouldn’t say “This house is for the Manaseer.” Instead, we’d say “this is the Manaseer’s house” or “this house belongs to the Manaseer.”

Equally ubiquitous is what I call the “put preposition error.” In Arabic, you often don’t need a preposition with the verb “put,” but in English, you do! Don’t advise your friend to “put some sunscreen—” rather, tell her to “put on some sunscreen” OR to “put some sunscreen on.” At a house party, you wouldn’t request a DJ to “put some music.” You’d ask that he “put on some music” or “put some music on.”

In truth, your English is perfectly comprehensible even if you don’t always use prepositions like a pro. However, if your goal is to sound or write like a native speaker, this is a good area for a little extra review.

The takeaway

In conclusion, there are numerous strategies and resources out there to avail yourself of in your quest to learn English. The takeaway is that it behooves any language learner to engage in active learning, multiple techniques, and review. Equally importantly, don’t be afraid to make mistakes—it’s an inextricable part of the language acquisition process!

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