Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How to learn English?

Many people are learning English around the world. For example, some 300 million people in China, including children at school and adults in evening classes, are learning English formally.

I see from my blog statistics that readers are accessing this blog in many countries, including Russia, Burma, Korea, the United States, India, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In some of these countries, English is the native tongue, in others it is a second language. Although many readers are looking for help with the finer points of English, others may be looking for a way of starting to learn English, or learning English more effectively.

There is plenty of advice online on how to learn English, much of it from language schools.

The advice on this blog is independent and free. But it's just my point of view. There may be others.

So, what should you do if you are living in a country where people speak another language and you want to learn English? Here is some advice for you whether you are attending a formal English class or not.


Learn to speak English first. The three other skills you need are listening, writing and reading. But you will learn faster and better if you try to speak the language as soon as you can.

So first find someone who speaks English and speak to them. There are several ways to do this:

  • Go and stay in any country where the main language is English. You could do this as a language school student, a tourist, or a temporary worker. The longer you stay the better.
  • If there is an English-speaking community in your home country, get involved with it. If you have an interest or a skill to offer, you may be particularly welcome. Otherwise, just get to know the people there socially.
  • Advertise for a language-exchange partner. You offer to help an English-speaking person speak your language in exchange for learning English from them. You may also answer an advertisement for language exchange posted by an English speaker.
Don't worry about not speaking perfect English. You are a learner and you have to start at your own level. You will make mistakes. You will learn from those mistakes.

Find someone who is patient and helpful. Ask them to correct your mistakes. Then speak to them in English and let them help you improve. It is best if you take notes so that your partner does not have to correct the same mistakes many times.


What about listening skills? You will learn these best by talking to people in English. As you listen, make sure you understand. If you don't understand, tell the person you are talking to to speak more slowly or use different words. 

If you have cable television and can watch the BBC or CNN (or other English-language channel) in your country, then choose a programme like the news and watch that. It is all right to watch lots of programmes in English so that you can get used to the sound of the language, but it is best to watch a short programme which also has textual information on the screen that you can refer to, so watching the news is good.

Watching movies in English is also good practice. If your television has subtitles, select English subtitles and you will have text to refer to when watching the movie. Don't worry if some movies are more difficult to understand than others. This may be because of the script or the sound track. You may be more comfortable watching movies where you find the English easy to understand, so that you only have to look up or ask about a few words you don't know.


Writing is a way of recording what people say. You can start writing English as soon as you know one or two words and how to put them together. Then you need to have someone who can help you improve your writing. How can you do this?

The usual way is to join an English class so that you have a teacher to correct your writing. But not everyone can do that. Even if you have a teacher, it is good to practise writing to other people to increase the amount of writing you do.

When I started learning French, way back in the 1950s, the way to do this was to find a pen friend. I was lucky in having a very good pen friend in France. We could write to each other in either language. When I wrote in French he could correct my mistakes and when he wrote in English I could correct his English. Later, we visited each other in the summer. My father had not learned French, so my pen friend had to speak English in the house to be understood, and his parents did not speak English, so I had to speak French. Outside the home there were obviously many other opportunities to practise French and English.

In those days, we had to wait several days (at least) for replies, as we were dependent on international mail. Now you can find "pen friends" online and write to them by email or by instant messaging. Finding pen friends is much easier, too. It can be too easy: be careful whom you meet online. If you trust social networks like Facebook, use those. But be careful to protect your privacy and communicate only by message, not by posting to a network. In addition to finding someone you can trust, you should also check to see if the person is prepared to write good English, not just use abbreviations like "c u" ("see you") instead of "goodbye".


There is no difficulty finding things in English to read online. Choose websites that have a reputation for good English. You may have local websites, even government websites, that have an English section where the writing is sometimes not very good. They will not be helpful for you. It would be better to go to a website published by native speakers of English. 

It is best to choose websites in your area of interest. For example, if you are an electrician, look for websites that explain electrical systems in English. If you love movies, look at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com). Such sites will be more useful to you and you will gain confidence in your English more quickly by reading them.


Don't limit yourself just to the advice given above, which is not a catechism. If you find anything else to be helpful in learning English, do it. For example:
  • Making labels in English and sticking them on things in your home. (Like, say, "CUP" on a cup or "WASHING MACHINE" on the washing machine.)
  • Playing Scrabble with someone who speaks English. 
  • Buying children's reading books when you visit an English-speaking country.
  • Calling a restaurant and booking a table in English.
  • Going to an Internet chat room and leaving comments in English.
  • Collecting free newspapers in English and seeing how much you can understand in them.
  • Doing crosswords in English. (Not cryptic crosswords like those in The Times; they are too difficult for 99% of English speakers!)
  • Mixing English and your own language in sentences when you don't know how to say a complete sentence in English. This is also a good way of gaining confidence. Use it as a stimulus to learn how to say the complete sentence in English.
  • Anything else you find that helps you learn English. You are welcome to add this to the list be emailing me at kendavies@yahoo.com or else by posting a comment on this blog.

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