Improve new language skills quickly

I taught English for about eight years, and half-way through that period, I studied the Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) to refine my skills.

I don’t teach English any more, but I’m still sometimes asked about the best ways to learn. So I’d like to share with you some proven techniques to help improve your English abilities quickly. However, these methods are not unique to English. You can be apply them to any language that you are learning right now.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) defines six levels of language learning: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. Level A1 teaches basic knowledge, such as the alphabet, pronunciation, greetings, simple questions and answers. To use these methods, you should be more advanced, at Level A2 or above. When looking for online material, search for “English level A2” or “lower-intermediate”. If it seems too easy, just raise your level.

SKILL TYPES

There are four skills to develop when you are learning a language: speaking and listening (spoken language) and writing and reading (written language). You will need them all if you are to become properly fluent.

Reading and listening are the easiest because they are passive skills. This means you don’t have to produce the language yourself – you only have to understand it.

Reading

Go to your local library. Most native English speaking countries have good library services, free for use by the public. If you do not live in a country where English is official or at least widely spoken, find a library with lots of English language resources. There you will find “graded readers” at your level. These are simplified versions of famous English books. You can also borrow books for young children in English. It helps you to learn a lot of vocabulary that you can use in either writing or speaking. Reading is better than learning lists of words because the words are in proper grammatical context, and stories are fun.

You can also read web pages. This will be harder because they are written for adults, but it’s good once your skills improve. You don’t have to understand every word to get something out of it. I recommend reading news pages in English from major news outlets, because they are short and you probably know some of the topics they discuss already. Or find an online magazine about your favourite hobby, because your hobby is another form of fun.

Listening

Listen to a podcast for English learners at your level. Go to your podcast provider (Apple, Android, etc.) and look for “Podcasts for English learners”. There are lots available, so try a few until you find one that you enjoy. To start you off, here’s a useful podcast website with level-based listening.

Now that the world is networked, you can also listen to the radio in different countries in different languages on your smart TV, laptop, or mobile device. You’ve probably already heard English-language rock and pop songs, but you can also listen to talk radio, with interviews or people ringing up, and programmes about local culture. This gives you the chance to hear everyday speaking between real people.

Watch television programmes in English, with subtitles in your own language. Or if you want to make it more challenging, without. Children’s programmes are a good way to start if you can get them not dubbed, then work your way up to adult shows. Soap operas are also a good way to learn because the plot and dialogue are usually quite simple. TV shows are better than movies because they are presented in short episodes you can digest easily, and a long-running series gives you a story arc to follow and enjoy. You should be able to find plenty of English-language content on the major TV streaming services.

Writing and speaking are harder because they are active skills. This means you have to produce the language yourself, in correct vocabulary, grammar and context.

Writing

Write to a penpal who speaks native English and who wants to speak your language. You can help each other to learn. Even if they don’t want to learn your language, just enjoy the process of putting pen to paper. Letters are an old-fashioned but great way to learn to write better. You can also write on email if the postal services in your area are not always reliable, or you want a faster reply. Find a group on social media that offers penpals, or do a web search for penpal services.

Speaking

Talk in English as often as you can – at work, with friends, everywhere you go. Don’t just read about your hobby in English, but use it to interact with others – cooking, or sports, or even visiting museums are good examples of hobbies that you can easily do with friends. Whatever you’re doing, encourage other people to join you.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Just talk. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak perfectly. Nobody speaks their native language perfectly, either. As long as you get your message across, you are doing well.

Most people won’t correct you if you make errors, because native speakers of English are often too polite, they can usually guess the meaning from what you say, and the majority are not professional language teachers. But ask your friends to correct your biggest mistakes as this will teach you as you talk and give you the opportunity to repeat the correct phrasing in real time, reinforcing it in your memory.

COURSES

There are two types of courses: online or face-to-face.

Online courses are very good for passive skills, because you have to interact more than you do with books or popular entertainment, and they also help you learn to pronounce better. There are a lot of courses online, so find one that you like. You might like to start with the BBC, which organises much of its material by skill level.

Face-to-face lessons with a professional language teacher, privately or in a group, is the best way to get proper feedback on all of your skills. Unfortunately this is mostly through webchat while the coronavirus continues to affect us, but it’s still better than a basic online course where there is no interaction. Once that’s over, go to a classroom where you can talk a lot. Just search for language schools in your area.

LEARNING TOOLS

I recommend that you buy a learner’s dictionary (on paper) and download a language learning app. There are many available but the best are from Oxford or Cambridge and they are worth paying for because the quality is so high. This will help you to remember new words and to understand better how they are used in context.

It’s good to have at least one physical book on your shelf because it reminds you every day to keep learning. The digital apps are very convenient, more comprehensive than any paper resource and regularly updated with the latest content.

HAVE A GOAL

Learning languages is a great hobby but it’s more motivating if you have a goal in mind. A language test gives you something to work towards and you feel like you’ve made progress when you pass it.

There are many tests available, but I recommend the Cambridge tests, as they are recognised as international qualifications that you can show employers to prove your language ability. Decide you want to pass a test and work towards it with lots of exercises and the help of a teacher. Find the test for your level here.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE

My years of teaching English and learning other languages myself have taught me that the most important part of learning any language is practice. Every time you speak, write, read, or listen in English, you make yourself a little bit better at it. If you make it fun and interesting, you will enjoy it and learn more. This is what builds confidence, and makes you good at English – or any language you want to learn.