3 Tips to Power up Your English Learning
Today I want to talk about English, the most widely-studied language in the world with the largest number of second language speakers. It’s become the international language of communication, business, even science. So, lots of people learning English.
I think lots of people are stuck at a level in English where they would like to improve or that they don’t feel satisfied with their level and they don’t know how to go about improving.
We have a new employee, Anna. I did a video with Anna and she’s taking part in a 90-day challenge to work on her English. So I had a session with her yesterday where I went over three bits of advice, three tips on things that she can do to improve her English. I don’t know if these tips will prove useful or not, but I thought I would share them with you as well.
Maybe Anna is typical of a lot of people. Her background is in digital marketing in Spain and she’s going to help us. The day before yesterday we had a session for 3-4 hours. We talked about what’s known as onboarding and how at LingQ we can try to do things that might make people want to join LingQ more than what’s happening right now on the site. So that was the nature of the meeting. She participated, she participated effectively, but I came away with the sense that there are three areas where she can improve and I think these three areas apply to other people.
There are moments when I can tell that she doesn’t fully understand what we’re saying or she has to ask for clarification, so I say comprehension is more important than your ability to say things sort of totally without error or fluently.
If you are looking for words or if you have to go back and say it twice because we didn’t fully understand what you said, that’s less of a problem than when you don’t understand because you can control what you’re saying. You can see that people didn’t fully understand and you can say it again. If you don’t understand, if you understand 85% but you’re missing 15%, very often that’s a very important 15% and you just can’t keep on asking “sorry? I beg your pardon, I didn’t understand.” You have to focus first of all on comprehension and, therefore, I recommended that she should have three kinds of content that she listens to and reads and that she works on in LingQ.
Sometimes you have these courses, Business English, Academic English. Go find content in your area of professional specialization or expertise, import these into LingQ. Study the words, the phrases. Gather all the key terminology, as well as the phrasing that helps you introduce your thoughts. You can glean these from this professional material. So that’s the first kind of content that she should work on to improve her comprehension.
Content You Connect With
I believe that a lot of language learning is connected with emotion, so go and find some content. It might be literature, something that you can really like and connect with on an emotional level. It could be a novel. It could be anything. I recommend that you have both the e-book so that you can read it and pick up words, increase your vocabulary and the audio that you can listen to and take yourself into another world, but you’re totally relying on English, in this case for her, to take you there. You’re building a sort of sentimental connection to the language you’re learning. I have always found that that was important in my learning.
LingQ Mini Stories
You can’t just focus on the professional terminology. You kind of have to elevate your total level in the language. That’s been my experience, so I said to her do, one, your professional content, two, some content that you can fall in love with and, three, work the mini stories that we have because there you have all the basic structures, all of the most frequently used words and you can listen to it over and over again. You can listen to it mechanically in the background while you’re exercising. The mini stories are more like going to the gym, in fact. It’s just exercising in some of the more basic structures in the language. So I said do these three things. That’s going to help you in the second major point.
Now, she pronounces well enough that we understand and, in a way, that’s the only thing that really matters. But most people want to pronounce better than that, so the first thing I pointed out to Anna is that you have to divorce the way words are said from the way they are written.
In Spanish there’s a direct connection between how words are written and how they’re pronounced. That’s not the case in English. While people know that at some theoretical level, they don’t necessarily apply it. She was saying things like ‘an-swer’ instead of ‘answer’. She might say ‘turn’ and ‘burn’, but then when it comes to ‘learn’ because it’s l-e-a-r-n, she would say ‘larn’. Again, I’d say focus on the fact that the writing system doesn’t match the way words are pronounced. That was one thing.
The second thing I said is focus on intonation. If you can get the intonation of the language a lot of this other stuff will fall into place. Even your phrasing will fall into place. So I recommended that she again go on LingQ and take a paragraph. Begin by doing five second bursts because we can control the sound bar, repeat five seconds. In that five seconds don’t worry about what you mispronounce as an individual word, but try to get the intonation of that five-second bit. Then do it for a sentence and then do it for a whole paragraph and work on that for let’s say 15 minutes just totally focusing on intonation. Then go and record yourself and compare yourself to the native speaker. Don’t do it every time. Work on getting yourself up to a certain level, then compare. You might be disappointed, but if you do that every day for two weeks you will get start to get closer to the intonation.
It’s not a matter of eliminating all evidence of a foreign accent. That’s not possible, it’s not even desirable. In fact, a slight Spanish accent, French, whatever it might be, is attractive in many ways if other things are there like, perhaps, intonation because it shows that you are trying to pronounce. You’re making an effort to approach the language you’re learning or to approach English.
So, two, work on intonation and, three, I reminded her again that unlike Spanish in English the unstressed syllable, the vowel often disappears. We don’t say ‘im-por-tant’, we say ‘important’. We don’t say ‘com-pre-hen-shon’, we say ‘comprehension’. That’s sometimes called the schwa, but why introduce new terms? Unstressed syllable, the vowel disappears. Just be aware of it, notice it and slowly, hopefully, that becomes part of your pronunciation.
So that was the second point on pronunciation and the third point is phrasing. She has a lot of words. She can always find more words. We come across words that she hasn’t heard before. One can always increase one’s vocabulary, but like many people she’s making up the language as she goes along, finding the words often from her own language, translating some words and putting them together and, therefore, delivering sort of an English structure that is based on Spanish patterns.
You have to work on getting English phrasing, English patterns. There, again, I said that’s why you should work on the mini stories because it’s simple content. There are not many words there that you don’t know. It’s everyday situations, a lot of repetition and just focus on the phrasing.
When you listen and read focus on phrases, then try to use those phrases. The goal in the listening and reading is to identify phrases. Save them in LingQ if you’re in LingQ so that when you go to speak you’re now able to speak in ready-made, prefabricated phrases that are, in fact, English phrases rather than having to take one word and another word and combine them in some way that corresponds to perhaps Spanish structure and, therefore, sounds clumsy in English.
If you can have good comprehension, if your pronunciation has more of a native intonation in English and if you’re able to use more natural phrasing — we’re not talking about perfection here, but as a direction to move into better comprehension, better intonation and better phrasing — then your English will improve. This applies, of course, to any language, but particularly to English where so many people are at sort of an intermediate level where they would like to make a breakthrough to a higher level.
I look forward to your comments.