Look beyond television series
It’s tempting especially during the lockdown: watching more and more English-language series on Netflix or another streaming service. This is indeed a great way to improve your listening skills, adapt to different accents, learn about humour in different countries, and pick up new words and expressions. But this method also has its limits.
In Hollywood, the level of vocabulary in series and movies is known to be kept low to appeal to a very wide audience. And owing to the dramatic nature of television, the words and phrases used can often lack relevance in our everyday lives.
SOLUTION: Real English can be better learned watching vloggers on YouTube speak about their experiences, interviews with professionals or celebrities, or even reality shows where people speak naturally or “off-the-cuff” (i.e. without preparation). These sources will give you insight into how people really speak, and the grammar and language people use in real life, without a script, director, or make-up artist!
Read, read, read!
I can’t say it any more clearly: reading is so important when learning a language. It’s by reading that we learn the majority of the vocabulary that we understand and use, and for a native speaker who’s attended university for 4 years, that’s on average 22,000 words.
To speak a language in most everyday situations, we need far fewer words – probably a few thousand will do just fine. But to have more nuanced conversations, or professional ones, we’ll need many more. Some words that we know we may never use – we may only ever see them in the newspaper but never or rarely utter them – until that one day when you are having a conversation about that topic!
And because we learn so much vocabulary by reading, it helps us in all the skills areas. In one study, students who engaged in extensive reading practice (reading regularly over the long-term) did better in all skills areas of an English-language exam (speaking, listening, reading and writing) than students who focused on other skills. Yes, students who read more did better in the speaking section of the exam than students who focused on speaking-practice! Not only did the new vocabulary learned help them, but the grammar too.
While some students find it demotivating to read because they don’t understand all the words, this should be seen as a learning opportunity. Language is a lifelong endeavour, so remember that learning new words will never end, even in our native language!
So pick up a novel, a non-fiction book, a biographies, or a newspaper, blog, book of poetry, scripts, menus….the list of possible sources is endless! Aim to read a bit every day or week, and write down new words that you learn.
Is your motivation “intrinsic” or “extrinsic”? Aim for the former!
Motivation is key to learning, and learning a language is no exception. But what kind of motivation do you have? Psychologists have drawn a distinction between two kinds – the intrinsic kind, which comes from within us and needs no outside support, and the extrinsic kind, which depends entirely on other people or support structures.
Being intrinsically motivated means you do something for the satisfaction and fulfilment. You learn a language for the sake of learning it, and the personal growth and enrichment it provides. Being extrinsically motivated means you do something for rewards that other people provide, rewards that are outside of your control. Compare learning a language to travel and discover a new culture, versus learning it to get a promotion at work, a certificate with your level stamped on it, or praise from your boss.
There is ample evidence showing that intrinsically motivated people learn languages faster and better and extrinsically motivated ones. Imagine a person who needs to speak a language to get a job, but who is prejudiced and believes the people who speak it are inferior to them. This person will get nowhere learning the language: Their brains will remain closed to any input provided.
While this was an extreme example, we can increase our intrinsic motivation levels when learning a language by focusing on what benefits it gives to us: stretching our cultural horizons, learning about history, thinking about things in a new way, meeting new people and breaking down cultural barriers, improving our memory and staving off dementia, just to name a few!
Go for “imperfect” English!
As someone once said, you can’t learn anything if you’re perfect. But I often hear the word “perfect” used when referring to a language, most often English. People’s obsession with speaking it “perfectly” is not only unrealistic but can be damaging in intercultural communication.
The word “perfect” usually refers to the technical aspects of the language: the precision of grammar, vocabulary, and use of expressions among others. Unfortunately, it completely ignores the fact that language is a communication tool, and rarely a goal in itself.
Don’t forget about the soft skills necessary in effective communication, namely the good listening skills, empathy, intercultural sensitivity, and willingness to solve problems collaboratively.
While it’s great to speak technically-excellent English, speaking it without the soft skills can be detrimental by leading to breakdowns in communication, feelings of inadequacy on one side, or just poor outcomes. Hiring managers should also keep this in mind: imperfect English with good soft skills might be preferable to an arrogant and aggressive “perfect” speaker (whatever that is!).
Native speakers, too, must learn to back down from neo-colonial attitudes that see language used to show dominance or superiority. If the goal is to build bridges, then simplify your language to be clearly understood – this may be the olive branch you need and want!
Step out of your comfort zone
Variety is the spice of life, they say, and it’s no exception with language either! If you feel like your language has plateaued, try doing something completely different to take it to the next level.
Travel to a country where the language is spoken; take an art class in the language; do your usual gym routine virtually with a trainer speaking the language; write a google review in the language. Try doing things you don’t normally do or, in the case of reading, reading about topics you wouldn’t normally read.
Try seeing language as an adventure: you never know where you’ll go next, but you’ll always be surprised at what you see and learn!