The importance of the English language cannot be overemphasized. Comfort with English is almost a prerequisite for success in the world today. Regardless of the industry, proficiency in English is an important factor in both hiring and promotion decisions.
A lot of us have studied English in school and are fairly comfortable with reading and writing. However, we hesitate while speaking because we feel that we lack the fluency and may make grammatical mistakes. We are afraid of speaking English in formal situations and we are quick to switch to our native language.
Below are a few effective tips which will help in improving your vocabulary:
Start your own English language blog
Even for people who don’t have to write in English, writing can be a great way of properly learning the kind of vocabulary you need to describe your own life and interests. The problem most people have is that they don’t know what to write about. One traditional way to make sure you write every day in English is to write an English diary (journal), and a more up to date way of doing this is to write a blog.
Write a news diary
Another daily writing task that can work for people who would be bored by writing about their own routines in a diary is to write about the news that you read and listen to everyday. If you include your predictions for how you think the story will develop, this can give you a good reason to read old entries another time, at which time you can also correct and mistakes you have made and generally improve what you have written.
Sign up for a regular English tip
Some websites offer a weekly or even daily short English lesson sent to your email account. If your mobile phone has an e-mail address, it is also possible to have the tips sent to your phone to read on the way to work or school.
Listen to MP3s
Although buying music on the internet is becoming more popular in many countries, not so many people know that you can download speech radio such as audio books (an actor reading out a novel) and speech radio. Not only is this better practice for your English than listening to English music, from sources like Scientific American, BBC and Australia’s ABC Radio it is also free.
Listen to English music
Even listening to music while doing something else can help a little for things like getting used to the natural rhythm and tone of English speech, although the more time and attention you give to a song the more you will learn from listening to it again in the future.
Read the lyrics to a song
Although just listening to a song in English can be a good way of really learning the words of the chorus in an easily memorable way, if you want to really get something out of listening to English music you will need to take some time to read the lyrics of the song with a dictionary. If the lyrics are not given in the CD booklet, you may be able to find them on the internet. Once you have read and understood the lyrics, if you then listen and read at the same time, this can be a good way of understanding how sounds change in fast, natural, informal speech.
Sing karaoke in English
The next stage after understanding and memorizing a song is obviously to sing it. Although some words have their pronunciation changed completely to fit in with a song, most of the words have the same sounds and stressed syllables as in normal speech. Remembering which words rhyme at the end of each line can also be a good way of starting to learn English pronunciation.
Only search in English
Switching your search engine to the English language version of msn, yahoo, Google etc. can not only be a good way of practicing fast reading for specific information in English, but could also give you a wider choice of sites to choose from and give you an idea of what foreigners are writing about your country and area.
Read a translation into English
Another way of making sure books are easier to understand is to choose a book that was originally translated into English, preferably from your own language. Even if you haven’t read the book in your own language, you will find the English is written in a slightly simplified way that is more similar to how your own language is written than a book originally written in English would be.
Skip the first ten pages
If you have given up with a book in English or are reading it very slowly, try skimming through the first ten pages or skipping them completely. The start of most books tend to be mainly description and are therefore full of difficult vocabulary and don’t have a clear story line yet to help you understand what is happening and to motivate you to turn the next page. If the book is still too difficult even after the introductory part is finished, it is probably time to give that book up for now and try it again after you have read some easier things.
Read a book with lots of dialogue
Opening up books before you buy one and flicking through them to find one with lots of direct dialogue in it has several advantages. If there is less text on the page due to all the speech marks etc, this can make it easier to read and easier to write translations on. Dialogue is also much easier to understand than descriptive parts of a book, and is much more like the language you will want to learn in order to be able to speak English.
Read English language comics
Even more than books with lots of dialogue, comics can be easy to understand and full of idiomatic language as it is actually spoken. There can be difficulties with slang, difficult to understand jokes and/ or dialogue written how people speak rather than with normal spellings, so try to choose which comic carefully. Usually, serious or adventure comics are easier to understand than funny ones.
Read English language magazines
Like books, if you can read two versions of the same magazine (Newsweek in your language and in English, for example), that could make understanding it much easier.
Take a one week intensive course
Although you cannot expect to come out of a very short course speaking much better English than when you started it, if you continue studying a little over the following weeks and months, the knowledge you gained then will gradually come out and mean that your level of speaking, listening etc. are better than they would have been if you hadn’t taken that course. This positive effect can still be true up to a year later.
Teach your children or friends some English
Recent research has shown that elder children tend to be a couple of IQ points above their younger siblings, and the most likely reason is that explaining things to their little brothers and sisters gives them an intellectual boost. In the same way, teaching someone lower level than you the English you already know is a great way of permanently fixing that knowledge in your own brain.
Ask your company to start English lessons
Even if you don’t need to speak English at work, English lessons can be a fun and reasonably priced way for your company to spend their training budget in a popular way.
Have English radio on in the background while you are doing your housework
Even if you are not listening carefully, it will help you get a feel for natural English rhythm and intonation.
Watch English language films with English subtitles
For people who can’t understand a film without subtitles but find themselves not listening at all when reading subtitles in their own language, this should be the way of watching a film that you should aim for. If it is too difficult to watch the whole film this way, try watching the (usually important) first 10 or 15 minutes of the film with subtitles in your own language, switch to English subtitles after that, and only switch back to subtitles in your own language if you get totally lost following the story of the film.
Watch films in your language with English subtitles
If you are finding English films with English subtitles too difficult or you can’t find English films with English subtitles in your local video shop, this is a good second best option. Looking for local films with English subtitles can also sometimes be a good sign of quality, as it means the producers of the film are expecting it to be popular internationally as well.
Watch English films with subtitles in your language
It is easier to find suitable DVDs for.
Be realistic about your level
One thing that holds many language learners back is actually trying too hard and tackling something that their brain is not ready for yet. Checking your level with a level check test on the internet, by taking an English language test (FCE, CAE, IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL etc.), or by taking a free trial level check and/ or lesson in a language school will help you find out what your level is and so choose suitable self-study materials.
Be realistic about your reading level
Most researchers agree that people learn most when reading something they understand almost all of. If there are one or two words per page that you have never seen before, that is about the right level. If there are three or more on every page, you should switch to something easier and come back later.
Read graded readers (= easy readers)
These are books that are especially written for language learners like you, e.g. Penguin Readers. Although it can be difficult to find something as interesting as things written in newspapers or on the internet, in terms of learning the language only people who need to read for their work or an exam usually gain more from reading things written for graded readers. Graded readers of classic books like Charles Dickens also have the benefit of giving you a lot of knowledge about the literature, and culture more generally, of English speaking countries in a short time.
Read the whole thing with no help
Although using a dictionary has been shown to help with both short term and long term learning of vocabulary, the fact that using it slows reading down can stop some people reading in English at all. Reading a whole book quickly through just for pleasure from time to time will help you remember how fun reading in another language can be.
Read and learn everything
At the opposite extreme, it can be hard work but very satisfying to get to the end of a book knowing that you have learnt every word in it. See other tips on this page to make sure it is a book that is easy enough to do this with and to ensure that the vocabulary you learn is useful.
Read English children’s books
This is very similar to watching English children’s movies, but with the added advantage of there being more illustrations than adult books, which both helps you to understand the story and makes the page brighter and more motivating to read.
Keep a list of language to learn, e.g. a vocabulary list. Even if you don’t often find time to go though your vocabulary list and it keeps on building up, just the act of choosing which words you need to learn and writing them down on a special list can help you learn them.
Go through your vocabulary list several times every day
If ticking off words on a vocabulary list on the train to work are inconvenient or embarrassing for you, you can keep your list of words to learn as an entry in your electronic dictionary, as a mobile phone to do list or as a text file in your MP3 player (e.g. iPod). Although the time spent transferring the information between different formats like these may seem wasted, in fact any time you spend using the vocabulary like this will help you learn it.
Convert your vocabulary list to English only
One way to stop yourself translating and therefore increase your speed of comprehension and production is to learn all your vocabulary without the use of your own first language. Ways you can write a vocabulary list in only English include with synonyms (words with the same meaning, e.g. “tall” and “high”); with opposites (“high” and “low”); with pronunciation factors such as number of syllables (the number of beats, e.g. three for “de- ci- sion”) and the word stress (the syllable that is pronounced louder and longer, e.g. the second syllable in “baNAna”); and gapped sentences (e.g. “I am not _________________ in science fiction” for the word “interested”).
Label things in your house or office with post-its
The easiest vocabulary to learn is the vocabulary of things you see and use every day. If you can write the names of things around you on slips of paper and stick them on the real thing, this is a great way of learning useful vocabulary. If you can leave them there over the following days and weeks, this is a very easy way of revising the vocabulary until it is properly learnt.
Keep a diary in English
This is a popular method of making sure you use English everyday for people who don’t often speak English and can’t think of things to write about. The fact that you are writing about real things that have happened to you means that any words you look up in the dictionary will be vocabulary that is useful for you and easy to learn.
Listen to the radio news in English
You can make this easier by reading the news in English first, or even just by reading or listening to the news in your own language.
Read an English language newspaper
Freebie newspapers like “Metro” in London are usually the easiest to understand, followed by mid-brow titles like “The Daily Express” or “The Daily Mail” in English. Popular newspapers like “The Sun” are more difficult because of the idiomatic, slangy use of language and the number of jokes in the headlines and articles.
Write fiction in English, e.g. short stories
For people who find writing a diary about things that happen to them everyday boring, the best thing is to let your imagination go and write about whatever comes into your head. The advantage of this is that if you can’t think of how to say something in English, you can just change the story to something that is easier to explain. Perhaps the easiest way to start writing fiction in English is with a diary, changing any details you like to make it more interesting and adding more and more fantasy as the weeks go on.
English language exercise videos
This is quite similar to how babies learn, by listening, watching and copying. It is also good for your health!
Learn a famous speech or poem in English by heart
Although you may never hear or get the chance to say exactly that line, having one memorable example of an English grammatical form in your head can make it much easier to learn other examples of the same grammar as you hear them. It is also something you can practice over and over without being as boring as grammatical drills.
Use a dictionary while you are watching a movie
Films often have the same words many times, so if you look up important words the first or second time you hear them, you should have learnt them by the end of the film. It is easier to use a dictionary if you watch with English subtitles.
Learn some spelling rules
Many people think that English spelling is random, but in fact most words follow some kind of rule, e.g. the “magic E” that changes the pronunciation of “mad” and “made”.
Record your own voice
For people who don’t have much or any correction of pronunciation from a teacher, recording yourself and listening back makes it easier to hear whether you are really making the English sounds that you are trying to or not.
Use computer pronunciation analysis
Although most programs that claim to tell you when you are pronouncing correctly or not don’t actually do that, listening many times and seeing how your voice changes as you try to match the sounds and waveform given by a pronunciation CD ROM can be good practice and more motivating than just recording your own voice.
Learn as many words as you can of one category, e.g. animal words
Learning similar words together can both expand your overall vocabulary and make them easier to learn by forming links between the words in your brain.
Draw pictures of the words you want to learn
Especially if you are artistic, this can be a better way of learning vocabulary than writing translations or example sentences.
Model your accent on one particular actor. e.g. try to speak like Robert De Niro.
Students who say they want to sound more like a native speaker have the problem that native speakers don’t sound all that much like each other. Choosing one model can make the task of improving your pronunciation more clear, and is quite fun. Doing an impression of that person also makes a good party trick.
Use an English-English dictionary
Trying to use a bilingual dictionary less and switching to a monolingual one can help you to stop translating in you head when you are speaking or listening, and other useful English vocabulary can come up while you are using the dictionary.
Occasionally talk to or e-mail your friends in English
Many people find this a bit false or embarrassing, but if you think of it as a study club and set a particular time and/ or place, it is no different from studying math together.
Buy a speaking electronic dictionary
Although most electronic dictionaries are not as good as paper ones for the amount of information they give you about each word, some of them have the very useful function of saying the word with the correct pronunciation.
Learn your electronic dictionary vocabulary list
Most electronic dictionaries also have a button which you can push to see the last 30 or more words you looked up. By deleting words you decide are useless or you have already learnt from this list, you can use it as a “to do list” of words to learn that you can look at several times a day in the train etc.
Switch operating system to English
Changing the operating language of your mobile phone, video recorder etc. to English can be an easy way of making sure you use the language every day.
Deciding how many hours you want to study, how many words you want to learn or what score you want to get in a test are all good ways of making sure you do extra study.