How to Improve your English as a Student
Believe it or Not, Watching a Lot of TV is Good for your Language Skills!
Did you know students at Wittenborg write an average of 12 research papers or essays during their first year, which amounts to approximately 24,000 words altogether? That is a lot of words to write. And if you are not a native speaker of the English language, that looks really daunting, doesn't it?
Having been an English teacher for over 15 years, I know that mastering the English language needs a lot of commitment and practice, but it is never impossible. I have had new students from China who barely know the language except for "thank you" and "sorry", but within months they transformed into confident and fluent English speakers in the school.
Mastering the English language can be a real challenge if you’re still struggling with grammar and vocabulary. However, do not be discouraged. In this article, I have summarised some useful tips for improving your English, or any language for that matter. The tips I am giving here are progressive in nature, which means once you follow them, you’re already on the road to improving your English language competency. Spend about 10-30 mins. of your time daily to follow these tips, and you’ll come out better prepared to understand, write, and converse fluently in English.
When you were a baby, you learned your language first by listening, and then you started to speak those first few memorable words, followed by reading, and finally, you write. These four language skills, listening, speaking, reading, and writing, are what you need to develop competency in any language. Without one of these components, your competency level in any language is not considered complete. Mastering these four skills will go a long way to helping you polish your language competencies as they complement each other.
Watching TV is Good for Improving your English
Active listening exposes you to the language as much as possible by familiarising your brain to the words, pronunciation, style, and sentence structure. What improved my English is not my teacher or my parents, but television. Watching movies, documentaries, sitcoms or dramas, laid the foundation for me to learn the language as it expanded my vocabulary and familiarised me with the conventions, structure, and style of the language as used by native speakers.
Another way is to listen to the news on a daily basis. Turn your radio on while you’re preparing dinner, or on the treadmill, or jogging, or listen to BBC or CNN for about 10 minutes every day. Even if you’re not actually listening to it, you will still be exercising the sensors in your ears to the sounds of the words, and your brain sensors will capture them and place them in your memory.
Watching documentaries also proves useful in improving your vocabulary, especially in specific topics. Children who grow up watching science documentaries or documentaries about animals or the stars, tend to develop interests in these topics, which are very healthy and encouraging.
Finally, listening to TED talks or motivational speeches not only helps you with the language but also teaches you how to be a good speaker. Most of the speakers in these talks are famous and confident professionals who have had many years of training as public speakers. Try and emulate them, the way they speak, the way they formulate their sentence structures, their word choices, their pronunciations, and their styles. Listen, watch, and practice.
Learning by Speaking
Most of us are not comfortable in doing this unless we feel we have learned enough of the language. Don’t be uncomfortable. Learning the language is worthless if you don’t use it. Speaking is often the most difficult of the four language skills, but with practice it is actually easier than writing.
What I did when I was in primary school was to mirror news reporters. I verbally repeated or parroted out loud the words of the news reporters as I heard them. By doing this, your brain not only captures the words or sentences through your listening ear but also your vocal cords. These experiences will be recorded in either the short- or long-term memory in your brain. The idea is to accumulate in your brain as many vocabulary and sentences in that new language so that, when you need to use the language, everything will come out easily and fluently. The BBC has a fantastic free online course on learning English through the news where you can first listen and then parrot the story using texts shown in the video.
You can also try recording your voice and listening to your own pronunciation and intonation. It will help you to pinpoint your problem areas and correct them. You may need help in this method, though. Engage a native speaker or a willing friend to help you. Otherwise, subscribe to an online language course which allows you to record your voice and identify your mistakes. When practicing speaking, don’t worry about your accent. It’s always better to retain your natural accent to keep your cultural/racial identity than trying to imitate a native accent. More often than not, imitating an accent often sounds so fake and unreal. However, you do need to try to pronounce words correctly because mispronouncing words can lead to different or wrong interpretations.
Read Read Read
Get your hands on everything that you can read - brochures, plane tickets, menus, receipts, vouchers, books, magazines, web pages, newspapers, etc. It need not be 50 pages long or have a story. Even reading a parking ticket is good enough. Anything is acceptable. When you read, your brain attaches meaning to words. From here comes understanding. Don’t worry if you come across new and challenging words. The idea is to know in general, the storyline and to be familiar with English words. In addition, when you read, try for 1 or 2 minutes to read a few paragraphs out loud - to practice pronouncing the words and getting a sense of the sentence structure. Doing this can help you to articulate words correctly and fluently.
Study Grammar and Punctuation
This is the prelude to the writing part of learning the language. Before you can write, you need to know the grammar rules of the English Language. One of my students kept using "I has" for many weeks, and I had to keep reminding her that it should be "I have". Using the language without following correct grammatical rules will make you sound awkward.
I am not saying that you must learn and memorise all the meanings of terms used in grammar like imperatives, or modals, or interjections, or remember the specific definition of certain rules like what are reflexive pronouns, or what is the difference between a subordinating conjunction and coordinating conjunction. What you should know is the basic grammar rules, like when to use which tenses, the rules for subject-verb agreement, what adjectives, adverbs, and nouns are, etc. These are the necessary foundations of both spoken and written language. There are many websites where you can learn grammar and punctuation, free of charge. There are also lots of online quizzes and games where you can practice your grammar and punctuation. Alternatively, if you prefer, getting tutors to teach you grammar is also an excellent tactic to polish up on your language skills.
Write, Write, Write
Writing can be intimidating, especially if you are not so good at it even in your own native language. The truth is that it doesn't need to be so. Anybody can write, and anybody can get used to it with a little practice and willingness to learn. If your study and career depend on your ability to write, then I believe this should be an excellent motivator for you to learn writing.
One of the simplest tips is that when texting on your mobile or social media, write in full sentences, with proper grammar and spelling. Avoid using short forms or broken English. Add full stops or commas where they are due. Ignore people who tease you about this. They are the ones who lose, not you. In fact, get them to support you by asking them to reply in the same manner, i.e. by using grammatically correct sentences.
Another tip is to write down useful words and phrases, especially those used in formal writing. I used to have a notebook in which I wrote inspirational words and phrases or short poems, quotes from famous actors or actresses or famous people like Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, or religious figures. These came in handy when writing school assignments, like argumentative essays and narrative compositions. Now, instead of a notebook, I keep a Word document in my laptop of useful phrases to help me in my academic writing, for example "Within that context, the goal of this report is to identify…", or "The objective of this study is two-fold…". These phrases really help me a lot whenever I’m stuck for good sentences or phrases to continue my report.
It is also good for you to download a list of transitional words from any grammar or writing websites. Words like "however", "moreover", "in addition to", "in contrast to", "herewith", are all useful words and phrases which could enhance your report and garner you an extra point or two in your grade.
You see, writing is just like riding a bicycle. You may be scared to try, but if you don’t try, you will not learn. And when you start cycling, you will stumble and fumble, but you have to keep on cycling and pedalling. Once you know how to balance yourself, the cycling will come easily and smoothly. Writing follows the same principle. Just start writing - anything. Type out those ideas and put them into words. Simple words. MSWord helps you to edit grammar and spelling mistakes once you finish your draft. Right click on any word to replace common words with better synonyms. You can go further by subscribing to online grammar checkers to check on your grammatical and spelling mistakes. The key idea is just to start, and the rest will come into place.
Create a Blog
In addition, to improve your fluency in writing, try recording your daily activities or keeping a blog. Lots of people use blogs to share their ideas on a particular topic or passion. If you have a passion for crochet, set up a blog and talk about your passion. Get people to comment on your posts, even bad ones. Take them as constructive feedback that will help you to become better in writing. Alternatively, if you have cold feet in that, write comments in response to other people’s comments or tweets. Remember, write in grammatically correct sentences. All these will help to boost your confidence in writing, reading, and speaking.
These tips, if followed closely, can help you to advance your competency in the English language. However, language learning is personal. Nobody can make you improve. Not even a great tutor. Everything has to come from you. You have to work hard, and you have to be consistent in your efforts.
Choose the best method that suits your learning style, whether you are a visual learner or audio learner or kinesthetics learner - leverage on the abundance of tools present on the internet to advance your competencies, like the free online courses by the British Council. The important thing for you to remember is that success will only come with hard work. So, start now. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
by Hanna Albdelwahab