Winner of the TeachingEnglish blog award Larissa Albano shares seven ways to make learning English easier for beginners.
Once upon a time, an Italian woman in her 40s wanted to learn English. Maria was a widow and came into a bit of money when her husband prematurely died. She was keen to travel around the UK, but she only had a poor grasp of grammar learnt at school. So she bought an English language audio box set and started to parrot everything the recordings said.
After a couple of months, she booked a low-cost flight to London. She landed at Stansted airport and managed to buy a one-way ticket to Victoria station by coach, with the help of a couple of Spanish retirees who were also heading to the centre of London.
But once in London, she ran into a major source of frustration: she couldn’t understand or speak to the people she met. She returned to Italy after a week, rather than two weeks as she had arranged, and called my language studio for advice.
Welcome to the age of global English. Few people speak like the Queen, and no one is exempt from grammar mistakes.
If you are a beginner learner or teach adults at a beginner level, here are seven tips to make starting to learn English easier, which I shared with Maria. Each tip starts with one of the letters in the word 'ENGLISH' to make them easier to remember.
Learning a foreign language is like going to the gym. Your muscles are strengthened only if you practise every day. It's the same with language: practice makes perfect.
Tip: dedicate 15 minutes of your time to English every day. You can listen to music or a podcast, read a book, watch short movies on the internet, play games on your smartphone, or meet up with native speakers for a language exchange.
2. Not just words
Beginner students may feel most comfortable when they listen to single words and repeat them, as children do when they are shown flashcards. But this is less useful for adult learners, who will want to sound confident and fluent when talking to native speakers. If you learn 'chunks' of language, or phrases, it will be easier to create sentences and sound natural when speaking.
Tip: start to learn collocations immediately. 'Having breakfast' is different from 'making breakfast'. The former means you eat it, the latter means you prepare it.
3. Go for it
Keep trying. Every time you start something new, a moment comes in which you think you might as well quit. But as the saying goes, 'if at first you don't succeed: try, try, try again.' To help you stay motivated, remember why you started learning English. For example, one of my students had a granddaughter whose mother was British. Both her granddaughter and daughter-in-law lived in the UK, so she wanted to learn English to communicate with them.
Tip: keep a journal of your common mistakes. Revise them in order not to make them again. However, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Errors are not a negative reflection of your intellectual abilities. They are a necessary feature of acquiring a new skill.
Two viral television advertisements on the web, one for a brand of whisky and the other for an auction website, show two old men beginning to learn English for different reasons. In both short films, there is a technique I find crucial to remembering new words: labelling. The two elderly people label all the objects in their houses, and this helps them memorise items belonging to daily life.
Tip: label everything you need to know. Use colourful post-it notes: each colour could identify a category of things. For example, you could use green sticky notes for electrical appliances.
5. Involve others
There is nothing better than involving your family and friends in your learning process. You need moral support in this new challenge: the more, the merrier. When you show people what you have learnt, they will be impressed.
Tip: take a video selfie introducing yourself, your family and/or friends in English. Do that every week, and after a month you can watch the videos again to see how much your English has improved.
6. Set goals
You may identify with a specific linguistic area, and want to focus on it. Setting goals to learn the language related to this area can help. For example, if you want to go shopping for clothes in an English-speaking country, you will need to know phrases like 'where are the changing rooms?', and 'can I pay by credit card?'.
Tip: keep a diary in which you write what you’d like to learn for seven days. At the end of the week, check if you have achieved your goals.
7. Have fun
Being a beginner learner is not easy at all. It can be easy to feel inadequate and frustrated. Most learners who take up learning English usually quit because they feel discouraged. So you must make the process of learning fun. If positive emotions are linked to the learning process, it will be definitely easier.
Tip: if you make mistakes, just laugh at them. The important thing is to have fun and persevere.
Learning English is not a piece of cake. It is tough and challenging. But, in my opinion, expressing yourself in another language is the most exciting, significant challenge. The feeling when someone understands you is just fabulous.
So what happened to Maria? Well, after a couple of months attending my English course and following these tips, she became more confident.
Now, she can understand the main points when people speak in English to her about familiar matters such as family, work and travel. She can describe past experiences and events, her routines and future plans.
And more importantly, she has moved to London, where she has found love.
Good luck, great beginner learners out there!
Larissa is an English language teacher based in Italy and blogs at larissaslanguages.blogspot.com.