English is a lingua franca. The language you can master, too.

Nowadays English became a lingua franca, a common language that can be used almost anywhere to communicate with foreigners. Now English is as common as Latin or French used to be and probably will be superseded by Chinese in the future. If you don’t want to wait for Chinese to become omni-language, read on to learn how to maximize learning English experience.

You can master English

If I did, you can, too. I often get back to times when I could write no more than ‘I go to school everyday’ cliché. After finishing the primary school at the age of 15, I did not know how to use English at very basic level. At the age of 19, when I had the matura exam (which I barely passed) my level of fluency did not improve much.

Only a few years later I made a decision to change the status quo. It took me another few years full of with trial and error (or obsession) though, in order to feel confident and use English in the following ways:

  • Blogging
  • Writing technical and non-technical articles
  • Communicating with clients via Skype or in person
  • Speaking at (un)conferences ;)
  • Speaking English all day long at work
  • Joking or even singing at daily stand-ups ;)

I can’t, I don’t have talents, I’m not good enough, I’m too old is not a fucking excuse. This article is supposed to help you avoid common pitfalls I came upon and make you aware of available solutions and techniques to let you master the language.

E-devices vs. the vintage times

Today learning a foreign language has never been so easy. Your iPhone can store thousands of audio files. ebook readers have never been so cheap. Internet connection has never been so fast. All e-devices have never been so small and portable. Yet you still moan and groan about having no time or skill to learn English, spending hours on Facebook at the same time.

Let’s face it-it’s only up to you to move your ass and learn the language. No technique, no teacher / tutor or no device will do that for you.

Learn The Way of The Linguist: A Language Learning Odyssey by Steve Kaufmann and you’ll learn that when Steve was learning Chinese he had a totally non-portable audio recorder. No mp3 player existed at the time if you’re wondering (yes, it was possible). No Amazon was one click away. Seriously. Yet he has managed to learn Chinese and the number of languages he speaks fluently now have reached ten.

Techniques to learn English

There’s no one size fits all technique. I can only write about the ones that I’ve used. The list is not comprehensive and just scratches the surface.

Spaced Repetition System (SRS)

Learning a foreign language is one of the skills that require a lot of time. You have to remember a lot. Thousands of words, phrases and rules. One of the best techniques I’ve learnt was Spaced Repetition System (SRS in short).

To make it simple, think of SRS as flash cards system. A card can contain a Polish word or a sentence and when you flip it an English translation pops up:

Zawsze witamy gości świniną i solą

Reverse:

We always welcome guests with pigs and salt

The manual system is boring and this is why you should employ some app. For a long time, I was using both SuperMemo online courses and Anki.

Online courses have lots of advantages but force you to learn the way someone else designed. One of the most important things in learning is to understand what you’re learning. Of course, anyone can say that it’s obvious, but most of us don’t even stop for a second to try to understand something more deeply.

Have you ever tried to visualise a new knowledge unit, let alone trying to ‘use’ other senses like hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, etc?

Anki gives you the possibility to build your own databases. It takes time to build a high quality database, but at least you know what’re building and you can improve it without waiting for support to fix typos or confusing examples.

Whatever SRS tool you decide to use, put as little data on cards as possible. Don’t put 10-line bullet list. Don’t put 3 example sentences for ‘pig’ usage. To make the best out of any SRS tool try to use the tool regularly, possible the same time every day.

Any SRS app is designed to help you remember as much as possible with the least effort by harnessing the forgetting curve. I won’t get into details and let you spend some time with the following resources if you’re interested in the topic.

Comprehensible input

Stephen Krashen who coined the term comprehensible input back in 1980’s teaches us one important lesson schools do not. In order to speak a foreign language, one has to get enough input in the first place. At schools there’s no time for audiobooks (I assume) nor does input (e.g audio) is put higher on the priority list than getting output, mostly in the form of grammar exercises.

Observe what babies do. They observe the world around them and try to mimic their parents. We wish we were children to learn English in a fortnight. Seriously? How much time do you reckon a small child has to spend before he starts speaking? Two, three years? Does the output resembles the mature language or rather it’s a babbling?

How much time do you think it takes a child until he’s comfortable to write, let alone learn to use a computer to write e-mails, blog posts, comments on Facebook? Ten or twelve?

Adult learners have something that children do not: experience and rich words bank, often filled with abstract (or meta) words that children will not have soon under their belt. Again, shut the fuck up and say to yourself: no excuse is an option.

Learn, read, listen to, immerse totally in the language. It’s so easy nowadays. Read on to learn what materials you can use.

Immersing yourself in the language-Input first

In order to learn in a fast and efficient way, you’ve got to surround yourself in the language.

Books, ebooks, and text

I’m not very fond of on-line courses. What works for me is to read a lot. Books, ebooks, articles sent to Kindle, or whatever text I feel is worth reading. The category does not matter: from politics, software development, novels, sociology, psychology, history, neuroscience, news on technology, cooking, diet, MTB, running, to other whatchamacallits.

For starters: focus on quantity not quality. Read what interests you and read a lot to feel the language. Some read the English version of the book that previously read in their native language.

You don’t have to buy Kindle or any ebook reader. Probably you have a smartphone that’s capable of running ebooks in popular formats. If you don’t or don’t like reading while commuting (motion sickness for example), visit bookstores in your town. Each one has at least a few English books. If not, visit the public library and try to find any book or an article in English. If not… (think of Steve Kaufmann and his audio recorder).

Podcasts / radio shows

There’s always a time window to listen to your favourite podcast or radio show. As with audio books when you on the bus sometimes the noisy surrounding makes it impossible to listen comfortably; books should fit better then. However, there are people that listen to audio content for 24 hours, sleep included.

Yesterday I learned that radio shows play nicely with drawing or when you’re fully focused on something. Find what fits you and what works for you. There’re endless sources of where you can download or listen to podcasts or any other audio content. OS X or Android has dozens of apps to help you listen to audio in whatever category you can ever imagine.

Audio + text

For the last years, I’ve learnt that combining text with audio version improves language acquisition. I started with readers, abridged books suitable for learners. Each textbook came with an audio version. This way I could listen to the audio content and follow the text at the same time to improve for example pronunciation.

Some Amazon ebooks can be synchronized with audio version via Whispersync; why don’t you give it a try?

One more important thing: it’s OK to listen to the same readers over and over again (I did for a long time). It’s even OK to listen to the content in a language you can’t speak a word in! Listening first will put you back to children’s days and will help you learn the language rhythm and melody.

When you feel confident enough to jump to the next level, do that; Don’t limit yourself to abridged books when you’re ready to read and listen to the full ones.

Output after input

You have spent dozens or hundreds of hours being immersed in the language for the last few months. Now it’s time to start a more serious game: test-driving your fluency. Don’t expect your language to be perfect. Don’t expect to write long articles, not now. Don’t punish yourself for grammar errors or wrong pronunciation. Fluency will come with time. You will never sound like a native, nor will I. This article has probably dozens of small typos, mistakes or patterns I copied directly from Polish which may sound downright stupid in English. I don’t care.

If you can’t explain something, use plain words, without looking up the complex ones. Last week, when my team has a daily stand-up and all of us pretended to be serious (our scrum master wanted us to use English so that we can be more serious but we couldn’t), trying to repeat what I wanted to say I said literally ‘I had a typo in my mouth’1.

Write

Start with short notes, private ones. Set aside some time each day and write. Don’t share it. Just write. Focus on quantity. Don’t stop listening or getting input the way you did; soon you will be able to notice patterns and your grammar will improve. Let the first stage of writing last as long as needed. Remember that you’re learning your own way, for yourself, not school or teachers.

Step by step try writing more, getting out of your comfort zone: from emails, posts in forums, or short blog posts. You won’t notice how soon you will be able to write long articles as if English were your native language.

Think in English

If you’re learning a foreign language one of the challenges is to think in the language and forget about patterns or direct translation that exist in your native language. Unless it’s done on purpose you can make people confused:

We want to live in peace (chcemy żyć w pokoju) vs. We want to live in the room.

In Polish pokój can either mean peace (a state) or room (a place).

‘Think in English’ also concern writing or speaking, but the goal of ‘thinking in English’ is to switch the language when you plan something, ponder over some problem or describe what’re seeing. For example when you’re walking down the street and you see a red car, you could describe it in the following way (don’t do it out loud ;)

The nice red car I’m passing by is the one I saw yesterday

It takes time to get used to that, yet it’s possible.

Skype, Google Hangouts and the like

Don’t be afraid of speaking. Fear of speaking is one of the most common fears. Ask anybody who mastered a foreign a language and he will tell you that he had to overcome the fear, too. It’s a natural state. The reality is that no one will judge you or make fun of you when you make a mistake. The Output is definitely more difficult than passive language (reading comprehension).

There are many ways to practise English with other learners like dedicated groups on Skype or Hangouts. There are sites to help you find a native tutor that will monitor your progress. For some, it may be easier to have a ‘remote’ lesson than spending the same time time with a native in person; at least at the beginning.

Conferences / local meet-ups

There’ll be time when you become confident enough to screw up your courage and move your English to the next level. In software development, there are numerous ways to give a short presentation (lighting talk) in English. Before you can practice the speech by recording yourself and then analysing the how it went.

I’m sure that almost every city has at least one group of learners who meet once a week or month and speak English while sipping cappuccino. If there’s no such a group, consider creating a one if you’re determined enough to improve your English.

Imagination’s the limit

To sum it up: the list could go on and on. It’s only up to you to see the possibilities and chances around you to learn a foreign language. As I wrote at the beginning, the article just scratches the surface. Try what works for you, forget about what does not.

  1. OK, I was playing but my collection of Polglish grows