Why is your English not improving? So many students tell me that they have been studying for years, and practicing in many different ways, but they cannot get better! Why? On this episode of Thinking in English, I will try to explain some of the major reasons why your English ability might be stuck, and offer some tips to start improving again!
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Regardless (adv) – despite; not being affected by something
This job is open to all, regardless of previous experience
in the same boat (idiom) – in the same difficult situation as someone else
None of us has any money, so we’re all in the same boat
Frozen (adj) – unable to move or change
The man stood so still it was like he was frozen
Consistent (adj) – always behaving or happening in a similar, especially positive, way
There has been a consistent improvement in her attitude
Dedicated (adj) – used for only one particular purpose or job
The company buys clothes from dedicated factories in China
Reluctant (adj) – not willing to do something and therefore slow to do it
Many parents feel reluctant to talk openly with their children
Related (adj) – connected
English and German are closely related
Explanation (n) – the details or reasons that someone gives to make something clear or easy to understand
Could you give me a quick explanation of how it works?
“I’ve been studying English for 10 years, but I don’t think I’m improving.”
“No matter how hard I study, I don’t have confidence to speak to my colleagues and clients.”
I often hear statements like this from my students online. In the last two weeks, in fact, I have had a few new students complain that regardless of how hard they study, they don’t feel like their language ability is improving. If you are listening to this podcast, I assume that your English is intermediate to advanced level. But are you fluent in English? Is your English getting better? Can you read, write, listen, and speak with confidence?
For many of you, the answer to some of these questions might be no. To be honest with you all, I’m in the same boat. From 2016 to 2018, my Japanese language ability increased almost exponentially. Everyday I was learning new things, speaking to different people, and finding opportunities to practice. When I left Japan, I was full of confidence that I would continue to succeed in my studies and quickly become fluent. That was three years ago. Right now, I’m definitely worse. I’ve taken classes, spent time using apps, read Japanese books, watched TV shows; but my Japanese has not improved at all.
So, after a lot of thinking and researching, I think it’s time to share some advice why your English, and my Japanese, might be stuck and unmoving. All languages require practice and patience. Learning a language is not easy, and you shouldn’t expect it to be a simple process. And there are so many resources available in the world right now that there should be no problem in improving! Now, let’s talk about some of the most common excuses and reasons stopping your English from getting better.
You don’t spend enough time studying English
I think this is the most common excuse, and often the biggest reason, why your English level might be frozen. This was always my excuse why my Japanese wasn’t improving. Over the last year, I’ve been working two jobs and recording these podcasts, and from April I’ve been taking classes at a graduate school online: I keep telling myself I’m so busy. And I’m sure all of you have jobs, school, families, and other hobbies that take up a lot of your time. Finding time to learn English is not always easy.
However, to get better at a language, develop your skills, and become fluent, you need to spend time. Can you study English everyday? If you really want to notice improvements, try spending 30 minutes to an hour everyday studying. Wake up a little earlier, spend a few minutes during your lunch break, or study in the evening. There are mobile applications, online lessons, textbooks, reading books, newspapers, and YouTube videos that you can try! You need to spend more time studying.
Also, be consistent. Instead of spending 4 hours one day a week, try to spend a little time everyday. Motivation will come and go, but you should make it part of your routine and life. Moreover, make a plan to learn English. Perhaps schedule a dedicated study time into your calendar. Think about what you are weakest at, why you want to improve, what you need to improve, why you are learning English, and then make a study plan based on these thoughts. Ask for some advice from tutors or friends. And just keep studying!
You never use English
I’ve just told you that you need to spend more time studying. However, just spending time looking at a textbook is not going to help you improve quickly. You need to actually use English. You need to apply your English to real life situations. If you learn some new vocabulary, phrases, or grammar, you should try to use it while speaking. The famous Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that.” I think this is really important advice. There is no point just learning words or grammar in isolation from their real life use.
How can you do this? Take every opportunity you can to use English. Not just study, but use. Listen to English speaking news or radio. Watch English language TV and films. Speak with English speaking friends. In all of these situations, try to absorb as much language as you can. Understand how the language is used in practice, and then in the future try to use similar things yourself. Another great tip is to speak to yourself in English. When you are cooking, cleaning, reading the newspaper, taking a shower, think and speak to yourself in English.
Furthermore, related to this is the overstudy of grammar. Students study grammar too much. Of course, grammar is important! Knowing grammar rules will probably help you speak better English. However, the methods we use to study when we are adults is often the same as we used when we were at school. But learning languages at school and learning languages to become fluent are often different things. Schools teach you to pass exams. But you want to learn how to use English in real life. So, when you are starting to speak you should not spend too much time worrying about grammar. Focus on words, and then phrases and sentences. And then you can start to think about grammar!
You are scared of making mistakes!
I used to teach in a Junior High School in Japan. In the first few weeks, I was really confused why the students were so reluctant to raise their hands and answer my questions. Their homework and tests were great so they knew the answers. But why didn’t they raise their hands? I asked my Japanese co-worker, and she told me it is because they are afraid of making mistakes. They are afraid of being wrong, being embarrassed, or being seen as stupid. This is so common with all language learners.
If you are afraid to make mistakes, it will take you longer to improve your level. If you are afraid to make mistakes, you probably won’t speak much. And if you don’t speak much, you are not going to learn anything! Once I stopped being afraid of making mistakes, my Japanese ability improved noticeably. And of course, there were some silly mistakes I made. For example, I once accidentally agreed to dress up as Santa Claus and visit a Japanese kindergarten and give presents to children because of a language misunderstanding. But the improvements were worth the embarrassing situations!
You don’t need English
If you don’t need a language, it is a lot harder to improve. What does “needing” a language mean? Well, to use myself as an example, when I lived in Japan I needed to use Japanese. I needed it when I went to the supermarket, when I bought train tickets, when I had my haircut. I needed it when I met friends in a bar, or I talked with my co-workers. I required good language skills to be successful. Once I left Japan, I never really needed to use Japanese again. It made it so much more difficult to improve.
However, just because you are not working, studying, or living in an English-speaking country, it doesn’t mean you don’t need good English skills. English is necessary around the world for education, jobs, and business. Make yourself need English. Set a goal that requires using English. Maybe only listen to English language news or only read English language newspapers. This way, if you want to know about current events, you need to use English.
I was watching a video from a youtuber called XiaomaNYC the other day. I really recommend watching his content – he is fluent in Mandarin and can speak some other Chinese dialects. All of his videos are related to language learning – I think he’s great! He was talking to an American man who is now a professional comedian in China, and the comedian said something I think is really important. He said that your language can only improve to the level you set for yourself. For example, if you only study English for foreign travel, and only use English in this way, then your language will not improve beyond this level no matter how hard you study. The comedian said that by setting his target as writing and performing comedy in a foreign language, then that became his upper level. Therefore, if you want to improve, set your targets and aims high!
You use your native language too much
How can you improve your English language if you are always using your native language instead? Stop thinking in your native language. Start thinking in English. Stop trying to translate in your head. Stop trying to convert sentences, patterns, and styles from your native language into English. You can’t expect to learn a second language if you use your native language all of the time. One good tip is to start using an English dictionary, instead of a bilingual dictionary. When you don’t know a word, look for its meaning in English instead of your native language. Ask for explanations in English. Use the English you already know, to learn more English!
In this episode, I have tried to explain some of the reasons why your English might not be improving. Maybe you don’t spend enough time studying; perhaps you never really use English or use your native language too much; or you are scared of making mistakes. Don’t panic! Don’t quit studying because it’s impossible. Now you know where you are going wrong, you also know how to improve! Make a study plan and timetable so you know what you are studying and when. And stick to the plan! Stop being scared, stop making excuses; just use English! Start working today, and try to use English everyday! Everyone can learn a language. But it’s up to you how long it will take you!