Read a lot
It really, really helps. We need lots and lots of input (that's when we listen to or read English) to learn a new language. When you read, you learn new words without thinking about it. You also learn grammar: if you see ‘I ate’ 100 times while you are reading, you probably won’t say ‘I eated’. And, you learn how English speakers usually build sentences and the kinds of things that are normal for them to say.
There are some very good books you can buy for students who are learning English. Click here to see my recommendations. If you go to an English language school, they probably have some you can borrow. These books are specially for students and have been written in easy English. They come in different levels so you can choose the right one for you. Don’t pick something too difficult – you should be able to read it without a dictionary. Try to read at least one per week, and you will learn English much more quickly and easily.
Listen as much as you can
The same thing as reading – if you hear lots of English words, they get into your brain. Listening is more difficult because if you try to watch TV or a film it might be too fast for you (and it’s not useful if you don’t understand anything). The easy books I already talked about often have CDs, which is a brilliant way to practise, and you can check in the book if you don’t catch a word. You can even listen on the bus.
Listening to English music is also really good (though songs can be difficult). However, you can usually find the lyrics (the words of the song) on the Internet so you can check what you hear.
Try this site for some listening exercises. The BBC also has some really good audio for learning English by listening.
Study new vocabulary
When I ask students how they learn vocabulary, they often say ‘by reading’ or ‘by watching TV’. It’s not what I mean. It’s true you can learn new words when you read or listen, but you should also study new words seriously.
If you try something like learning 10 new words per day (it is possible!) and review often, you will improve a lot. I’m learning Japanese, and I have problems remembering new words. Here are a few things I do (some work better than others!):
- Make flashcards: I find this is really the best way to learn new words, but you have to be organised! Make some small cards (or you can buy them) and write the new English word on one side and either the word in your language or in easy English on the other side. Then test yourself. You can write down the words or just say them to yourself. To really make this work, you have to review often (you need a system!). I think this is the best method for learning English vocabulary.
- Record the words onto a tape or CD or MP3: if you learn well by listening, this might work for you. To record, say the word in your language, then wait a few seconds, then say the English word. When you play the CD you should try to say the English word in the space. Then listen to check. (This does have a few problems – it’s best if you can ask someone to check your pronunciation for example, also usually you get to know the words at the beginning better).
- Make sentences with the new words: this is great if you can ask someone to check them. It’s also great to make up really crazy sentences – that way you won’t forget them! I also collect example sentences of the words I’m trying to learn – if I see the word in a book I write down the sentence.
- Make up a mnemonic: a mnemonic is a way to remember something, like a little story. For example, if I want to remember the Japanese word ‘yukkuri’ (which means ‘slowly’) I could think about the English words ‘you’ and ‘curry’, and maybe imagine someone eating a plate of curry very, very slowly! This works for learning English, make up the story in your language.
- Put labels with English words on things in your house: I tried this one too, I put Japanese words all over my house. For example I put the word ‘daidokoro’ (which means ‘kitchen’) on the kitchen door. The problem with this is that it works for a while but then you get used to the words and forget to read them!
- Use a flashcard computer program: there are lots you can buy.
Do a language exchange
I’ve done this several times. It’s a really good way to meet people, though it depends on where you are. I live in London so it’s easy for me to find a partner. You arrange to meet an English speaker in a café, and then you speak half in English and half in your language. It’s nice because you can help each other. In many countries there are English speakers trying to learn your language: try the university.
Don’t panic if you can’t speak or write well yet
It takes a long time to learn a language, and learning English might be particularly difficult (it depends on your first language). If you relax and don’t force yourself, speaking and writing well will come.