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How Long is a Piece of String?

Updated: Oct 25, 2022


‘How long does it take to learn English?’ – I get asked by my students all too often, and what comes to my mind is: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ So I usually just say ‘Well, it depends…’ – and stop there as there are so many factors and so much to say that it is best to leave it at that. Not this time though! I've decided to share what would be my full reply, based on my 30 years of experience in teaching English to students of all ages and all kinds of language backgrounds. And I’ve reached the following conclusion:



How fast you can learn a language comes down to two things: your attitude and your commitment. ‘What?’ – you might butt in – ‘and what about talent? Surely some are just better at languages than others’ – but no, talent doesn’t come into it. After all we all have the ability to speak a language already (at least our own); we are all equipped with the same speech organs, we all have a bit of that ‘universal grammar’ that allows us to grasp the concept of present, past and future… It’s pretty much a level playing field, in that respect anyway. What matters most is how you approach language learning and how dedicated you are.



To speed up learning, you need to study effectively. And as for effective studying, here is my list of dos and don’ts:



Dos:


  • Learn to listen. Really listen – don’t stop at understanding a question but listen to the way it is said, notice the sounds, stresses and intonation (=pronunciation), and notice how the words are put together, notice the verb forms (=grammar). Are they in the past or present? Are they simple or continuous (etc)?


  • Keep an open mind. Careful, most words have multiple meanings! ‘Fine’, for example, you might find in ‘I’m fine, thanks’ or ‘I had to pay a fine’ or ‘fine sea salt’ or ‘that’s fine by me’ or ‘More wine? No thanks, I’m fine’ – so ‘fine’ is ‘a fine example’ of how the meaning (and grammar!) of a word depends on the context.


  • Record new words. Find a way that works for you – keep a small vocabulary-notebook, make word-lists on your phone or within an app or use post-it notes around the house etc.


  • Learn words together whenever possible. Especially collocations (‘a deserted beach’), dependent prepositions (‘listen to’). If you learn words together, you ‘get the grammar free’!


  • Put aside a study-time. A regular daily session of just 15 mins is far more useful than a marathon session here and there.


  • Surround yourself with the language. The internet, social media, films, music, books – in no particular order.



Don’ts:


  • Don’t learn through translation! It’s the biggest obstacle in language learning! It slows you down and gives you the wrong idea! To start with, we never translate words but full sentences or texts. Also, even easily ‘matched’ words have different connotations and uses in different languages (this is why Hungarian students of English often call a ‘building’ a ‘house’). So what you need to learn is the use of words in the target language, i.e, how they behave in sentences (=grammar) and what they really mean (=vocabulary) in the language you are learning.


  • Don’t worry about not understanding much at the beginning. Just immerse yourself in the language – read/listen to English without trying to understand every word. You will pick up the look (spelling, grammar) and sound (pronunciation), and little by little you will understand more.


  • Don’t compare English to your own language. Even if your language is related to English, some things will be similar, others won’t. Some words will look familiar but they might have a different meaning. Some verb forms will look the same but they might be used differently. You will only end up confused, so stick to only thinking in (and about) English!


  • Don’t try to learn all the uses of a word at one go. Or memorise too many new words at once. Focus on fewer things at a time and learn them well (pronunciation and use!) – remember, ‘less is more’!


  • Don’t watch films with subtitles. Not all the time, anyway. The minute you put the subtitles on, your ears will switch off. You will hear the language, but you will be just reading and your listening will not improve at all.


And a final don't: don’t think it is going to be easy. You will have to put in the work… but remember, the more you put in the more you get out! The main thing is following the dos and not give up…

Happy studying!








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