How can I improve my English?
March 10, 2021
“How can I improve my English” is a question I get soon after I introduce myself as an English coach. It has a few variations along the lines of:
“I want to learn but I don’t know how” “I would love to be able to speak to foreigners” “How did you become so good with English?” “How can I teach English to my kids?” “How long does it take to become fluent?”
After getting the same question a few times, I had a pre-rehearsed response. I had a list of my favorite resources and general tips. I would talk about the different components of language —reading, listening, speaking, and writing— and how you need to engage all of them. Now, in my 8th year of coaching people, my response time is slower and more nuanced. I realize that people have a different background, a wide range of needs, and a different time frame to invest in language education. Therefore not every tip is effective or worse, relevant for everyone. Someone who has lived abroad for a year or two will have a different language position from someone who has never left the country. A recent graduate trying to perform at his job will have different expectations from a recently retired entrepreneur. Before I hit play on my prepared speech and list of resources I now ask for more information. Let’s say you’re someone who wants to learn English. These are the 5 questions that I’d ask, which will help you narrow down the type of resources, and strategies to serve you best.
Why do you want to learn English?
You’ll be surprised at the reasons why people decide to learn a language.
On the surface people just want to learn English because as of today, it is the most spoken language, businesses are crossing borders and in more cases than not, it is the official business dialect. To my surprise, when I ask my prospects why they want to learn English, I will often get unexpected answers. Some people want to learn English so they can impress someone, or so they will not be embarrassed at a meeting.
One of my clients, a CEO of a private equity firm, had a high-intermediate level of English but kept believing his level was low and pushed himself to sound more “native-like”. As I got to know him better, I found out he worked with many native speakers, and he didn’t want to feel inferior, or out-smarted. He wanted to increase “sophistication” to his language. Some other people want to learn purely for the joy of learning English. I’ve had retired entrepreneurs, who had spare time and found no better use of it than practicing their English, their pronunciation, and sentence variation. Last summer I coached a retired CEO from a semiconductor engineering company who was always eager to share his thoughts on leadership. Always sought feedback to produce a more insightful and coherent sentence. If I assigned a reading from the Harvard Business Review, he would read three more on the topic and share about his learnings.
No reason is better or worse than the other. But being honest with yourself, and figuring out exactly why you want to learn something will help you find a study plan that meets your needs. Your real needs. It’s a win win.
What’s your context?
Pete Buttigieg learnt Norwegian to read Naïve. Super in its original language.
Yes, you read that right. Knowing in what area of your life you want to use your target language can help you cut time. When you have a specific target, learning can also be focused and manageable.
One of the biggest compliments I get is that I suggest material that resonates with my students. When a data scientist from Starbucks Korea asked me to suggest English material to read to improve her English, I asked about her context. She mentioned she had a lot of reporting meetings with the global team. She hadn’t had issues but she wanted to “sound smart”. After the pleasantries, she was already smart, etc. my suggestion to her, without judgement was, to look at some other smart women and see how they talk. I sent her a link to Cathie Wood’s latest interview for CNBC defending her position in some of her latest stock buys. I shared a link to the Ark’s Big Ideas Report, too. Finding the right resource that can fill the right holes, is a skill I’ve refined over the years.
Language learning can be daunting and broad, doesn’t it? Defining a context is a great way to contain it into manageable chunks. Do you need to give a presentation? What are some fields that may relate to your work? Do you need to write a proposal? Will you be hosting a new client? Is there a song you want to learn? Do you just want to learn English for fun?
How much time do you have?
I often skip my French lessons. I want to get better at it, but my body and schedule have minds of their own.
Learning a second language is not always your top priority. Unless you are moving abroad for good and your career depends on it. For some executives in Korea, not passing an English test can cost them a promotion. I’ve taught over weekends and early in the morning for these executives. For these executives, 6 am or 7 am was the only time that they wouldn’t be pulled in their first meetings, or email notifications.
Unless your career is on a lifeline you want to be realistic with your time. Yes, studying everyday for 2 hours sounds really great, but do you have the time? Making plans and canceling every time doesn’t help. One of my students was very “motivated” and scheduled 3 sessions each week for 90 minutes each session. He was also busy and his schedule, unpredictable. He ended up making only about 30% of his sessions. He kept getting behind with the assignments, morale went down, so did his learning. He eventually quit. We fall into the trap of thinking we have time. Be honest and realistic with yourself and decide how much time you are willing to allocate for this. Plan your learning accordingly to ensure progress. Little progress is better than no progress.
What do you enjoy reading, listening, watching, talking about?
As James Clear mentions in his book Atomic Habits, we want to make our habits easy and satisfying. Input is key in any language. But when you have so many options, which should you choose? The best is to choose the easiest and the most satisfying. Not the easiest in terms of difficulty per se. I worked with a project manager at Intel and I recommended some articles on GPT-3 and AI. She had an intermediate level of English and she loved reading about these new concepts in English. To a Samsung Electronics executive, I suggested this article about Tiger Woods from the NYTimes, after his surprising comeback in 2019. He said he had read the article 10 times and that he loved it. Both of their levels were intermediate. We all have interests, however obscure. They offer useful clues as to what kind of English material you’ll more easily want to consume and what kind of expressions will stick better as a result.
Do you have an English-induced trauma?
Some students would rather stay quiet instead of speaking with their accent, because of the fear of being embarrassed. Some higher executives do not want to be thought of less by their juniors because of their not-perfect English and will try to avoid situations where they need to talk. I’ve seen it all. People who can speak non-stop in poor English, who can entertain, communicate, and sell. I’ve also seen higher level students who can’t seem to speak at all when stakes are high. As emotional and complex human beings, our ability to speak in a second language goes way beyond the mechanics of linguistics. Underneath our knowledge of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary lies a thick layer of emotions, fear, pride, and past experiences. Learning about my students’ fears has helped me better guide them and made me more sensitive to their language anxiety. // My newest client is a mom who is preparing to move abroad. She has two young daughters. She is terrified. Even before our discovery call she tells me she can’t speak English (when she actually does, pretty well). I went through my 5 questions. And completing our third session I can tell she already feels less English “anxiety”. All I had to do is to identify her needs, talk about her fears, set realistic goals, and nudge her to start speaking. As she moves to a new country and has to get acquainted with a new place and new moms, we are going through ways to get to know each other. We went through some of the topics from The 36 Questions that Lead to Love. It was fun!
It’s not surprising that the survey above applies to anything we want to learn. Whether you are learning how to dance, programming, design, or how to make YouTube videos, learning why you want to learn, how to be useful, and discussing your fears, will help you stay grounded, honest, and headed in the right direction. Top that with a study plan that matches your needs.
Voila! It’ll be magical.