say something

there are two modern world languages in the twentyfirst century, english and mandarin. so it is unsurprising that you want to learn at least one of them and speak it, not just like a native but as an educated writer.

while english may not be the most difficult language to learn, it is certainly the most thoroughly flexible in its evolution. it is the only major language to have undergone continuous, unregulated, popular-culture-fueled change for the whole last century.

english of the nineteenth century is arcane and english of even the 1980s is painfully outdated. the grammatical shifts and vocabulary changes of only the last twenty years are overwhelming. thankfully, the english language can be mastered with practice and the right approach.

let’s begin.

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before you begin, i want to be clear that i’m making an assumption about explanations. if you’re a beginner english student, they won’t make sense in english – perhaps even if you’re an intermediate student. but i don’t know what your other languages are so i assume you will read the explanations automatically-translated to whatever language you prefer. the explanations are important but it’s not important you read them in english. they’re included because you can figure them out with the help of google translate and that’s likely close enough for comprehension. these pages are for learners or teachers. if anything is confusing, please let me know.

  1. basic skills
  2. beginner
  3. intermediate
  4. advanced
  5. books to read
  6. watching & listening
  7. exercises
    1. writing
    2. reading
    3. listening

write something

as with learning any language, there are four major skills to develop – speaking, listening, reading and writing. many language learning programs focus on these in approximately equal proportion. this is a serious error. the division, to be efficient and productive, should adapt depending on the student’s level of proficiency. let’s take a look at a different way of dealing with this. please keep in mind, this is not a recommendation for the casual, occasional student of language. if all you want is to dabble, engage native speakers in conversation and that will satisfy you. you won’t really improve much but serious improvement takes time, effort and commitment.

for a basic learner, someone who has less than a hundred hours of total time invested in the language, a better division would be 80% speaking, 10% reading, 5% listening, 5% writing. this allows comfort to be developed in the language and confidence comes with saying the words aloud in conversation. it doesn’t lead to fluency but it does lead to the next level, serious. beginner study.

for a beginner, someone who has a grasp on basic sentence structure and vocabulary but is working on putting together things beyond ordering in a restaurant, asking for directions or reading signs, a better division would be 50% speaking, 30% writing, 15% reading, 5% listening. this gives excellent opportunities for practice, both creative in the moment and creative with planning, adding to that consuming increasingly-difficult exercises in text and speech.

for an intermediate learner, someone who has mastered the basics of english and moved on to complex sentences, idiomatic expression and long-form reading and writing, this pattern shifts dramatically, given that there is a teacher to assist with learning. dividing study time as 70% writing, 20% speaking, 5% listening, 5% reading allows the student to put the majority of their time in the place where it does the most good. reading and listening at the intermediate level have become more relaxation and learning my osmosis than anything else. their writing should be checked, edited and corrected by a teacher and they should engage in speaking exercises to solidify what has been learned during these exercises.

for an advanced learner, a student capable of studying literature and poetry, advanced idioms and symbolic language, this shift becomes even more accentuated. study time should be 90% writing and 10% speaking practice. speaking functions only as a way to solidify lessons learned through writing, having that writing corrected and explained then internalizing those corrections. no study time should be devoted to reading or listening and this can become simply consumption of media outside the classroom – reading books and articles, listening to podcasts and news broadcasts, etc.

this is not to say that all four components of language learning are not necessary or useful. it is just that a student has a limited quantity of time to devote to studying a language and it is important to use that time wisely. hundreds of hours of conversation, countless late nights slaving over books, lying in bed with headphones on trying to stay awake to listen to one more episode of a podcast, none of these will help the intermediate or advanced learner in any meaningful way. the time they spend in these exercises is mostly wasted. if they are doing those things for fun – loving the book they’re reading or being interested in the subject matter of the podcast – that’s great. but they shouldn’t be seen as educational experiences from the perspective of language. if you want to learn english quickly and effectively, a writing and editing-focused program will get you there. if you want to consume english media, that’s a whole different question and that’s fantastic but it won’t get you much closer to speaking the language better.

a note on modern english

english, like most other widely-spoken languages, has a generally-accepted standardized form and many dialects. these dialects are often referred to by their location but english is a bit different in that its dialects are actually closer to representations of periods of history than related to where they are spoken.

when i speak of “modern english”, this is the dominant form of educated english spoken in north america, where the vast majority speak english as their native language (or at least as one of their native languages, often paired with spanish, french, arabic or mandarin). with about a half-billion native english speakers, it is easy to see why this is the source of english in the twentyfirst century.

english is spoken natively in many other regions including australia, new zealand, the united kingdom, ireland, singapore and, to some degree, india and various parts of asia. most of these speakers speak dialectic variations on english, english that contains idiom, grammar and vocabulary that is not easily understood or used by the majority of english speakers, native or otherwise. i am certain you have seen photographs and memes of “chenglish”, “konglish”, “brit slang” and similar things. this is simply an example of how dialectic variation is difficult for communication.

that is not to say you should, as a student, ignore dialectic variation, only that you should study the generalized, standard form first and treat dialect as something to be understood but not reproduced – learn to hear it and translate it in your head to its standard equivalent rather than trying to copy it.

when people speak of “british english”, what they are talking about is a version of english spoken widely in the nineteenth (and sometimes the eighteenth) century but that has curiously and inexplicably remained popular on a small island in northern europe. speaking to people in that region is similar to having a conversation in about 1875. “australian english” or “new zealand english” is a similar situation, probably better approximating the early twentieth century rather than the late nineteenth.

most modern english speakers, including me, would consider the use of non-standard (or dialectic) grammar not simply unusual but wrong. to become an educated english speaker, it is important to study and use standard (also referred to as “modern” or “american” english) and all information here is targeted on that goal. whether an error in grammar derives from lack of knowledge or adherence to outdated or regional dialectic variation, i (and most other scholars) will simply address these variations as incorrect, arcane and needing to be eliminated. that is not a judgment of nor disrespectful to those speakers who have grown up in dialectically-indoctrinated regions, simply a recognition of the need for modernization in speech and writing to standardize english on a single version that can be used for effective communication without confusion.

i know i should write more but what should i write?

the simple answer is that it doesn’t matter. pick topics that interest you. as an advanced learner, there is a bit of a qualification to that. pick topics that are academic or scientific. the important part of this is to treat your writing as something far removed from a journal or diary. it is for public commentary and consumption. your teacher will read it and give corrections. it’s not useful to tell them what you did today. perhaps occasionally but this will get repetitive very quickly. unless your teacher is also a good friend, they probably don’t care what you did today.

everyone has interests. some have many. whether you’re deeply moved by astrophysics or popular music, building furniture or hiking through rainforests, write something meaningful about things you are interested in. communicate your interest and why you are so attracted to the topic. it will give you much better motivation than “i have to write another thousand words!” ever could. vary your topics to keep from getting bored.

there’s one other useful technique, of course. this is really only for advanced learners but intermediate learners can certainly try it. take something from your native language(s) and translate it. not literally. we have google translate for that. literal translation is useless for improving your english skills. take the document and write it the way you think it should be written. accuracy is not important. this is an exercise in creative writing. change the content to suit your needs. add and remove whatever you feel should or shouldn’t be there. it’s not about communicating but creating something new.

of course, the real question most students ask isn’t just what they should write but how much. my general recommendation is that intermediate students should write a minimum of 500 words a day in their target language (assuming it is a language like english, french or spanish where “word” is a meaningful measure of length). for advanced students, i recommend a bare minimum of 1000 words but would suggest aiming higher than that. if that sounds like a lot, that’s not surprising. the majority of your improvement will come from writing, making errors, learning from those errors then practicing the improved versions. this is a lot of writing and it will be the majority of your study time. your commitment will be rewarded by far faster improvement than you could possibly experience from a conversational approach to language learning.

i regularly read student writing that is 1000 words or more a day. i have had students who have submitted more than double that for weeks at a time. it’s amazing to see the progress from one week to the next in students who put that much time and effort in their language study. if you are trying to improve your english but you don’t have a teacher willing to support this level of writing-focused study, feel free to reach out and i’ll do my best to help you, either by providing that service or directing you to someone near you who teaches using that method.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.