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english of the nineteenth century is arcane and english of even the 1980s is painfully outdated.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.
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.
courses outside the classroom
if you are an independent student wishing to study english language, you are welcome to use any of these resources. if, however, you are looking for instruction, i am always happy to engage with students if i have any openings. please contact me if you’d like to study with me. i regularly teach students (mostly advanced but occasionally some beginners and intermediates) who are committed to improving their english. tell me why you want to study english and i’ll do my best to help.
1. basic skills
- introduction & greetings
- basic questions & answers
- please, thanks, like, hate
- age, counting, ordering
- classroom vocabulary
- basic nouns & verbs
- basic adjectives & descriptions
- directions & restaurants
- travel english
the most important part about choosing a book to read to practice and improve your english skills is to select something that you will enjoy reading. do you like thrillers? romances? crime novels? pick something that you will want to read or it will become a chore.
the two other considerations are language style and complexity. language style is mostly about time and location. learning english, you will notice that all books have grammatical oddities in them. some of this is dialectic, some because english changes so rapidly that it is hard to publish something and know it will still use modern english grammar and structure in ten or fifteen years – it won’t. the general rule is to find something written in the last ten or twenty years by a writer of modern (non-dialectic) english. these lists are a good place to start, as are the bestseller lists of major american newspapers like the new york times.
if you are an advanced learner, the complexity is not really an issue. download a sample of the book you are thinking of reading and read the first few pages. if they are incredibly difficult for you, select another book. if they are very easy, this book may not be useful for you to expand your skills. before committing to reading a book, make sure it’s right for your level. if you don’t find it interesting after a few pages, pick something else. there’s no shame in starting a book and moving on to something else, only in giving up reading in general.
ready to browse the lists?
6. watching and listening
as modern citizens, movies are part of our lives, our experiences of the world around us. watching movies is a great way to passively absorb english, especially english idiom. it is important to watch movies where the dialog is well-written and non-dialectic or you will pick up bad habits. dramas are usually those with the most attention paid to the quality of writing. while english has changed significantly in the past century, the variation is less significant in spoken english so older movies with good dialog are far more helpful than older books. browse the list of movies.
television often has less quality writing when compared to movies but there are certainly many exceptions. this is certainly a passive learning experience but if you have finished your daily language exercises and want to relax by watching a series, it will help you get a little extra english in your day. the big benefit of television over movies is that you can build a language relationship with characters over a long period of time, not just a few hours but often dozens or hundreds, if the show lasted many seasons. that allows your ears and brain to get used to the patterns and voices you will experience and gives you a chance to focus more closely on the words themselves without being surprised by the way they are spoken or a new idiomatic style. browse the list of television shows.
7. writing exercises
there are three main types of useful writing exercises for intermediate and advanced students – short writing, daily writing and long (academic/creative) writing. for beginners, it is useful to do basic journaling to practice pronouns, verbs and vocabulary. this is not useful for non-beginners as it’s neither challenging nor good practice for more complex structures. the exercises here are all for intermediate and advanced students as “what did you do today?” is really the only question a beginner needs for daily exercises.
the idea behind short writing exercises comes from creative writing. i have used them for many years as a way to get students to stop emotionally connecting with their writing – to write about something quickly and effectively without caring about the topic. the prompts are usually meaningless and the idea is to write between 250 (for early-intermediate students) to 2000 (for very advanced students) for each. to begin, take a minute or two to reflect on the prompt then start writing. it doesn’t matter what you say – the content isn’t important. just say something and make it flow naturally. do as many exercises as you like. the prompts are vague enough that you can repeat them and have completely different results.
ready to try some short prompts?
as a language learner or a writer, it is important to write every day. that doesn’t mean “i will write a thousand words every day so saturday morning i will write 7000 words”. it actually means sitting at your keyboard for an hour or to each twentyfour-hour period and pounding out some words. if you only write 200 words, that’s fine. skipping days, though, that’s like missing a dose of a useful medicine. improvement comes from sustained effort, not periods of intense work mixed with breaks. when i first began teaching language and writing, the most common questions i got were about daily writing – “how many days off can i take a week?” and “but i don’t know what to write about!”. the answer to the first is zero. write at least a little every day. for intermediate students, i recommend aiming for about 500 a day on average. for advanced students, between 1000 and 2500 a day is a better target. if you have an emergency and you can’t write, ok. but don’t plan to take a break just because you don’t feel like it. learning a language is hard work and requires commitment. if you don’t want to learn it, that’s up to you. but don’t half-ass it. the second question (the implied question is “but what do i write about?” for those who will tell me i didn’t word it as a question earlier) is answered by these daily prompts. this is a list of several potential questions or topics for each day of the month. that doesn’t mean you have to write about all of them – actually, it doesn’t mean you have to do them on the days they are assigned to. if you like structure and planning, treat it as an assignment. if you want more flexibility, pick and choose what you want and move them around as desired. this is a starting place, not a target.
here’s a plan that i have found works well for many students. print the list of daily prompts so you have it on paper. then take a few highlighters and go to work on it. let’s assume you have five colors – yellow, pink, blue, green and orange (the colors don’t matter and you could do this with symbols and a pencil for the same result but i find colors are better motivation and just look cuter). read each of the questions for topic content. make a yellow mark by the ones you find really interesting and think you’d enjoy writing. make an orange mark by the ones you are confused by and that will take a lot of research and study to make work but you think might be worth the effort. now go back to the beginning. make a green mark by all the ones you think will be easy to write, a blue mark by the ones that will be average and a pink mark by the ones that will be difficult. of course, these will completely depend on your interests, your level of writing and your background. if you studied one of the hard sciences, scientific and logical topics might feel far easier. if you studied history, social science topics might be easier and science ones either uninteresting or very hard. take a pen and cross off all the ones you don’t want to write. next, if you are particularly into planning, assign yourself a specific prompt for each day. if you’d rather make your choice in the moment, now you have a quick way to figure out which one you feel like – am i up for a real challenge today? do i have time to do some research or only time to write? am i really awake or too tired to do something that complex? learning a language is a mixture of rigid commitment and flexibility. do what works for you.
let’s take a look at the daily prompts for this month.
as a college instructor, academic and creative writing have always been a huge part of my life and i have seen first-hand the benefit of that type of rigorous exercise on students both in serious writing programs and language learning classes. this is specifically for advanced students who already have a good level of english but want to improve. if you have difficulty with conjunctions and verb conjugation, this is not a good use of your time and you should work on less formal and complex daily exercises until you have mastered sentence structure or you will find yourself annoyed and confused trying to write in a more formal style. academic writing doesn’t mean it has to be an exhaustive level of depth or explanation but it does imply a single topic and strict formal writing. creative writing is more flexible but it is again meant to be an extended piece of writing on a single theme or story. the benefit is that you get to expand on what you are writing and explore the idea in depth.
i would suggest treating these exercises either as supplements to or replacements for daily writing. if you have lots of time, you can do your regular daily writing and add academic or creative work. if you only have a few hours to spend, you can do these instead some days. it may take you more than a single day to write each of the answers – it may take you a week if you want to dive deeper. treat each as a college paper and thoroughly organize your ideas before writing. i suggest a length of at least 2000 words. as with my regular college classes, i don’t believe in maximums but if you want a good guideline, between two and four thousand words is a good average length to aim for. academic and creative writing is usually seen as the goal or measure of successful completion of language learning – it’s the point where you stop being an advanced student and start actually living in your new language. try not to worry about that. don’t wonder if you’re ready. just give it a try and see what the result is.
and don’t be afraid of corrections. it is fairly usual for me to offer five or more corrections or suggestions for each sentence of a piece of writing even for my native-speaking students so when you get a piece of writing back with lots of edits, it’s important not to be discouraged. that doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a language learner or a writer. it means the instructor thinks you’re good enough at the language to understand that level of editing and aim for perfection. don’t forget. perfect isn’t a place. it’s a direction. it’s something you walk in the direction of but never achieve. after decades of professional, published writing in various disciplines, i have never written a perfect piece of writing and i’m certain i never will. i’ve never read one. i don’t think they exist. your next piece of writing can be better than your last. this isn’t math – only in the simplest questions is there a single completely right or wrong answer. language is an art and it is continuously evolving. the important part is to keep working at it.
take some time to work on some long writing.
8. reading & listening exercises
i have noticed online and on examinations there is an extensive collection of articles with specific questions – what did this person buy? where was the train going? what color was her umbrella? these are perfectly fine for beginners but as the articles become more complex and the questions more technical and nuanced, there ceases to be a sensible “correct” answer and the exercise becomes meaningless (yes, i’m looking at you, ielts!) and, in many situations, simply incorrect as a premise.
as such, this is a better approach to reading comprehension for intermediate and advanced students. stop trying to find the technical details and explore the idea itself. remember, reading is not a particularly useful component of advanced language study. most of your progress will come from writing. so reading should be used in two ways – to provide material for writing and to serve as a guide.
in the first instance, read an article and write a response. this can take several forms.
- what would you say to the author if you wrote them a letter?
- are you outraged? shocked? confused? explain why.
- how would you communicate the same information?
- what more do you want to know? find the pieces you felt were missing and write about them.
- what’s wrong with the article? argue against the writer.
in the second, find an article that is both well-organized and uses good writing. model a new article about a different (perhaps completely different or simply related) topic and use the same structure and writing style as the original. for my classes, i often provide specific articles to read each week to help them but what i will list here isn’t articles as much as publications where you can find a variety of interesting articles. these are organized by general discipline rather than chronologically as the publications are ongoing. browse the list of article sources.
podcasts are great for language practice. they give you a chance to listen to long periods of speaking on a single topic. that allows you to concentrate. they also let you rewind and hear the same thing over until you are certain you have understood. many also have transcripts so you can read while you listen, especially helpful if you have difficulty with the speed or accent of the speaker. there are many excellent podcasts and far more terrible ones. if you keep trying, though, you will find reliably good shows that return each episode with new things to interest you and allow you to practice your listening while enjoying the show. this is, of course, passive learning and nowhere near as helpful as actual active writing study but consuming media in english is an important part of life as an english speaker, not really part of language education. this list also includes some video channels with the primarily audio-only ones. browse the list of podcasts.