Full of contradictions and odd rules and pronunciations, its idiosyncrasies are what makes it interesting, but it can be a challenge if you’re new to it – and even if you’re not! In this article, we’ll offer some useful tips for English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students on how to speed up the process of learning this complex language, so that you’ll be fluent before you know it.
Learning on your own
‘Going it alone’ when learning a foreign language requires extra hard work and commitment, and the speaking parts are particularly challenging. Our first set of tips should help make the process a little easier.
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1. Invest in good study materials
Image shows a red notebook lying on a table.
Buy notebooks you’ll want to use.
In addition to a basic learning guide that will provide some structure for your studies, you’ll need a good dictionary for translations, and ideally also a dedicated grammar guide. You’ll also need a notebook, lined paper and a lever arch folder for your notes. Get some stationery that you enjoy using, so that it makes studying more fun!
2. Buy an audio CD or DVD
Audio CDs or DVDs are really useful for learning pronunciations, giving you essential practise that you won’t get otherwise if you’re studying on your own. These will also give you practise at saying the words yourself.
3. Find someone to Skype with
Try to find a native English speaker who’s prepared to spend some time speaking with you on Skype. This will give you valuable practise at conversational English, as well as motivating you to learn more.
Formal English study
It’s all very well trying to learn English on your own, but to make real progress and keep your motivation running high, it’s strongly advisable to formalise the process of learning the language by booking yourself onto a dedicated EFL course. This will give you a structured programme to follow and will force you to keep up with studying, and you’ll have the added motivation of learning with other people. Make sure the course you choose is fully accredited – e.g. with the British Council and English UK. Here are some of the options open to you.
4. Go on a summer school
Image shows ORA students in a lesson, with a teaching asking questions and writing on a whiteboard.
Because summer schools have pupils from all over the world (ORA is expecting 100+ nationalities this summer), you’ll hear lots of different accents and get to practise speaking English with non-native as well as native speakers.
For a really intensive learning environment, you can’t do much better than a summer school. Immersed in academic surroundings with other students who want to learn English as much as you do, you’ll make rapid progress. Learn English in Oxford with us!
5. Attend evening classes
If a summer school course isn’t an option, or you just want an extra tuition session each week, another option is evening classes. These are easy to fit alongside other things, such as your full-time studies, but you still get the benefit of learning with others and following a structured syllabus.
6. Try distance and internet learning
There are plenty of distance learning courses and internet study programmes available to help you learn English, which typically work out cheaper, but you risk remaining almost as isolated as you would be if you learned independently. If you do go for this option, try to find English speakers to talk to via Skype so that you still get the benefit of real conversation and interaction with others.
7. Hire a private English tutor
Another option is to hire a private English tutor, either to take lessons with in person or via Skype. This gives you the benefit of one-on-one tuition, though you’ll again be doing most of your studying by yourself.
Learning the vocabulary
One of the biggest challenges of learning a new language is simply remembering all the words. There’s a vast number of new words to learn, so it’s vital to be systematic about it or you’ll end up feeling overwhelmed.
Image shows lots of yellow post-it notes stuck to a red wall.
Arrange your notes in whatever way helps you learn best.
Have a single place in which you keep a list of all the words you’ve learned, along with their translations. Each time you hear a new word, add it to the list, and use this list to refer to when you’re reading, as well as to learn words from memory.
9. Learn variations of words
When you come across a new word, look it up in the dictionary and try to learn any variations. This way, you could get four or five words for the price of one! For example, the word “tidy” has variations including “untidy”, “tidily”, “tidier”, “tidiest” and “tidy up”.
10. Get organised
Buy a lever arch folder and use dividers to group your notes logically, for example one divider for grammar, one for vocabulary, one for assessments and so on. Being organised with your notes will make it a lot easier to be organised in your mind!
11. Test each other
Get together with a friend and test each other on your English vocabulary. To make it more fun, turn it into a competition to see who can get the most number of words right – the element of competition will spur you on to do even better.
EFL study tips
To get the most benefit from your studies, it’s important to have a sensible approach to your day-to-day learning. Here are some tips to help you study effectively.
12. Set aside time for homework each day
Be regimental in your approach to studying English, and set aside a dedicated amount of time each day to do homework. Keep away from all distractions, such as the TV, your phone or your computer, and stick to your allotted time every day.
13. Find a study buddy
As already mentioned, it’s useful to have a friend studying with you so that you can test each other on vocabulary. But the benefits of a study partner go further than that. Not only will you be able test each other on the words you’ve learned, but you’ll also be able to practise conversational English together, set each other quizzes and spur each other on if motivation runs low.
Image shows the painting ‘Miss Auras’ by Sir John Lavery, which depicts a woman reading a red book.
Reading rhyming poetry can also help you practise the rhythms of English, and the rhymes will give you a clue to pronunciation.
You might feel silly at first, but your pronunciation and confidence will improve tremendously just by reading English out loud, even when you’re on your own. If you’re unsure of the pronunciation, there are plenty of internet sites that will read out the words to you for you to repeat.
15. Record yourself
Nobody likes hearing the sound of their own voice, but we all sound different in our heads to how we sound out loud. Recording yourself speaking English can highlight words you’re not pronouncing correctly, even if they sound okay in your head. These recordings will be an interesting record to look back on, too — listen to them even a month later and you’ll be amazed at how much progress you’ve made!
Away from the classroom
Some of the most important learning you’ll do when you’re learning English as a Foreign Language takes place away from the classroom environment, and we’re not just talking about homework. There are lots of things you can do to help accelerate your progress without it even seeming too much effort.
16. Make English-speaking friends
Speaking English conversationally is a great way to get your confidence up, and you’ll pick up new words and phrases almost without even realising it. What’s more, you’ll learn the colloquial language spoken by native Brits every day — the constantly evolving slang that language books don’t tend to teach you.
Image shows a parcel, tied up with string, with a ‘par avion’ stamp on it.
Email is simpler, quicker and certainly cheaper, but you might find the delight of getting airmail letters helps motivate you to learn.
While ‘real-life’ English-speaking friends are great for helping you develop your conversational English skills, corresponding with a pen friend by letter or email will help develop your written English. You’ll get practice at writing about yourself and what you’ve been up to, and you’ll also develop your reading skills when you receive their response.
18. Get a part-time job that involves speaking English
Try getting a job in a touristy place where you’re likely to need English skills to talk to visitors — for example, a job as a tour guide around your city, or a job in a restaurant popular with tourists. This will give you valuable practice at speaking English and will put you in situations in which you have no choice but to speak it. If that’s not possible, you could try volunteering for an English-speaking helpline or charity.
19. Watch English TV and films
Watching English-speaking television programmes is a fun way of picking up more new words and phrases at the same time as helping to familiarise yourself with how English sounds (and learning to understand different dialects). You could start by using subtitles in your own language, and then when you start picking up more, switch the subtitles off. If you’re feeling particularly confident, why not try a cinema trip to see an English-speaking film? If it helps, try seeing the film in your own language first, so that you know what’s going on, and then you’ll be able to make more sense of what’s being said in English.
20. Listen to English radio
Having the radio on in the background is a good way of tuning in to the sounds of the English language, and you may be surprised at how much you can pick up without even realising it. The news might be a good place to start, particularly if you already know the story, as you’ll be able to make sense of what the words mean more easily. The added benefit of listening to the news is its immediacy — if you don’t understand it straightaway, the story will come and go before you’ve had a chance to digest it.
21. Make the most of your travel time
Invest in an audio English course, such as those designed for iPods, and listen when you’re on the bus or train or in the car. This will help develop your pronunciation skills as well as introducing you to helpful phrases.
22. Use Google in English
When you’re searching for things on the internet, try going to Google.co.uk instead of your native language. This will force you to find the results you’re looking for in English, and using English will slowly start to become a habit.
23. Adorn your room with flashcards
Decorate your room with flashcards containing things you need to learn, so that you’re constantly exposed to the words, phrases and grammar you should be memorising. On the mirror you use to get presentable in the morning, on your wardrobe door, next to your bed — anywhere you’re likely to see them on a daily basis.
24. Read a favourite book in English before bed
If you’re serious about learning English fast, even bedtime can be given over to making progress. Pick one of your favourite books and buy the English version. Each night when you go to bed, try and read a few pages, and keep a dictionary next to your bed for any words you don’t understand. That way, not only do you have a head-start because it’s a book you already love, but English will be the last thing you think about before you go to sleep — and it’s when you’re sleeping that the brain works hard to store all the new words, phrases and grammar you’ve picked up, converting this valuable new knowledge from short-term to long-term memory.
We think you might like our final tip, so we’ve saved the best until last.
Image shows the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, with magnolia in bloom beside it.
Why not come and practise your English here in Oxford?
One of the best things you can do to accelerate your progress in learning English is to visit the U.K., or another English-speaking country such as the U.S.A., Australia or New Zealand. Go for at least a couple of weeks, see all the famous sights and throw yourself into situations in which you’ll need to speak English with the locals, or at least hear and understand it. That could be in restaurants and bars, going on English-speaking tours of famous landmarks, visiting museums and reading information about the exhibits in English, going to the cinema — you name it. See as much of the country as you can, and get used to the sounds of different regional dialects.
We hope you’ve found these tips useful, and that they’ll help you make your English studies more enjoyable as well as advancing your progress. Learning any new language can seem a struggle at times, but we’re sure that if you follow our tips, you’ll soon be speaking English confidently and fluently.
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