Readers’ Blog

How to improve English

Viewed 2758 times 2017-2-14 09:59 |System category:Life| English

Often people here post the question, "How can I improve my English?"

I am an American who has taught TESOL and also who has had the experience of learning several languages as an adult, so I speak from the perspective of both language teacher and language learner. I have decided to start a blog on the subject of improving English.

The question "How can I improve my English?" is not specific enough.  Improving your speaking, improving your listening comprehension, improving your reading, or improving your writing.

The easiest skill to improve is reading.  You can learn to read to comprehend without knowing how to pronounce the words well.  I can read and understand French but I can neither speak French nor understand the spoken language.  I have met many people in Latin American countries who could do the same with English, they could read research papers but not pronounce the English.  And, long after I studied Chinese, I could still understand many characters and read simple sentences even if I couldn't remember how they were pronounced.  Even if you can never converse with an English-speaking person, the ability to access and understand English-language information is invaluable.

So, reading is the easiest skill to acquire, and the best way to improve reading comprehension in English is simple practice.

The hardest skill to acquire in a foreign language is the ability to write.  It is very difficult to master perfectly.  Mistakes are more noticeable in the written language than in conversation.  Even if the meaning is clear, it will sound like it is written by a foreigner because the grammar mistakes made by a foreigner and those made by a native speaker are not the same.   There are many subtleties in the grammar and syntax of any language that cannot be learned by memorizing rules.  If you need something written in perfect English, best to hire someone to perfect it for you.  But for informal communication things don't need to be perfect, and the heart shines through.

If the question about improving spoken English, then that depends on practice.  My TESOL students in the USA,of course, have no trouble finding English-speakers to practice with. My job is to help them to overcome their shyness and encourage them to take advantage of every opportunity to practice.   Unfortunately, students in China would have little opportunity to talk to English speakers, therefore they seldom get the chance to practice speaking English.  Nevertheless, since so much of my own TESOL experience involves helping students with speaking skills, I will offer advice in this blog as though everyone had English-speakers to practice with.

The last skill is understanding the spoken language.  Here, television and movies in English with Chinese subtitles may help, but be careful, the English used in movies may be extremely informal.  Best to choose shows whose characters are educated people. Also, be aware that accents among English-speakers vary enormously -- how do they even understand each other?  A question I hope to treat in another blog.

But of these four skills -- reading, writing, speaking and listening -- in the modern internet world, reading English is undoubtedly most essential.  Fortunately, it is also the easiest skill to acquire, if you don't care about how the words are pronounced but only about their meaning. 

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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