Have you ever had an experience like this? You decide that you want to become fluent in speaking English or learn a certain number of words by a specific date. You buy a book and subscribe to an app. You study for 3 hours a day during the first week, but as you get busier with work or school, it becomes 2 hours a day, then 1 hour a day, and eventually only 1 hour a week. Finally, you give up completely, realizing that you haven’t learned much and haven’t become fluent either.
This is an experience many of us can relate to. As a former ESL student, I’ve been there myself.
Why Consistent Practice is Essential for English Learning
Consistency is crucial for learning and memory, just like with any other skill. Research has shown that it is more effective to study a subject periodically rather than occasionally engaging in intense sessions. This phenomenon is known as the “spacing effect” and is well documented.
In 2015, researchers at York University conducted a study on university students enrolled in a meteorology class. The students were divided into two groups. One group took a quiz one day after attending a lecture, while the other group took a quiz eight days after the same lecture. The results showed that the students who took the quiz eight days after the lecture performed significantly better on the final test than those who took the quiz one day after the lecture.
This and other similar studies demonstrate that periodic study sessions can help form long-term memories of the subject being studied. Practicing English is no exception. Studies have shown that adults can better retain information about English syntax when they distribute their practice over a longer period rather than concentrating it in a short-term. Consistent and periodic studying can activate neural pathways that are crucial for long-term memory. In other words, it is much more effective to practice for 20 minutes a day, every day, than to practice for two hours once a week.
Immerse Yourself in English
An easy way to practice English every day is by immersing yourself in English-language content. This includes reading books, articles, or blog posts; watching movies or TV shows; and listening to podcasts, music, or audiobooks. Essentially, you want to surround yourself with materials in English, which will increase your exposure to the language. Moreover, learning English through various authentic contexts allows you to grasp the meanings of different words, phrases, and idioms, as you can see how they are used in real-life situations. For example, if you come across the idiom “you’re pulling my leg” in a drama featuring a friend playing a prank on another, it becomes easy to understand its meaning.
Here are some great ideas for surrounding yourself with English:
1. Watch movies, TV shows, or YouTube videos
Pick your favorite movies or shows in English, or watch new ones with English subtitles. This will help you get used to the language and its pronunciation. If you have a favorite YouTuber, follow their channel and watch their videos. A trick is to watch the same scene multiple times, first with subtitles and then without, to test your understanding.
2. Listen to podcasts and radio
Choose podcasts or radio stations on topics that interest you. This will help you learn new vocabulary and practice your listening skills. You can slow down the playback speed if the speakers are too fast for you.
3. Read books, articles, or magazines
Start with materials that match your current language level and gradually move on to more challenging texts. A trick is to underline new words and phrases, then look up their meanings. Try to read materials that interest you. For example, if you like comic books, consider reading comic books written in English. If you like celebrity gossips, consider subscribing to the People Magazine.
4. Follow English speakers on social media
Engage with native English speakers and other learners on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you have a favorite celebrity, follow him or her social media account. Read the celebrity’s feed periodically. Social media can expose you to everyday English and help you practice your reading and writing skills.
5. Join Facebook groups
Participate in online conversations with other English learners or native speakers. One effective way to do this is by joining a Facebook group. There are billions of Facebook groups available, catering to a wide range of interests. Engage with Facebook groups that interest you by responding to others’ posts or posting your own content. Some groups even offer chat rooms, providing an opportunity to communicate in real-time. This will allow you to practice your writing and communication skills in a more relaxed environment.
Note Down the Words, the Phrases, and the Idioms
There are two mistakes you’ll want to avoid when studying English by consuming English media.
The first mistake is neglecting to write down new words, phrases, or idioms that you encounter. It’s important to look up their meanings, ensure they make sense in the context they were used, and write down the word, its meaning, and an example sentence. It’s recommended to prepare either a notebook or use a memo app to record these new words.
The reason for looking up words and noting them down is that simply listening to English does not automatically improve your proficiency. Contrary to the popular myth that listening to English enough will make you better at speaking or listening to the language, there is no scientific basis for this claim. If you come across something you don’t understand and don’t make an effort to look it up, you will still not understand it when you encounter it again.
Of course, English media is full of difficult words. A typical native-speaking adult has a vocabulary of about 20,000 to 30,000 words, whereas a typical ESL student at B1 to B2 level only has a vocabulary of about 3,000 to 4,000 words. Therefore, there will inevitably be a lot of words you don’t know. Don’t try to be a perfectionist and look up every single word. Just choose some words that you find important. Writing down even 5 to 10 words every day can make a significant difference in the long term.
Another big mistake is not reviewing. If your ultimate goal is to speak fluent English and not just pass tests, you need to remember the new words or new syntax indefinitely. This means you must commit unfamiliar words, phrases, idioms, or syntaxes to your long-term memory. Long-term memory is created when you access information periodically over time, which relates to the “spacing out” effect we discussed earlier.
Here are three strategies to help you memorize words for the long term:
1. Periodically review the words you have noted down. After learning the words, try to review them by looking through your notebook and speaking the words and their example sentences aloud.
2. Pay attention to the words the next time you watch a video, read a magazine, or have a conversation with a friend. When you notice the same word being used, try to recall its meaning. If you’ve forgotten, refer to your notebook.
3. Make an effort to incorporate the word into your conversations. For example, if you’ve learned the word “exceptional,” next time you talk about the food you ate at a restaurant, say, “The food was exceptional,” instead of “The food was very good.”
Practice English Through Conversations
One of the most effective methods to improve your English abilities is through conversational practice. Engaging in conversation is an incredibly productive means of applying what you have previously learned. When you incorporate new vocabulary or grammar into your speech, you are not only recalling the information, but also reinforcing and utilizing your knowledge, as well as accumulating experience. By repeatedly using new words, phrases, or idioms, you progressively internalize and master them. Next time you speak to someone, you’ll notice that these new words and phrases will come out more naturally because you have used them in the past.
- Join English-speaking clubs, social groups, or language exchange groups. In a language exchange group, you practice English with an English speaker, and in turn, you teach the English speaker your native language.
- Use apps, websites, or platforms dedicated to language exchanges, like Tandem or HelloTalk.
- Use apps that allow you to talk to an AI, such as ALULA.
- Practice English with your friends or coworkers over lunch or coffee breaks.
It’s important to be consistent when you practice English. Ideally, you’ll want to practice English daily, even if it’s just 15 to 20 minutes. Periodic practice is known to increase your long-term memory of the material you learned. When you study English by watching a video, reading a book, or talking online, remember to look up and note down unfamiliar words, phrases, idioms, or grammar structure. Then, review and practice using them in your next conversation. This method can significantly reduce the amount of time needed for you to become fluent in English.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.