At some point in your learning journey, there will be a moment where you will believe you have reached a good level of English; a moment you will feel you are ready to face whatever comes your way. Kudos for reaching that point. However, this is not the end of your journey.
A new journey awaits and it goes beyond textbooks; it’s real life.
Textbook English versus real-life English
- Grammar does not equal communication
Having perfect grammar doesn’t guarantee you will be understood. Yes, it is important to properly use grammar, but grammar alone can’t ensure communication: there is pronunciation and vocabulary to factor in.
Besides, native speakers don’t necessarily know the grammar themselves and may make mistakes, too. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a grammar expert in your native language to be fluent, so why would English speakers have to?
- Vocabulary is deceiving
Regional differences in vocabulary usage mean people from different places use words differently. The most popular example of such is the comparison between British and American English.
Everyone knows that the Brits take the lift while Americans take the elevator. A lorry (UK) is a truck (USA) and underground (UK) is subway (USA). But it goes far beyond that. In Canada, people drink double-doubles (coffee with two creams and two sugars), in Australia, people get Maccas (McDonalds) and in the UK, people love salt and vinegar flavoured crisps (chips).
- Pronunciation and accent may vary
English speakers have different accents. New Zealanders don’t sound like Australians, who speak differently from South Africans, who pronounce words differently from the Brits, who don’t sound like the Irish, who have a different accent from Canadians, who, believe it or not, don’t speak like Americans.
Beside the accent, there are words that are pronounced differently depending on the country. Americans say missile /ˈmɪsəl/ and fragile /ˈfræʤəl/ while the British say /ˈmɪsaɪl/ and /ˈfræʤaɪl/. And the differences don’t end there:
And we could go on and on and on… but I guess you get my drift, eh?
How to land on your feet
Now you might be wondering what you can do to improve your chances to communicate well and effectively. A good way to start is to take your English out of the textbook: watch movies and series in English. Listen to music in English. Read – and this is crucial – books, magazines, blogs in English.
Notice that it is not enough, however, to simply do those things. You must be an active reader, and you must listen and watch with purpose. Take notes of words you don’t know or that are used in different ways. Check the pronunciation of words you had a hard time to understand or that you were sure should be said in another way.
If you need help in this process, drop me a line. I will be more than happy to share with you what I did when I was learning English and what I still do these days that works for me.