How to really learn English

Over the years, I have noticed that, in spite of how badly everyone seems to want to speak English (or any other language, for that matter), very few people are actually willing to put in the work. That’s why there are so many schools, courses, and approaches selling a ‘magical solution’ to language learning.

Please don’t get me wrong, I do believe it is possible to learn a language relatively fast; I spent the first years of my professional life working for a chain that sold English in 18 months. I’ve also worked for other schools that expected students to invest 4 to 5 years of their lives in learning English.

What really determines how successful someone will be in their language learning journey is their attitude towards learning.

I, myself, have never been to a language school – as a student. I pretty much taught myself English but not because I was this curious genius; I simply needed to survive in a foreign country in the pre-internet era. So I guess what I am saying is that, although there is no magical formula to learning English, there are many ways to learn.

I have encountered successful learners in the 18-month course, in the 4-to-5-year course, and who taught themselves how to speak English. I have also seen people struggle in all three categories.

What really determines how successful someone will be in their language learning journey is their attitude towards learning.

It may sound a bit corny but, as the saying goes, “where there is a will, there is a way”. Naturally, there is more to it than just willpower. Some call it ‘growth mindset’, others call it ‘agency’. All it means is that, in order to learn, one must make the decision to do so, put in the work AND be open to a whole new set of beliefs about what it is to learn something.

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Over a decade ago, when The Secret was ubiquitous and there was no hiding from it, I came across this tale about this chief who kept staring into the ocean day in and day out. Although he couldn’t see anything in the water, he spotted a change in the wave pattern: it was caused by the caravels approaching the pre-European American continent. The bottom line is that it is hard to see what you don’t know that exists.

Based on this same principle, one can only begin to learn something once they become aware of its existence. Students will only be able to spot the different uses of specific words or grammar points if they are aware that they exist. Have you ever thought about how many words just fly off the radar daily simply because we don’t know they are there?

I, myself, have experienced this ‘phenomenon’ many times in my life – both in my first and second languages. I always recall this one time a dear friend of mine – who is a fluent English speaker – in a conversation at work, noticed, for the first time, the expression ‘run errands’. Even though it is a common expression, they had never really been aware of it. So I clarified its meaning, told them it is used quite frequently in English, and asked them to try and notice it being used within the following week. When we talked about it again, my friend told me how surprised they were to notice how many times they had seen it since they had been made aware of it.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

The same goes for anything in life, really. Have you ever noticed that every now and then it seems as though there is an abundance of information about one certain thing that you had never noticed before? For example, you decide to travel to Canada and do some research and find out that the capital of the country is Ottawa. Soon after, you begin to hear about it quite frequently: it’s in the news, you have a friend whose friend’s daughter lives there, a new movie is set there, your favourite actor was born there, and so on.

The skeptic in you might be thinking it is Siri listening in. Well, nowadays it might be the case, too, but it goes beyond that. I propose a little experiment: try and notice how many times this week you will encounter the expression ‘run errands’, or how many times you will come across some piece of information involving Ottawa.

In language learning, it is not enough to start a course, or to commit to reading a number of pages, or doing homework, or watching movies. None of it will be of any use unless you start purposefully noticing the language – and how it is used – around you. If you are learning Past Perfect, for example, make a point of underlining it whenever you see it written, make a point of actively listening for it while watching a movie or the news.

Photo by Wallace Chuck on

This is how I learnt English, this is how I picked up Spanish and this is how I pick up some of my very scarce Polish vocabulary. Well, this and the fact that I am a perfectionist, but this is another story.

It is a well-documented fact that each and every one of us learns in different ways. However it is that you do your best learning, one thing remains the same: you must deliberately notice the language used around you.

If you need help in your journey, email me. I will happily share some practical ways to make language awareness an everyday thing.

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