Practising English On Your Own

by | Oct 13, 2022 | Online education, Tips for Students

One of the biggest difficulties we face when learning a foreign language is keeping our skills sharp in the days, months, and years after completing a course. It is especially difficult when there are few people with whom to practice. Losing one’s ability with a language is called atrophy, and it happens when we stop interacting with the language for long periods of time. Here we’ll discuss some methods for maintaining your English proficiency in your day-to-day life.

Method 1: Passive and Active Exposure

Young children learn a language by being exposed to it, and although adults have it far more difficult when it comes to picking up a new tongue there is still great benefit to frequent exposure to your target language, in our case that’s English. Exposure can be both active or passive, with you taking part or simply soaking yourself in English while you go about something else.

By far the most passive method is turning on the radio, television, a podcast or audiobook, or a few online videos and letting them play in the background. Although a slow and inefficient way of practising, you’ll pick up lots of words and phrases as they are used over and over again in different contexts. Of course, it works even better if you listen more attentively, but having even this basic exposure will help keep the language fresher in your mind.

Passive and Active

Tip: a 2014 study showed that being exposed to a language before going to bed improves your ability to recall words the next day.

Reading is another great way of immersing yourself in a language and an excellent source of new vocabulary. On average adults read faster than they can comprehend speech, so reading is by a large a more efficient form of exposure. The internet is a treasure chest of reading material in any genre and about any topic you can think of. An article or chapter at bed-time will not only improve your sleep but help you stay in touch with your abilities in English.

Also consider switching the language of your computer, cellphone, and social media uses to English. Since we’re so constantly exposed to the digital realm, we may as well take advantage of it.

Method 2: The Pen is Mighty

There’s an English proverb that says “the pen is mightier than the sword”, meaning that words are more powerful in politics than weapons. In fact, the pen—or pencil—is a powerful tool for learning and retaining a language. Students have been encouraged to take notes while studying since time immemorial as this helps fix the new information in one’s memory. Importantly, research has shown that writing something by hand is superior to typing on a keyboard when it comes to retention, as you are stimulating more areas of your brain and learning with more than just your eyes.

Tip: when you learn new words, write out a few sentences using the words in different tenses, numbers, and forms.

You don’t have to write a novel (but you totally could!), writing at least a paragraph a day will already make a big difference. Journaling or keeping a diary is a great way of relating your English to your personal experiences and day-to-day life; you can get creative with poetry or stories—this might challenge you to go beyond how you usually use English, expanding your dexterity with it; you could write letters or write your own book or movie reviews; translate pages from your favourite non-English book into English; write your grocery lists in English; the possibilities are endless!

Method 3: Play Tag

A great way to make sure you keep a firm grip on your English vocabulary is to tag or label items around your home. This is generally only applicable to nouns, but nouns that you won’t soon forget! You might even try to think of synonyms whenever you see a tag or label. Practice isn’t just for when you’re learning a language but a vital part of maintaining it—labels offer you regular opportunities to quickly get in some practice. If there are particular words or phrases that you would like to absorb fully, write them on a piece of paper that you can stick to your fridge, on your computer screen, or by your bedside.

Besides labelling your own things, try to remember the English words for items in the grocery store or things you see around town, again thinking of synonyms and different ways to use them with verbs.

Method 4: Have Fun!

Methods for learning English on your own

Playing games, singing, making jokes, and generally having fun has been shown to be of significant benefit to adult learning. The study showed that enjoyment improves concentration and increases a learner’s commitment to their work as well as the results. As such, you too will benefit from combining your English practice with fun. There are many games you can play, and the internet is full of English comedy and humour if that’s your thing. A study of lateral thinking found a connection between it and foreign language learning, meaning that guessing games and riddles are great additions to your English practice. You can find several kinds of language games in app stores, online, or in print: word searches, crosswords, hangman, scrabble, anagram games, text-based video games, and more!

Even a video game set to English will count as exposure (active or passive depending on the kind of game) with the increased benefit that comes from having fun.

Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself, either! It might seem a little odd, but really there’s no better company than your own. Many of us already talk to ourselves, so switching to English might be a little tricky at first, but any habit can be changed with repetition.

It goes without saying but as long as you are exposed to and use English, you won’t lose proficiency. Just keep going!

This article was written by Break Into English’s online teacher and blog contributor Johann Potgieter.

Methods for learning English on your own