Learning to learn English

Now that we're clear about our reasons for learning English and the requirements for success, we should start thinking about how we should proceed. Maybe we'll find the right solution if we take a closer look first at the methods that certainly don't work.

It's only natural that typical English learners would turn first to a language school. They can attend classes with qualified and experienced teachers, so they think that they have made the right choice. After all, what's the purpose of a school? To teach you English, right? Well, let me ask you two questions: Do so many people attend English classes because they are effective? Or are English classes 'effective' because so many people attend them? Let's examine exactly what happens in a typical English class:

Usually there are a group of several learners and a teacher. The teacher gives the learners photocopied exercises, or maybe they are using a textbook. While they are working on those written exercises, they look down at their texts, focused on their own paper. They're sitting right next to each other, and they might glance up at the teacher occasionally, but most of their time is spent looking at written handouts. Why would you go to an English class where the teacher gives you exercises you can do on your own at home?

Well, perhaps in the classroom you can practice speaking with your teacher, who will correct your mistakes. But is that really so? Let's assume there are 6 students in your group. This is a small group – I've worked with groups of 16 or even more. Now, how much time do you get to speak English if there are that many other students in the class? In a conventional classroom, you have very little opportunity to practice your English. What's worse, English classes can actually slow down the learning process. Yes, that's right. Most of the time you spend in an English class, you are exposed to unnatural ESL English. Think about it: you and the rest of your group are still learners, so when you speak, you are bound to make grammar mistakes, and of course you speak in your own accent and intonation. And you're using those dumbed-down ESL materials as well.

An English class consists of one person who speaks correct English – if the teacher is competent – plus the group of students, who speak incorrect English. It's one against many, and in a group like this, you hear much more incorrect English than authentic English. Even if teachers try their best to correct all your mistakes, it's impossible for them to create an environment in which you receive only authentic, accurate English input. The task is overwhelming. English teachers of group classes are happy if their students get at least a little of the grammar and vocabulary right – they simply don't have the time or energy to address every pronunciation, grammar and structure problem. And if they did, there would be no time at all for any conversation.

Here's another reason why English classes are not effective learning systems: if you sign up for a private English course, you usually have 1 to 3 lessons a week. That's about 4% of an average work week. Now, what results do you expect to see from investing 4% of your time and money into learning English? And what results do you really get?

It may sound strange, but an English class is not a good place to learn English. You can check it out for yourself – just find someone who speaks very good English and ask them where and how they acquired the language. I'm sure they won't say 'at school' or 'in an English class'.

Well, you don't have to pay for anything like that. You already have your own English language learning system inside your head. All you need to do is put it to use effectively. The first step towards this goal is getting a clear understanding of exactly how language works: