My Story of Learning English: 7 Unforgettable Lessons
“Don't watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going”. Sam Levenson
Learning English nowadays is not an option if you want to comfortably fit in and enjoy the globalized era we live in.
I use English every day, and I simply can’t imagine not being able to speak it.
The truth is, however, that English and I have not always gotten along.
In fact, things were quite tough at the beginning.
I struggled a lot, but I had a vision. A clear vision of myself speaking English in the future. That vision never faltered.
Like a climber, who doesn’t see the peak of the mountain but knows it is there, still wrapped in the clouds, and all he needs to do is keep going.
Today, I would like to talk about my English-learning struggles, how I persevered past them, and what I have learned from the process. I’ll also tell you how you can benefit from all this, too.
A Language Which Would Not Fit in My Head
Susan, my English teacher, could not believe her ears.
I had just pronounced the word “enough” as “inaug”. Ouch.
I had been learning English for almost two years in middle school, but despite my efforts, I was still having a hard time with it.
The English lessons I had at school didn’t help much. In fact, I dare say they were probably the biggest source of my frustration.
I felt somehow betrayed by them. By the whole schooling process, really.
School was supposed to be the place where I would learn stuff, right?
But it wasn’t.
I had a teacher who spoke English with a very thick Italian accent, and his classes were a relentless series of boring texts to read and useless grammar patterns to drill.
I felt like I was going around in circles and not learning much.
My pronunciation was atrocious, the tenses confused me, and phrasal verbs gave me a headache.
Despite all this, there was a silver lining.
Even though English frustrated me to no end, the idea of learning it still excited me.
I wanted to learn and be like an American.
And I fantasized about having an American girlfriend.
I couldn’t see my future, then, but somehow I knew it would someday become a reality.
Let me tell you how it all happened.
1. Learn Every Day
I mean it. It’s the only way you are going to make it happen. In fact, if there is a secret to learning English —actually, any language—quickly, here it is:
Learn every day.
Regularity is what creates momentum, and momentum is what accelerates learning.
I call it “The Law of Language Accumulation”.
Imagine spending 30 minutes learning English every single day for one whole year.
“Only 30 minutes? That’s not that much”, you might think.
But 30 minutes of learning done every day for an entire year is actually quite a big deal.
Imagine learning from the 1st of January till the 31st of December 2019.
Doing the math, it would come out to 30 minutes x 365 days. In total, that’s 10,950 minutes, or just under 183 hours.
So here’s the thing: whatever you do, stick to it.
Learn every day for a minimum of 30 minutes. Some days you’ll do a little more, some days you’ll do a little less, but that doesn’t matter. Just keep learning every day, and whatever you do, don’t break the cycle.
If you need a reminder, take a post-it and write a message to yourself. Something that you’ll see every day that will remind you to sit down, focus, and learn.
Even simple messages like “Learn!” or “English today!” can do wonders.
So get in the habit of sitting down and learning.
If you don’t feel like doing it, start anyway. Just for two minutes.
You’ll notice that you’ll very quickly get into the flow of learning, and you won’t want to stop once the two minutes are up. This is because starting is the most difficult part of the process. Continuing is much easier, once you’ve already gained some momentum.
If you overcome that natural unwillingness to learn for the first few days, you will get momentum, and from there, nothing will stop you from learning English and speaking it fluently.
2. Tackle Pronunciation from the Very Beginning
If there is one piece of advice I really feel can make a difference is this: if you want to learn to speak English well, start working on its phonetics from the very beginning.
As I said before, back when I started, my American English pronunciation was atrocious.
To my credit, English pronunciation is a really tough nut to crack for native Italian speakers, both in terms of pronunciation (how we produce the single sounds) and intonation (how we utter entire sentences).
As an Italian, I didn’t understand why certain groups of vowels would be pronounced that differently from word to word.
“Ough” of “enough” would pronounced like “uff”, but the same “ou” in “cough”, or “tough” sounded quite different, even from one another.
I couldn’t even tell the difference between lax and tense vowels, such as “beet” and “bit”. Or long and short.
I was lucky though, because I never really developed bad habits in English. Not because I was good at it, but because I hardly ever spoke the language in class.
So, when Susan started giving me lessons, I had all the time in the world to work on my pronunciation.
And so I did.
I read texts out loud, spoke to her, and received corrections. Then, I started speaking English to myself in my alone time. And I absorbed every single correction like a sponge.
Over time, things got better and better.
Here’s my advice.
Start working on phonetics from the beginning. Choose a specific accent within the English world (American, British, Australian, etc.) and stay consistent. And get interested.
Don’t be scared of new sounds—welcome them!
This is how you will eventually learn to sound like a native speaker: by embracing a different reality and making it part of who you are.
3. Learn Holistically
I see every language as a living organism with four fundamental moving components: reading, listening, speaking and writing. Every single part counts.
If you think about it, when you say that you “speak” a foreign language, most people take for granted that you can also read, write, and understand language that is spoken to you.
This is how we all acquire our native languages. When we get out of our mother’s womb, we first hear, then utter the first few words, and then later learn to read and write.
However, when we learn a foreign language, the way we learn is not set in stone. Things are fuzzier, less defined. Most often than not, we tend to develop some skills better than others. Maybe we learn to read well, but end up speaking poorly. Or we speak well, but have horrible spelling.
This is like going to the gym and only training your arms, or just your legs. If you do this, your muscles will not grow at the same speed, nor in even amounts.
That’s how some gym-goers end up with big biceps and thin legs. They look uneven, and off-balance. The same thing happens in language learning.
Developing all the 4 main skills harmoniously is all the more important with English. In fact, English has a very difficult spelling and a complex phonetic system.
Reading and writing from the very beginning will help you understand and absorb the spelling system, will help you read and speak better, and you will be able to reap countless other benefits.
Remember that every skill you develop reinforces the other three.
This does not mean that you have to spend an equal amount of time every day developing each skill, but that you develop all of them on a weekly basis.
So, make a solid weekly plan, and make sure that you tackle all the 4 skills over the course of a week.
And there is an easy, cheap and extremely fun way in which you can develop listening AND reading comprehension at the same time.
4. Watch a Lot of Movies with Subtitles (link to other article)
If I told you that there are widely available learning tools that can expose you to real, authentic English, and help you have lots of fun doing it, would you believe me?
Well, there are.
They’re called movies!
I still remember that soon after I started lessons with Susan, she would bring one different American movie every week, which I avidly watched and rewatched as often as I could.
Watching a lot of American movies allowed me, first and foremost, to improve my listening comprehension. It also helped me dramatically improve my vocabulary.
On top of all that, I got exposed to how native speakers interact, speak, and make gestures—something you can’t do while listening to podcasts or the radio.
Honestly, the benefits of watching movies in English are countless.
And if you learn how to properly watch movies to learn foreign languages, well, then, bingo.
So, this is an activity I highly recommend.
As soon as you reach a decent level in English, make sure that you watch at least one English movie every week, possibly with English subtitles.
Don’t forget to also jot down which movies you watched, and when you watched them, too. Keeping track of what you do is essential for your motivation.
Let me explain further:
5. Keep a Logbook
When you are developing your English skills, it’s natural to ask yourself if you’re actually making any progress.
To detect your progress in English, you’ll need to measure it.
But the question is, how do you do it?
There are a lot of possibilities, but the most obvious method that comes to mind is saving and collecting words.
All you need to do is count how many words you’ve learned, and write them down somewhere.
But the truth is, measuring language skills is not always that straightforward.
There is so much more to language knowledge than just words.
Here’s the thing:
You might not measure language growth directly, but you can do it indirectly.
Keep a logbook.
By keeping a logbook, you get into the habit of tracking everything you do. You track what you do, how you do it, and how long you do it for.
With the logbook, you are building momentum, keeping yourself accountable, and making sure you stay on track. For greater accountability, you can even share your logbook with others.
Believe me, keeping a logbook can make a huge difference in your learning.
So, make sure that every time you finish something, you jot it down in your logbook. It only takes a minute to do so, and looking back at what you have done will give you an incredible feeling of accomplishment over time.
Then, the moment will come in which you won’t even need your logbook at all.
Let’s examine this moment, and see what it means for you as an English learner.
6. Move from Studying to Using the Language
These days, speaking English has become second nature to me.
I use English every single day, for many different reasons. Plus, I read books, listen to music, and watch TV, YouTube videos, and documentaries.
I speak English both in real life and on the Internet.
I write emails, and articles. Make presentations.
I think, and even dream in English.
In other words, English has become a fixture in my life and lifestyle.
In every language learner’s path, there comes the magical moment when you stop seeing a language as something to deliberately study, and you start simply using it because it is part of your life and who you are.
This is not to say that you will ever stop learning. Learning never really stops, even at the advanced level.
This moment I’m talking about is simply a huge paradigm shift. It will eventually happen, if you work hard enough.
From that moment on, things will be much easier and smoother.
It’s a major breakthrough.
There is not a specific moment when that happens. It just happens.
But in order to make it happen, you need English to be part of your life.
And one major factor is surrounding yourself with native speakers of English.
7. Develop Friendships and Relationships with English Speakers
I keep saying it, and I won’t change my mind: the best resource to learn a new language is people.
The languages I speak extremely well are not the languages I studied the most. They are the languages I lived the most.
That’s why speaking on Skype every once in a while or chatting through some app is not enough. You need to live situations, see faces and smiles, and hear laughter and other reactions.
You need people.
Over a long period of time, having one good friend to eat, drink, laugh, and generally hang out with can really help take your English to a whole new level.
I have countless foreign friends, but some are more special and close than others.
When I met Garrett, an American from Philadelphia, he was living in Rome. We started hanging out, and spent countless hours together. That was an invaluable experience to learn how Americans live their language and in this world. Priceless.
A friend talks to you.
Listens to you.
Smiles with you.
I like thinking that the side of the personality that we develop in a foreign language is partially shaped and sculpted by the native speakers who surround us, and the choices we make in life.
My English has been shaped by Garrett, Susan, and all the rest of the valuable people I’ve met along the journey.
I am grateful to them for being my friends, and I always will be.
So, if you don’t have friends yet, make sure to get out there and make an effort to get to know someone. You can go to local bars for language exchanges with native English speakers, search on the Internet, and even ask friends to introduce you to English speakers they know.
Ultimately, you want to aim for a long-lasting, solid friendship, because that is what helps you grow, both as a person and as an English learner.
Oh, and it goes without saying, having a foreign partner and developing a relationship with them is as amazing way to make your language skills more authentic.
Time to Live Your English Story
So there you have it.
Do you want to learn English to a near-native level?
Get to it! Learn enthusiastically for a long period of time.
Learn every day, and be proactive. Keep track of what you do.
Diversify your activities. Make sure you read, listen, speak and write on a weekly basis.
And then make English an integral part of your life.
You can make ton of incredible friends, and you—yes, you—can even find love.
I have detailed all these techniques and tips and more in an extensive course on how to improve your English, feel free to check it out if you want to have a deeper understanding of how I have taken English to the next level.
Written by Luca Lampariello