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Learning English like a Native

Learning a second language is almost universally difficult, but in my view, there are strategies that anyone can use to make it easier:

Let me give you my opinion … An intellectualized, classroom approach alone never works. Language is a behavior, and, as such, it must be practiced. How did you learn your primary language? Trial and error and practice. Children learn to intuit language. Hence, gaining a “sense” of English is as important as knowing the rules of the English language.

Learn and then forget: Do you continue to use a map long after you’ve memorized a route? The rules of grammar are a guide. Do not expect to learn grammar rules and apply them in “if-then” fashion for the rest of your life. Aim to reach a point at which you just know where to go. How to reach this point? I can’t speak for everyone, but what has worked for me is paying attention to patterns (within sentences, within clauses, within words) and matching patterns of sounds to rules. Eventually, the brain gets good at recognizing or anticipating certain patterns of sounds, to which it attaches a type of grammatical meaning. There’s no longer a need to consciously remember the rule that explains the pattern, in order to understand.

Language is lyrical: My frank opinion is that the early Modernists were on to something when they said that music was, fundamentally, the purest form of expression. Different tones and notes have common meanings across cultures (e.g. low = brooding, melancholy, dissonant = threatening or dolorous). At the same time, it is extremely easy to pick up tunes. How often have you found yourself humming a tune you weren’t aware that you were listening to (e.g. a commercial jingle)? Try thinking of language as music. Hear syllables as their own notes. Play over the ways that consonants, vowels, and syllables are arranged. Think about words and phrases in English the same way you think about music. I.e. Repeat! Look for musicality. Then, see if your brain doesn’t remember words the way it remembers songs and tunes – spontaneously.

Go with what you know: Practice with yourself before you practice with anyone else. Start deliberately, and use whatever you know at the moment. For instance, while walking down the street, say in your mind or under your breath, “That is a tree. The tree is tall and has a lot of leaves.” I’ll admit that this may sound incredibly silly, but it prepares your mind to think, again, spontaneously, and that’s the key to fluency. As you learn new words, incorporate them into your dialogues. “That is a sycamore tree. The sycamore is seven meters tall and has a broad, drooping canopy.”

Watch TV: There’s never been a better excuse to watch TV! I like watching TV with subtitles and matching what I hear to what I read, to see if I heard correctly. This can be confusing, at first, and you may not understand anything. But eventually, you get used to hearing certain words and constructions over and over, and you learn to separate words and sentence clauses (e.g. dependent from independent clauses). Being able to separate words and clauses also allows you to identify words you don’t know and to match them to subtitles, to figure out what they mean. You may not remember new meanings immediately, but at least your mind is “primed” to learn them again. Streaming rights are restricted for some shows in certain countries, but a reliable source of captioned English-language TV is the Voice of America’s YouTube channel.

Get variety: Don’t just watch TV. Listen to music in English. Learn the lyrics. Keep a diary. If you’re geeky, like me, keep a grammar diary, where you figure out grammatical patterns and try to put them to use. Join an English club. If you can, visit an English-speaking country – but otherwise, try as much as possible to immerse yourself in the language the way that native-speakers would.

I am a native English speaker, but I have achieved a high degree of proficiency in other languages using these techniques. Hope they work for you, too! Please feel free to leave comments and questions in response to this post, and I will address them in future posts.

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