Have you been struggling to learn English for a while and don’t know why you can’t take the next step? A lot of articles talk about things you should add to your learning plan, but you only have so much time in the day. Instead, I want to focus today on things you should take out of your learning plan. These are things that might seem to help you, but actually are taking time away from other things that are much more effective.
When I learned German, there were certain things my classmates focused on that I just ignored, including things that our teacher recommended! At first my classmates were skeptical, but after a few months they saw the progress I was making. Remember, you can always come back to these topics later on if you feel like you are really missing them.
1 – Studying Idioms
It’s true that native speakers use idioms all the time. But that doesn’t mean you have to! Most idioms can be explained using normal words that you already know, so it’s really the case of focusing on the style of your speaking instead of the substance.
For example, instead of learning these idioms, just use the normal phrase listed next to it:
- every cloud has a silver lining – even though it seems bad, there are some good parts too
- it’s a dime a dozen – it’s very common
- to kill two birds with one stone – to accomplish two things with one action
Even passive understanding of idioms isn’t completely necessary. If you hear someone use one that you don’t know in a conversation, you can always ask them what it means.
If you are spending lots of time focused on learning idioms, stop for a while. Think of them as a quick and funny break from your normal studying, instead of one of the key parts. I actually do find idioms very entertaining. I will sometimes ask my German friends if there is a good translation of an English idiom, like “killing two birds with one stone.” I laugh when they say “hitting two flies with one swatter,” but I realize that this knowledge isn’t as important as learning normal vocabulary.
2 – Watching Movies and TV shows in English
For lots of people, including me, watching a movie on a Saturday night is a great way to relax. And if you watch something in English, you might also be learning some new English words. While watching movies doesn’t hurt your English, it doesn’t help it as much as you think.
Just like with idioms, think of movies and TV shows as something extra you can do that adds a little bit to your English knowledge. It shouldn’t be used as your main way of improving your English. If you find yourself watching things in English instead of speaking, studying vocabulary, or learning grammar, take a break from it for a while and focus on those things.
3 – Searching for the Perfect Learning Resources
You can find thousands of websites online and hundreds of apps that focus on helping you learn English. Some are good, some are great, and some are horrible. It’s important not to learn with substandard resources that don’t fit your learning goals. However, I’ve heard of people spending hours and hours every week trying to find the absolute best resource possible.
There are lots of great programs out there that will help you reach your goals. Just choose one that looks good an move on. I recommend spending a maximum of one or two hours per month deciding on your study material. Then, use that for the month to see how it works.
At the end of the month, think about how it worked for you and what about your study program you want to change. Again, only spend an hour or two doing this before starting to actually study again. The hours searching for the perfect program don’t help you reach your language goals at all.
4 – Going through an Entire Grammar Book
There are hundreds of grammar rules in English, just like in any language. However, most of them aren’t relevant to how you personally use the language. The best way to use grammar books are as a resource to visit with specific problems.
For example, if you don’t know how to use a certain construction from your own language, find the appropriate section in the book (or a website focused on that). Learn that construction, and move on. Or, if someone like a teacher or tandem partner points out something you are saying incorrectly, you can review it at that point.
For example, you might understand articles in English intuitively because it matches what happens in your native language. You don’t need to review all the rules – just do it! When someone lets you know about some mistakes you made, then you can look in your book or online for more information about it.
5 – Visiting the Country
This one might sound a bit controversial, but some people think visiting an English-speaking country as a tourist will help you make a lot of progress in English. This can be a great way to improve your English, but only under certain circumstances.
You need to be traveling in a way that gives you time to actually meet new people and have real conversations with them. If you are driving across the US in a car with your partner and visiting national parks, most of the time might be spent alone driving and looking at nature with your partner, talking in your native language. To really improve your English, you would need to sign up for some tours with other people and maybe stay in hostels, where you can more easily meet other travelers to talk to. It’s the long conversations that really help you get better at speaking, not the short interactions you have with a hotel receptionist or waiter in a restaurant.
I definitely recommend traveling, but thinking it’s the magic bullet to becoming fluent is misguided.
6 – Arguing with People about Learning Techniques
There are millions of people around the world who have learned English to fluency. They didn’t all use the exact same methods to get there. Some learned at school. Others took a language course. Some learned completely by themselves. Others were taught by their boyfriend or girlfriend. Some focused on grammar first and then vocabulary. Others just started speaking and saw what happened. And all of them speak English really well now.
That means there is not just one way to reach your goals. If you tell someone how you are planning to learn English and they think it won’t work, listen to their reasons, thank them for their input, and move on. If their reasons make sense, maybe you should change something. If they don’t, ignore them. But whatever you do, don’t spend your time and energy arguing with them. It won’t get you anywhere except a place of anger and frustration.
When deciding how to improve your English, it’s important to find good apps, programs, techniques, websites, books and everything else that help you out. It’s also important to make sure you are avoiding these time wasters that don’t really get your where you want to be going. Remember, however, that each learner is different, so choose the path that best suits you. Happy learning!
You’ve been reading a guest post by Nick Vance
Nick Vance is an online English teacher from the United States who currently lives in Berlin, Germany. You can find more information about his one-on-one English lessons via Skype at either of his two websites: Business English for Germans or Skype English Lessons for Everyone.