- adults – (n. pl.) in most western, industrialized cultures, a person who is 18 years old and older is considered “an adult”
- retain – (v.) to retain: to hold on to
- ensues – (v.) to ensue: when an event follows another event or happens as a result of a previous event
- (an) issue – (n.) here: a problem
- hard to do – difficult to do
- spontaneously – (adv.) to do something quickly and without thinking too much about it in advance
- a mnemonic device (neh-MAH-nihk) – (n.) a learning technique that helps to increase one’s ability to recall and retain information
- enhancing – (v.) to enhance: to make improvements to something in order to impact performance
- prompt – here: (v.) to prompt – to trigger an action, to make something happen
- diminished – here: (adj.) when a thing’s or a person’s power is reduced so that it becomes less effective
- squint (SKWIHNT) – (v.) to squint: what a person does with their eyes when they try to look at something that is very small
- devise – (v.) to devise: to create or “come up with” something – such as an action plan or a set of questions
- dwell – (v.) to dwell (on something): to remain stuck or narrowly focused on something – such as a past mistake
In this blog article, I give you my 5 top tips for quickly and dramatically improving your English that you can put into practice right away. Adults learn new information differently than children. Traditional English lessons, however, never take that into consideration when providing content, materials, exercises and assignments. Memorization is also not the best tool for helping adults to retain the information that they learn either. When adult non-native speakers of English take English lessons, they often come with a list of problems surrounding their ability to advance that they would like to solve. “How can I speak more fluently? How can I increase my vocabulary? Why can’t I understand other people when they speak?, and How can I improve my grammar?” are questions that I would regularly be asked as a Business English Teacher and Coach.
One bonus tip before we start: There’s no need to read this entire article in one sitting. Feel free to read one tip per day, if you like, or listen to the audio recording while doing something else and then come back to read it when it’s more convenient.
Tip Number 1 for Improving Your English as an Adult: Stop Translating
If you are reading this blog article, and in the back of your mind you are thinking, “How do you say that in my language?” or, “In my language, this would be said in this way”, then this tip is for you.
People don’t realize it, but each time they reach for a translation they are reinforcing the old neural pathways in the brain for communication and blocking their ability to develop new neural pathways for the target language to take hold.
Repetition plays an important role in, not just language acquisition, but in language use, as well.
Think about it. The biggest complaint that non-native speakers of English have about their English-language abilities is that they don’t have enough opportunities to speak.
Reading is no problem. Understanding/comprehension is not an issue. Writing can be tough at times, but as long as there is no rush, the task is manageable for most.
Speaking is where people have come to me seeking help the most.
Why? Because they need to exercise the motor skills of using the muscles in the mouth, teeth, tongue, throat, lips. And they need to be able to do it almost on autopilot using signals sent from the brain – in the form of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation in combination with original thoughts.
If a non-native speaker of English maintains their dependency on filtering their thoughts through translated sentences and words before they open their mouths, they shouldn’t be surprised when their mouths want to use their native language muscles first – before switching (slowly) to the muscles needed for speaking the English-language.
That is why speakers of foreign languages often need time to “warm up” in a lesson or in a conversation before the target language begins to flow more easily. Their brains need time to stop operating in their mother tongue.
You can control how quickly you are able to jump into your English-language conversations. It’s about developing a new habit.
Here’s the heart of tip number 1: From the moment that you realize that speaking in English will be required of you, practice the habit of telling yourself to stop thinking in translations and start “Thinking in English”.
Now, you are probably saying to yourself, “Well, Michelle. That sounds great in theory, but it’s hard to do in practice”.
In response, I say, “It’s hard to do because you are still relying on a translation process in your head to communicate verbally”.
I think that everyone would agree with me when I say that translations tend to produce inaccuracies. The intended meanings of most expressions and concepts native to a language seldom have a one-to-one translation that can be applied.
If a speaker first formulates their thought in their native language and then tries to translate the expressions and concepts that they had formulated into speech – believing that an English equivalent would be easy to identify in mid-conversation, then one of two things will likely happen: 1) either the speaker stops the conversation cold while they search for the word, or 2) the speaker never starts talking because they don’t want to be the one to stop the conversation cold while they search for words.
One phrase that I would hear repeatedly in my lessons was, “I’m searching for the word”. Or, students would tell me that they want to improve their vocabulary because they “can never find the words” that they want to use in their conversations.
As their Business English Coach, I have told them that the reason that they cannot “find the word” that they need in the moment is because they are relying on a translation process in their heads.
I have helped my students and clients to understand that it is not possible for anyone to learn every word that they might ever need for every conversation that they might have in the future – this is where the translation process creates more problems than it solves. It is not possible to control every situation.
Relying on a translation process for communicating as an advanced speaker of English is a habit that needs to be changed if you want to improve.
My second tip will help you to spend less time “searching for words” and more time communicating your thoughts in English as an adult.
Tip Number 2 for Improving Your English as an Adult: Stop Searching for Words and Start Telling Stories
This idea of “searching for words” comes from the habit that people developed in school of learning vocabulary from lists.
Oftentimes, the lists were in column-form, other times the lists took on the form of flash cards.
In every case, learners were trained to go through the list in the same exact order every time and to commit each individual word to memory twice – first in their native language and then, in English. No one ever noticed that those lists of words were all out of context. Never once were those individual words linked to a complete sentence or thought that could help the learner to understand how to use the word or, even when to use it.
For adult non-native speakers of English, the mental habit of “searching for words” is a reinforcement of the classroom habit of going through lists.
When we go through lists, seldom do we skip items or jump around to find what we are looking for. Typically, a person starts at the top of the list and goes through each item – line-by-line, hoping to see the one item, or in this case, the one word, that they are looking for or need.
And since the lists of words that people have been taught to reference are usually alphabetical and out of context, speakers continually find themselves lost in an endless alphabet soup-loop of random, useless words that have no place in the conversation that is taking place before them.
What ensues, then, as was mentioned in Tip Number 1, is one of two things: either the speaker stops the conversation cold while they search for the word from among their mental list, or the speaker never starts talking because they don’t want to be the one to stop the conversation cold while they search for “words”.
I tell my clients that the solution to this problem is to stop searching for random “words” and start telling stories.
If you stop a moment and think about it, everything that we say or talk about is, in some way, a story.
Whether we are talking about our job, our day, a task, family activities, our weekend, or something that we just bought or made for dinner the night before – these communications are all stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Stories tend to flow fairly easily while being told because we aren’t focused on the specific words that we are using as much as we are focused on painting a picture in the listener’s mind about the events that we are describing. We are focused more on being understood and heard.
In order to be successful at painting that picture – at being understood and heard – we tend to use simple, uncomplicated vocabulary. Or, if we have difficulty identifying a word in a story, we tend to describe the thing or the event to help the listener to understand our meaning.
Try it for yourself right now. Think about the answer to this question in English: “What did you do over the weekend?” Don’t worry about the grammar so much (simple past vs. present perfect, for example) if that is an issue right now. This tip is about vocabulary-building. Did you think first about the words for the answer or did you first see pictures of your weekend in your mind as the answer?
Now, speak the answer to the question. Speak slowly if you have to – until you get warmed up.
Did you have trouble finding the words? As an advanced speaker of English, probably not because you likely described the pictures that flashed in your mind in the first step.
If you felt any sense of doubt about your abilities, then you would have likely struggled with overthinking your sentences – trying to find advanced vocabulary to describe a simple picture. This overthinking is what triggers the need to fall back on a translation process.
Let’s try something a bit more complicated.
Describe a typical day at work – from start to finish. Speak the answer this time without spending time in your mind first.
Probably still not as difficult as you might have imagined. Why? Because all that we did was shorten the amount of time between your thoughts about the answer and your speaking the answer. The process of describing the picture in simple terms was the same (and you had a chance to warm up ;)).
Let’s try this again, one last time – remember, tell the story behind your thoughts: What do you think governments should do about global warming?
Let me know how this last answer went for you. Share a comment. Share your story!
Using the storytelling technique to help you to speak more spontaneously in conversations without having to search for words helps you to practice using the vocabulary that you already have. It’s like using a “mind palace” or a “memory palace” as some people call it.
Using storytelling in English is a mnemonic device for enhancing your memory. You don’t rely on a memorized list, but rather on a series of visualizations that prompt identifiers in the form of basic words.
Only after you have become completely comfortable using the vocabulary that you already possess can your brain become prepared to take on more advanced words – with multiple syllables, silent letters and semantic meanings.
No, you will not sound less intelligent when you use uncomplicated words. In fact, you will sound more intelligent because of your mastery of the words that you do use. There is little worse than using a vocabulary word incorrectly. This is true in our mother tongues, as well as in our target languages. Just recall your answer to the question about global warming earlier. Was that an unintelligent answer? It may have been simplistic, but that is vastly different from “unintelligent”.
Trust your skills and be patient with yourself and use Tip Number 2 to further help you to improve your ability to speak spontaneously.
Tip Number 3 for Improving Your English as an Adult: Listen With Your Ears, Not With Your Eyes
At first glance, this tip might seem to be obvious.
We all believe that just because we have ears, we naturally use them for listening. The truth is that listening is a Soft Skill and only people who are good listeners truly use their ears for listening.
Most others either block their listening by talking to themselves in their heads – pretending to be focused on what a speaker is saying, or they use their eyes to try to “read” the words coming from the other person’s mouth.
Oftentimes, a “listener” will use their eyes to distract themselves from what they should be listening to – which makes the speaker’s message almost impossible to fully grasp.
As a non-native speaker of English in a situation in which speaking English is required, this habit will keep you from advancing to a higher level of fluency.
Why? Because if you are not listening effectively, you cannot react spontaneously. Poor listeners think that they don’t understand the speaker, but in reality, they weren’t listening to the speaker in the first place.
Let me give you a few examples of what I mean:
- You are in a telephone conversation and you have put the speaker is on speaker phone. While you are supposed to be listening, you are clicking around your computer screen – reading emails; or you are rearranging items on your desk or you are checking your fingernails. You get the idea.
- In a face-to-face conversation, you are looking at the speaker’s mouth and thinking to yourself that you can’t understand what they are saying, or that they are talking too fast, or that you don’t know what you are supposed to say when the speaker stops speaking. In other words, you are doing everything except listening.
- You are watching a movie or your favorite television series (as so many non-native speakers of English like to do to help them to improve and maintain their English) and you “miss” some of the words spoken by the characters. Sometimes their speech is not clear, but in most cases you were too busy watching the action taking place to also follow the words that they were speaking.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
They represent a few of the common communications mistakes that people make in English-language situations. The result of this common mistake is that people walk away with a lack of confidence about their English-language skills, making them want to interact less in situations where their skills and voices are needed most – such as at work or at networking events. This can be avoided.
It is understandable to be nervous about how to respond in a conversation that is not in your native language. I have been living in Germany for 15 years and I need to be sharp when I am in a German-language conversation – especially at government offices, on the phone with various service providers, or when I am in a German-language video conferencing call for business. I know the feeling. Which is why this tip is one of my best pieces of advice to you and the hundreds of others that I have taught English to over the years – stop trying to control the outcome of the situation and let your ears do the work in real-time so that you can get the outcome that you desire.
Our eyes and ears offer two powerful inputs for the senses.
If one is given greater importance in a situation, the other becomes diminished. When we want to hear something clearly – to listen to it – we turn our eyes away from it in order to diminish our view of that thing or surrounding environment – giving our ears the chance to focus on the sound.
Try this exercise as an example:
Imagine that you are driving and you suddenly start to hear a strange noise coming from your car. You want to identify what that noise could be and where it might be coming from as much as possible. How would you do that? Most people would 1) silence other noises around them – including the voice in their head (which is our focus, here) – then they would 2) turn their ear in the direction of the sound to let that sound input go directly into their brain and 3) not focus their eyes on anything – maybe they would squint their eyes or even close them while they listen.
Am I right?
In order to improve your ability to keep up with other speakers of English – whether non-native or native – apply a similar strategy in your conversations.
Don’t stare at the person or at other things while in conversation. You don’t have to go to extremes and close your eyes while listening. You can focus on their forehead, nose or chin while your ears absorb the sounds that they are making.
Turn off the voice in your head and let your ears catch the words that are being directed at you. You can practice your new listening skills with my audio recordings of these blog articles.
As far as knowing what to say in reply once someone has finished talking, you shouldn’t be worried if you are a good listener. Most of what people want to hear in conversation is a confirmation of something that they have already said. For example: “Yes, you’re right about that.” or “Yes, that’s true.” or “I agree”.
Rarely do people want their conversation partner to say something that is completely unrelated to what they had just said.
So, a good listener will always be prepared to respond. They just need to silence the voice in their head and use their ears instead of their eyes.
And, if you would like a more detailed tip on how to improve your listening skills using movies or television shows, then check out the YouTube video that I created specifically about the topic.
Now let’s move on to Tip Number 4. This tip is a bit more academic…
Tip Number 4 for Improving Your English as an Adult is To: Identify Your Learning Style
It is widely accepted and understood that there are four key ways in which individuals prefer to absorb, process, comprehend and retain new information. These “ways” are known as “learning styles”.
These four learning styles are: 1) visual, 2) auditory, 3) tactile and 4) kinesthetic. Perhaps you have already heard of them.
Visual learners find it best to use pictures, graphs and images to organize and communicate their thoughts. They often learn best by using flash cards, for example.
Auditory learners prefer to listen, discuss, memorize and debate in their lessons. They find resources like audiobooks more helpful than those in printed form.
Tactile learners learn best by hearing or seeing the information first and then trying to apply the lesson learned on their own – they prefer taking part in presentations or like to try their hand at writing, for example.
Kinesthetic learners are more physically active than tactile learners and prefer to use their whole body in the learning process – they tend to use gestures to communicate ideas and learn best in a hands-on environment.
Traditional Business English courses use the same pedagogical method for lessons as are used for school children – with a heavy emphasis on using primarily “visual learner tools and strategies” for transferring knowledge. The other three learning styles are largely ignored in traditional courses and coursework.
Images, pictures and graphics in a printed book, on a board or on a website are the norm (remember that printed words are graphics). The use of flashcards either in printed or digital form is frequently recommended.
Seldom are learners encouraged to interact with their lesson material in a more physical way.
Working with learners to discover their learning styles and then to develop lessons that would incorporate more of their learning style would require a learner-centered approach to teaching rather than the traditional teacher-centered approach.
For adult learners, this means that a teacher should spend less time lecturing during the Business English training and more time asking questions about what the learner understands about a topic so far, how they came to that understanding and what the learner would like the teacher to do, specifically, in order to help them to advance past their current level.
This is where you, dear reader, come in. Do you know your learning style?
Knowing and understanding your learning style will help you to inform your lessons in a way that will help you to advance beyond the basics that you find yourself repeating.
For example, if you are an auditory learner, rather than just talking randomly about news headlines, show up to your lesson with a series of detailed questions that you would like the teacher to ask you and to discuss the answers with you. Questions such as: Where do you see yourself in five years from now and why? If there were something in your past that you would like the chance to do over, what would that be and why? Or research a grammar point together to gain a deeper understanding of its correct usage in English.
Going beyond just listening, repeating and memorizing, this expanded strategy would incorporate grammar correction with explanations in real-time, pronunciation practice, vocabulary-building and speaking spontaneously.
I have helped tactile learners improve their English by supporting them in writing their company newsletters. We first discussed the theory of the English grammar for expressing what they want to say, for example, and then they worked to put what they learned into practice with guidance from me. Games are also an excellent tool for tactile learners. This is about learning through hands-on experience – or “learning by doing”, as so many of my clients like to say!
Kinesthetic learners need movement and active engagement just like tactile learners, but to a greater extent.
Full-immersion language activities such as pairing up with a native speaker in a tandem exchange and practicing using expressions heard or picked up from other sources would be a perfect English-language work-out for advancing to the next level in this case.
I like to add a writing exercise to tandem exchanges. For example, each person should journal about their week or weekend and exchange their journal entries before they meet. In preparation, each person would make corrections where necessary and devise a list of follow-up questions about the content. This exercise adds structure to the tandem session and builds vocabulary and improves grammar in a kinesthetic way.
Talk with your instructor or think on your own about ways that you might be able to incorporate more of your learning style or a better mix of the different learning styles into your English lesson routine.
We have now arrived at my fifth and final tip for improving your English as an adult.
I hope that you have been enjoying these tips and that you find them useful. Please remember to take a moment to share your thoughts in the comments. It would be great to keep the dialogue going.
Tip number 5 might be the most important tip of all. That is because it has to do with building your self-confidence and improving your self-talk about your accomplishments so far.
Tip Number 5 for Improving Your English as an Adult: Shift Your Focus Away From What You Always Do Incorrectly to What You Should Be Doing Correctly.
This tip could be considered as being the starting point for all other areas of improvement.
It speaks to a mindset that many adult learners bring to their lessons, and without realizing it, a topic that they spend a significant amount of time in the lessons repeatedly going back to.
The keyword in this tip is, “always”.
Some typical expressions that learners use when playing this mindset out are: “I always say that wrong!”, “I can never remember that!”, “You see, I told you! This is something that I always have a problem with!” Do any of these statements sound familiar?
Thinking this way blocks the learning process – the whole reason for the lessons in the first place. It’s understandable to express such frustrations once, but if a correction is offered, then the correction should become the point of focus, not the old mistake.
You might recall that, in Tip Number 1, I highlighted the importance of building new neural pathways in the brain for retaining English-language vocabulary vs using translations. This is the same exercise. Tip Number 5 highlights the need to focus positively on the opportunity to succeed rather than continually going back to revisit past failures.
It’s basically a story of “I’ll never get this right” and it’s a story that typically started in school – when English classes prepared students to answer a certain series of questions on a test but not how to communicate their own thoughts in a free-flowing conversation.
In school (in English class), there was only “right” and “wrong”, and the explanations for why an answer was wrong were never given – students were just told that their answer was not the answer that was expected.
No one ever understood in what cases the “wrong” answer could ever be “right”. For students, it was usually a matter of 50/50. Once they discovered that they had made the wrong choice, the students would then “wish” that they had chosen the other answer – causing them to dwell on their mistake.
Students were never taught how to use logic for figuring out the correct answer. Eventually, for many students, English class exams became just year-after-year of hoping to not repeat the same mistakes, but never understanding how to not repeat the mistakes.
This problem typically happened with regard to English grammar – most commonly: verb tenses and prepositions.
As adults in communication with other adults, this “School English” grammar sense of direction about “right” and “wrong” is useless.
As was discussed in Tip Number 2, adults in communication with other adults are more in the business of telling stories to one another rather than of “filling in the blanks”, or “choosing the correct word”.
English-language grammar is different from the grammar of other languages because there isn’t an official language academy responsible for writing the rules on a regular basis. The German language has the Council for German Orthography, for example, the French language has The Académie, the Italian language has Accademia della Crusca and so on.
In many cases, for adult non-native speakers of English, it is a matter of breaking the habit that was learned in school of there being a “right” and “wrong” choice for speaking English coupled with the tradition found in many of the mother tongues of non-native English speakers of not having any flexibility through grammar for telling one’s personal stories.
All of these factors combined are what I have determined as the cause for people tending to focus most on the mistakes that they repeat rather than focusing on understanding how 1) English actually works and 2) how they need to learn to think differently when communicating in English. English is not a “one size fits all” language.
When faced with the opportunity to correct past mistakes and build new neural pathways for speaking English correctly, be sure to remember this tip and repeat after your instructor when a correction is offered.
Well, that was it! Those were my 5 Tips for Improving Your English as an Adult. I hope that you enjoyed reading (or listening) to this article, and that it was helpful.
Please feel free to share with someone who might also benefit from these tips and let us know what you might have tried or what you think in the comments. It would be great to build a community for discussion around these topics.
Be sure to check out the crossword puzzle that goes with this blog article! You can use the “Vocabulary Bank” at the top of the page as your resource for the answers.
Every article comes with games and puzzles to help you to develop different English-language skills such as constructing sentences, improving grammar, building vocabulary and more, as well as to address different learning styles.
For more information about my Business English Coaching and Soft Skills Training services, visit my homepage.
See you on the blog!