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Welcome to “The Better English Blog”

©2022 Michelle Charles /Michelle Charles English

Vocabulary Bank:

  • sure-fire – (adj.) certain to succeed or to meet expectations
  • retain – (v.): to retain – to hold on to something for the long term, to keep
  • (an) auditory learner – (n.) a particular style of learning where the learner interacts with new information best through sound and speech, rather than through just the written word.

Hi and welcome to “The Better English Blog” – the place where advanced non-native speakers of English can enjoy quality reading material while exploring the English language in-depth.

I’m Michelle Charles and I am a Business English Coach and Soft Skills Trainer with over 20 years of experience in international communications consulting in both the United States and in Germany. Since going fully online in 2020, I have also had the privilege of working with students and clients from all over the world.

Here, in these blog articles, I gather my answers to the questions that have been most frequently asked by my Business English students and clients over the years – questions that you most likely have, yourself.

Among these articles, you will also find examples of some of my best advice and sure-fire tips for improving your Business English that have been tested and proven in real-world situations.

Some topics that you can expect to see covered include: how to improve your English as an adult, the spelling differences between British English and American English explained, how to master the issue of “gender” in English and much more.

People tend to say that they are too old to learn. Actually, the tools that have been traditionally used to teach adults need to be changed.

– Michelle charles

It is a commonly accepted fact that adults learn new information and learn how to retain information differently than children.

Once upon a time, we were all children and we learned new information as children were taught to in school – through repetition, memorization and testing.

But as we grew into adults seeking to learn new skills – such as speaking a language for business, for example – the “school English” tools for acquiring and holding on to the new knowledge – which expanded to include advanced vocabulary and grammar, failed to work in the same way as when we were kids.

People tend to say that they are too old to learn. Actually, the tools that have been traditionally used to teach adults need to be changed.

Simple repetition, memorization and testing or fill-in-the-blank exercises just don’t provide the kind of results that are needed for successful communications as adults in business.

“The Better English Blog”, aims to close the gap between when you experience new information and how you manage to retain it for the long term – for practical use, spontaneously, in your international relations. In fact, my entire website, www.michellecharlesenglish.online, is set up for this exact purpose!

For added support in your learning, at the top of each article, a “Vocabulary Bank” of likely new vocabulary words can be found. This tool is meant to help you to increase your understanding of the content of the articles in real-time and to help you to more quickly and easily retain the information for your own use in the future. Learning new information “in context” is the name of this strategy.

Additionally, I have included an audio recording of each article.

Not only does an audio recording of the article provide an added level of convenience for spending time with the blog (you can listen while doing the laundry, for example), but it is also a good way to listen to pronunciation by a native speaker. If you are an “auditory learner”, then this feature is a bonus for you!

And last, but not least, I have also taken short sections of each article and turned them into word games.

You can find these games as links at the end of the articles, or you can simply click on the “Think In English” menu item at the top of each page on my website. Clicking on this menu item will display a drop-down menu from which you can choose your games or puzzles of choice or your preferred downloads.

Instructions for playing the games and for using the associated blog article as a reference are included.

I hope that you enjoy reading “The Better English Blog”. I would look forward to seeing your comments and receiving your feedback in the comments section below each article.

See you on the blog!

– Michelle

Don’t Confuse “Busy-ness” With “Doing Business”: 5 Practical Time Management Tips

Photo Credit: Tumisu/Pixabay

Vocabulary Bank:

  • “busy-ness”– (adj.) a play on words. The state or condition of being busy all of the time. Compare with the states/conditions of “happiness” and “sadness”, for example.
  • necessitating – (gerund) to make something necessary to do or use
  • deploy – (v.) to deploy: here – to move a resource into action
  • prioritize – (v.) to prioritize: the verb form of the noun, (a) priority – to place something, such as a task, at the top of a list.
  • (to) have a lot on your plate  – (idiomatic expression) picture sitting at a dinner table with a mountain of food on your plate that you are obliged eat: meaning – to have a lot to do
  • insult – (v.) to insult: to attack a person’s sense of pride or honor
  • embarrass – (v.) to embarrass: to make a person feel a sense of shame in public
  • pings – (n. pl.) the sounds that an application on a smartphone or PC make to notify someone of an incoming message or update
  • mismanagement – (n.) the act of managing a situation in a way that produces losses or is considered abusive

Time Management is a Soft Skill. Most people know that.

But what most people don’t know is that the idea of “Soft Skills” was an invention of the United States Army in 1972.

This fact makes “Soft Skills” a part of American English-language culture.

That is why learning about and developing Soft Skills is so new for non-native speakers of English around the world today.

Corporations adopted the Army’s idea of creating training and evaluation systems for jobs that dealt mainly with people and paper. This was in stark contrast to the training and evaluation systems that were in place for the “hard skills” that were required for working only with machines.

Tasks like: quality control, supervising office personnel, conducting studies and writing reports, relaying information and providing training are just some of the responsibilities necessitating the use of Soft Skills at work.

The person who is successful at applying Soft Skills at work possesses the relevant vocabulary for each Soft Skill. This person also has a deep understanding of how to deploy the Soft Skills needed in a given situation and an ability to talk about the Soft Skills that they have to offer with both interviewers and supervisors, as well as with the various members of their teams.

In this blog article, I’m going to lay out 5 Time Management tips that will not only give you practical advice on how to manage your time more effectively, but will also give you the vocabulary that you need for letting others know that you possess this Soft Skill.

Ready? Let’s go!

Tip Number 1: Prioritize

If you have experience in project management or even just in managing your own productivity, then you have most likely come across the need to prioritize your tasks. This is where the negative idea of “busy-ness” comes in.

There is a fine line between trying to figure out what to touch first because you have a lot on your plate and running around touching everything at the same time because you believe that you are accomplishing something but, in reality, almost no task is ever brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Someone who is good at time management avoids “looking busy” in exchange for undertaking the real business of checking items off of their list permanently.

Here are three key questions to ask yourself when prioritizing your tasks:

  1. What outcomes are needed in the short-term?
  2. What outcomes are needed in the long-term?
  3. About how much time would each task take to complete? (Can the task be completed in one sitting or in one day, or should the task be worked on over several days?)

Answering these three key questions each time you approach your task list, even if something comes up last-minute, will give you the structure that you need to manage your time more effectively on a daily basis.

Tip Number 2: Set Boundaries

It’s very popular to talk about setting boundaries in relationships, but actually establishing those boundaries and keeping them in place proves much more difficult in practice.

That is because the essence of setting boundaries is the ability to say “no” to others.

No one wants to insult, offend, embarrass or reject others; moreover, no one wants to be seen as the type of person who would do such things. For this reason, most people choose to either not set boundaries around their time at all or they relax their boundaries over time.

The downside of not setting or not maintaining your boundaries is that your time is left unprotected.

The person who does not set boundaries around their use of time will often find themselves starting work on a task only to be interrupted by others requesting their attention on a completely unrelated task.

Because boundaries had not been set and made clear, this person usually ends up working with the colleague until the colleague’s task is completed – leaving little to no time for getting back to the task that they had originally sat down to start working on for themselves.

At the end of the day, this person’s productivity and performance in the eyes of supervisors and other team members suffers.

The key to setting boundaries effectively and with respect for others’ feelings is to: think “no”, but speak apologetically.

Phrases such as:

  • “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m in the middle of something else right now.”
  • “Unfortunately, now is not a good time. Could we plan to talk about this later today?” and
  • “I’ll tell you what – let me just finish what I’m doing first, then I’ll message you when I’m done.”

go a long way in helping you to better manage your time at work.

Remember, each time that you say “no” to something that you don’t have time for, you are saying “yes” to something that needs your time.

Tip Number 3: Develop Patience

Impatience is the root of all “busy-ness”.

Advances in technology, social media activity, the entertainment industry, fast news cycles and consumerism have all played a role in the ongoing shortening of the average person’s attention span.

Expecting instant outcomes has emerged as a by-product of our prolonged exposure to the list of forces mentioned above.

If left unchecked, this expectation of instant outcomes evolves into a form of impatience that is difficult to justify with regard to 99% of tasks related to productivity and project management.

One can even be impatient with oneself.

This expectation-of-instant-outcomes approach to task management is counter-productive at best, and at worst, an act of self-sabotage.

The person who is impatient at work tends to describe their behavior as “multitasking”.

Speaking purely about workplace settings, multitasking used to occur in slower-paced environments where much of the activity was more physical in nature. Hand-signing documents or physically filing documents are two examples, that, before the digitalization of certain administrative tasks, could have been done while attending to other things.

But, the digitalization of office work has transformed what used to be largely physical tasks into tasks that require more mental focus (once you hit “send” you have a very narrow window of time to take back your mistake, for example).

What’s more, all of these tasks that now require more mental focus no longer rely on a linear process – as was the case in the past.

The fact that we all must now operate in a world where, literally, everything can happen everywhere, all at once has conditioned us to live largely in reaction mode.

We react to notification “pings” on our smartphones and PC’s, we react to email requests that land suddenly in our inboxes, we react to direct messages, we react to messages in team chats that aren’t addressed to us, the list goes on.

This phenomenon has distorted our sense of time. We lose track of it. We say that we don’t have enough of it and that we don’t know where it has “gone”.

In the case of good and effective time management, it is necessary to maintain a level of self-awareness in this regard.

For us, time is linear. However, our use of technology has compressed time into a single moment in which everything happens.

The person who lives in reaction mode will express an irrational form of impatience when they don’t have anything to react to. They will find themselves creating conditions of “busy-ness” as they wait to hear the next “ping” –  which is almost non-stop.

This person wants to be where “the action is” – knowing that they would prefer to react to instant outcomes than wait for outcomes in a realistic way.

Stillness and focus are the enemies of reaction mode.

Sitting still for the duration of a task despite the distractions, or lack thereof, is a Soft Skill that is highly sought after at the uppermost levels of business.

Developing patience for the sake of placing your clear mental focus on your tasks in a linear fashion, rather than in a reactionary way, will actually end up saving you time in the long run.

This next tip might be somewhat unexpected.

Tip Number 4: Factor Yourself In

This tip stands in direct contrast to the idea of “busy-ness”.

Allowing yourself to enjoy your lunch hour away from your desk should not be considered a guilty pleasure. Instead, it should be treated as an opportunity to refresh your senses for the rest of the day ahead.

Not checking your email or anything else related to work after the workday is done should also be something that you may want to consider allowing yourself to do guilt-free, if possible.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking to yourself, “This sounds like work-life balance.”

In a sense it is, but work-life balance is more about avoiding overwork and burnout.

What I am focusing on here is more within the context of managing your time while at work.

If you have an hour for lunch, take the full hour – don’t spend 15 minutes eating at your desk while continuing to work on tasks. The person that does that (and we’ve all done it) ends up feeling mentally drained and more physically exhausted than necessary because they didn’t factor in their biological needs for maintaining a satisfactory level of productivity over the course of several hours.

Such behavior is time mismanagement.

Another pattern of behavior that is also a form of time mismanagement is not thinking before acting.

Similar to being impatient, as was discussed in Tip Number 3, choosing to communicate or perform your tasks in a reactionary way, or overly-spontaneously typically results in wasted efforts.

Outside of an emergency situation, when a person chooses to act first and think afterwards, they are acting without a plan. More often than not, such behavior results in wasted time, waste-worthy outputs, the need to backtrack and in some cases, the need for another person to perform the task again – fresh, from scratch.

Why do some people persist in acting without thinking?

All possible explanations can be boiled down to one word – fear.

In most cases, thinking demands no physical movement. When a person is engaged in a thinking process, they are usually motionless. Their eyes tend to be closed, even if for a short period. Their head is often down.

To the untrained eye, it could appear as if the person is asleep, and in a time-compressed world where everything happens in a single moment, such an appearance is an absolute “no-no”.

This is why the Soft Skill of Time Management is so highly-valued and so widely talked about.

Effective time management takes courage and confidence to implement in real time.

It takes a willingness to seize control of the time that is available and to slow it down in the moment, if necessary, in order to be able to move more quickly later on. It requires a personal “executive decision” to not behave in a reactionary way no matter what others are doing or how others might perceive that decision.

The person who is able to allow themselves to think before acting will not be rushed into action – thus potentially avoiding the kinds of missteps and mistakes that could end up wasting time.

Factoring yourself into the time equation that is your workday in the form of enjoying your breaks and thinking before acting has the capacity to give you true time management superpowers.

And now, for my final tip…

Tip Number 5: Choose A Time Management Tool To Back You Up

It’s no secret that the number of apps that promise to help people to effectively manage their time is impossible to quantify.

From digital To-Do lists to Gantt Charts, it’s also no secret that an equally countless number of us have tried one or the other of these tools with varying degrees of success.

I’m not here to discuss the merits of any one tool over another, but I am here to suggest using something other than your memory.

Trying to keep the overlapping timelines and deadlines, benchmarks, targets, goals, sub-tasks and deliverables straight in your head without the support of some form of backup will result in a definite time management fail.

Whatever it is that helps you to stay on top of your tasks and to stay on track, use it shamelessly.

Whether that be in the form of a digital To-Do list or a handwritten one, a traditional diary or calendar, app notifications or Post-it Notes, take the time to integrate a tool and/or a system for organizing your time around your tasks.

The result will be an increase in your reliability as a part of the network that is fed through your productivity, as well as greater freedom and flexibility and peace of mind. Effective time management is a discipline that pays dividends.

In summary, the main thread that runs through each of these tips is “control”.

If you are able to maintain as much control as you can over how you spend your time, in connection with your tasks, while taking your deadlines and due dates into consideration, then not only will you have mastered the Soft Skill of Time Management, but you will also be fully capable of talking about the ways in which you apply that skill.

I hope that you found this article helpful. Thank you for reading my blog.

What do you think about the tips? Which one of them are you going to try?

For more information about my Business English Coaching and Soft Skills Training services, visit my homepage.

Until next time!

Michelle

Why American English and British English Words are Spelled Differently

Photo: Vladimir Strebkov/Pixabay

Vocabulary Bank:

  • spelled (v.): to spell – the way in which the letters of a word are arranged
  • lexicographer (n.) – a person who collects/compiles words for dictionaries, this person also edits dictionaries
  • compiles (v.): to compile – to gather pieces or elements together in order to create something new
  • despite (preposition) – when something happens, even though it could have been stopped by another event/influence
  • distinctions (n. pl.) – clear differences
  • uniform: here, (adj.) – when a series of things all have the same form and do not vary
  • de facto – (adj.) – when a condition or status is in effect but not recognized officially

One of the topics that frequently comes up in my sessions with students and clients is that of the differences in the spelling of some American English and British English words.

It’s no secret that the two dialects of English have almost been seen as being in competition with one another where the use of vowels (in most cases) and the use of consonants are concerned – with a sense of “Pick me!” being shouted from among the list of options for writing.

Native speakers of English are faced with the same point of decision-making about which spelling of a particular word they prefer to use, and the first decisions tend to be made in school.

“Should I use ‘theatre’ or ‘theater’, ‘favourite’ or ‘favorite’, ‘traveling’ or ‘travelling’?”

These are the types of questions that school children in the United States find themselves needing to ask when the time comes to write a composition or essay.

Spelling books tend to offer the American English spelling of the words (theater, favorite and traveling), but as students advance and they begin reading a broader range of English-language literature, they become exposed to the British English versions of words – helping them to realize that their choice of spelling of certain words can contribute to their sense of identity as an English-speaker.

Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster

Many of the differences that we see today go back to a time before spelling standards were established.

A standard for British spelling began to take shape following the 1755 publication of English writer Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.

As a way of establishing an American identity that could be clearly distinguished from British identity, Noah Webster, an American lexicographer, undertook a campaign of “spelling reform” which popularized certain spellings in America.

This campaign resulted in the 1790 publication of his work, The American Spelling Book (image), through which spellings such as “color” vs “colour”, “behavior” vs “behaviour” and “analyze” vs “analyse” were presented for the public and publishers to use.

However, it wasn’t until after Webster published his book, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828, that a standard for the spelling of American English was born.

Despite these early distinctions, the spellings of English-language words today are not uniform across nations where English is either the official or majority-spoken language.

It is possible that, even within one English-speaking country, both British and American spellings are used interchangeably – with no conflict among native speakers about one or another spelling being correct or not. Former British colonies will commonly use American spellings, for example.

Take a look at the breakdown of the British and American spellings used by countries where English is either an official, dominant or the de facto language – as illustrated and outlined in the following map:

Examples of British and American spellings used by English-speaking countries. (image credit: Wikipedia)

So, what’s a non-native speaker of English to do?

An easy way to prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed is to keep this tip in mind: British spelling looks most like the English that was written in the Middle Ages, whereas American spelling takes the form of its roots in Latin.

American words are also spelled as they are pronounced – for example: “learned” vs “lernt”.

Since there are no hard and fast rules for you to follow (as there are for other languages), what I recommend to my students and clients is to follow the lead of the overwhelming majority of native speakers of English around the world, as mentioned above, and keep an open mind about the spelling of words in the English language rather than insisting on it being one way or the other.

Stay flexible and decide for yourself which individual spellings of words you prefer to use.

Here’s a quick little exercise to get you started with this new habit for improving your English:

Choose which spelling of the verb “to spell” you prefer:

a) He spelled the word correctly. (American spelling)

b) He spelt the word correctly. (British spelling)

Share your choice in the comments. Be sure to tell us why you prefer the one that you chose – not only would it be interesting to see, it’s also a good opportunity to practice your writing ;).

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope that you found the information shared in this article useful.

For more information about my Business English Coaching and Soft Skills Training services, visit my homepage. Be sure to check out the crossword puzzle that goes with this blog article!

Until next time!

Michelle

Sources: Wikipedia, Library of Congress

5 Tips For Improving Your English As An Adult

Vocabulary Bank:

  • 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

SUMMARY:

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.

BONUS TIP:

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.

You can control how quickly you are able to jump into your English-language conversations. It’s about developing a new habit.

michelle charles

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”.

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.

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.

michelle charles

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.

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.

…if you are not listening effectively, you cannot react spontaneously.

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.

Most of what people want to hear in conversation is a confirmation of something that they have already said.

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.

Do you know your learning style?

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.

Students were never taught how to use logic for figuring out the correct answer.

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 is not a “one size fits all” language.

michelle charles

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!

-Michelle