How to Study English Independently

As I divest myself of the daily responsibilities of teaching, the best test of whether I was a decent teacher or not will be how my students progress without me. Unfortunately, many of those who are perceived as great teachers at the time have merely created a miniature personality cult that leaves their students entirely dependent on the teacher. I hope I haven’t done this.

Here are some approaches you can take to learning without a teacher:

Select Your Target Corpus

Expose yourself to authentic English within your target style and genre. Find a blog about a topic that is relevant to you. Pick a few quality publications (the BBC, Economist, Guardian, New York Times, Forbes, etc.) and shoot for daily exposure. For good measure, add in a few podcasts so you aren’t only working with written English.

Stop Reading in 'Google Translate Mode'

Stop merely understanding materials. This is what I call ‘Google Translate mode’. Quickly reading through an article to pick out the main idea won’t do much to improve your overall language ability. If you know Ukrainian and Russian, you can easily skim a wikipedia article in Slovak for mere understanding; that’s hardly going to help you next time you’re in Bratislava. Alas, this is how many learners get stuck on a plateau.

Analyze texts as if you were an anthropologist. Highlight new words and record them. If you notice repeated words, then it’s time to memorize them. If a word is rare, ignore it. Note structures that are unusual and learn them. Identify the function of a structure rather than translating it; you’ll find that translating functions leaves you with a very different set of a words than a literal translation would. Pay attention to modals; even my best students don’t quite sound natural using them.

The hardest part is paying attention to what isn’t in a text. Most of the standard phrases of textbook English won’t be there. Make a note of where you’d use one of these phrases, yet the author didn’t. What mechanisms did they use instead: zero-marking (i.e. context), a different phrase or arranging the information differently?

This requires you to separate entertainment from learning: if you’d like to relax by watching a movie in English or skimming the news, that’s fine, but it isn’t learning. Learning is deliberate practice; if it doesn’t suck, you probably aren’t doing it right.

Use Data to Answer Your Questions

The era of big data offers language learners some great tools. Can’t remember whether traffic is heavy or tough in English? Google Ngrams makes the answer painfully obvious. Netspeak allows you to do complex and open-ended searches.

If you are curious how common a particular phrase is in a certain context, do a search and look at the context of the results: are they businesses, high-quality publications or an angsty teenager’s blog? Likewise, search within a particular publication. Negative results are often the most informative. If searching the entire archives of the New York Times for “as for me” doesn’t yield any results, that ought to tell you something.

Frequency lists can inform what vocabulary you choose to actively learn. Chances are, that you can accomplish all of your professional and personal needs with well under ten thousand words. Check out these lists from wiktionary.

For the love of all things holy, don’t bother learning rarely used structures like future perfect continuous. The more you leave Google Translate mode, the better a feel you’ll have of what structures do your heavy hitting. The Pareto principle is a great tool in language learning.

Good Enough is Good Enough

I’ve seen plenty of students give up learning because something isn’t perfect. They can’t find the perfect teacher or a native speaker so they refuse to ever practice. People refuse to use English because they still make mistakes. Just get over it, and start working with what you have. Learn from mistakes. Even though native speakers will rarely correct you directly, they almost always will do so indirectly. Pay attention to how they rephrase your question in their responses.

I’ve heard something like this many times: Learner: “Were you in Thailand?” Native: “Oh yeah, I’ve been there. I really liked it.”

If you are in Google Translate mode, you’ll miss this valuable feedback. The question should have been asked in present perfect.

The same goes when somebody in the US responds to your emails at work. Analyze them! More likely than not, your mistakes will be subtly corrected.

These methods may not be as good as having a teacher, but they are good enough to still make serious progress.