Learning English through self-study
This short post discusses the ways a non-native speaker can improve his or her English at home through self-study. I cannot emphasise enough just how important self-study is when it comes to learning English; even a student having two or three classes per week still needs to put in the extra work at home for maximum gains and faster improvement. What you get out of something is directly tied to how much you put in.
Films and series
Many students ask me whether or not to watch films or TV shows with English or Portuguese subtitles. In most cases, my response is the same, neither. The reason is twofold: firstly, by reading subtitles the student is not listening to what is being said, and secondly, subtitles are rarely ever synced to what the person saying. This may be beneficial to those who are looking to improve their reading skills, though if that be the case, then reading a book is better as the student can read and reread what is written. That being said, watching with English subtitles is far better than watching with Portuguese, where the student will subconsciously block out what he hears and focus only on what is written in his mother tongue. A far better method is as follows:
- Choose a film that you have seen many times, one that you know the storyline inside-out and know exactly what is going to be said before it is spoken.
- Turn off the subtitles and watch the film, as you know what is said in your own language, you’ll have a rough idea of what is being said in English.
- Whenever something is said that you didn’t understand or didn’t quite catch, pause and rewind the film and activate the subtitles in English. Make a note of what words you missed, so you both learn the word or idiomatic expression and its pronunciation.
- Now, deactivate the subtitles and continue to watch as normal. The more familiar you are with the script, the easier it will be to watch the film in English. The focus being on improving your listening skills.
As mentioned, improving your reading skills is best done by reading English literature or non-fiction books. Again there are two reasons for this: firstly by reading books you can read at a pace that suits you, so you can keep up with what is being said without the need to keep rewinding, and secondly because it is far easier to highlight new vocabulary and expressions. I often recommend the Amazon Kindle for this, which offers numerous benefits, such as:
- The ability to read whatever you want for free, as any text can be sent to the Kindle using a desktop app. The standard, non-paperwhite version is also relatively cheap when on sale, at R$200. In fact, once the currency has been taken into account it’s actually cheaper in Brazil than in the US or England as it doesn’t come with ads.
- The built-in Oxford dictionary allowing you to find the definition of the word just by highlighting it.
- Another built-in feature called Word Wise, which puts a definition of the word in simple English just above it. While not really useful for native speakers, for English-speaking children and foreigners it comes in handy as it allows you to read without disrupting the flow of reading by having to look up every new and unusual word.
- The option to highlight parts of the text and save them to your notes, which in turn can be sent as a PDF or a CSV file to your email address. You can also add your own comments to the text, though this can be awkward using the Kindle’s keyboard.
Finally, Internet forums have a great advantage over both reading and listening, in that they encourage you to take part in a conversation with people from all over the world. Forums should be based on a subject of interest, such as a game you like, or a hobby such as photography or bodybuilding. I am active in a number of forums and there are Brazilians who participate in the conversations, and are generally not concerned about their English but communicate just as well as everyone else. Forums engage the user to think not about English, but on the subject in question, but because the forum is of interest you will do your best to make sure your English is readable and can be understood by the community. Likewise, if you have something of interest to add other members will normally point out when they didn’t quite get what you meant, indicating that what you wrote was poorly written. This will encourage you to rewrite it into intelligible English, which in turn, improves your written English.