Improving your spoken or written English isn’t a cakewalk. It takes some doing. It takes time.
You can improve your odds of success by starting with a mindset based on following fundamentals:
1. You’ve as much English-language talent as anyone else
Many think they can’t become a fluent speaker because they didn’t go to the right school or they’re not as smart as others or they don’t have the talent for English language. Because they think so, they don’t even try to learn the language. (Why try if your fate has already been sealed?)
In reality, this is not true.
Your ability to speak fluently is not an inborn quality that some have and some don’t. It also doesn’t have correlation with your intelligence. Anyone can ace it by putting in the hours and constantly seeking improvements. (See point # 3 on putting in the hours over a long period.)
2. It’s not too late to become fluent
If you think you’ve missed the bus because you didn’t master the language in school or college, you’re on the wrong track. Adults learn languages, including English, better than children. Period.
3. It takes time
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Proficiency takes time. Anyone offering a wonder solution that can make you fluent in 30 days is making a spurious claim. Progress will be slow. How long will it take, of course, depends on your current level and effort you put in, but it’ll take several months to few years to make significant progress.
So if you don’t see noticeable progress in a month, don’t get disheartened. Others too are on a similar learning curve. Your performance may even dip sometimes, which can be frustrating, but what’s important is an upward trajectory in the medium to long term. A parallel would be a fluctuating, yet rising, share of a company, which may sometimes dip:
Tim Ferriss in his book Tools of Titan publishes the email written to him by Christopher Sommer, a former U.S. National Team gymnastics coach, in response to his frustration with little to no progress in a particular workout:
Dealing with the temporary frustration of not making progress is an integral part of the path towards excellence. In fact, it is essential and something that every single elite athlete has had to learn to deal with. If the pursuit of excellence was easy, everyone would do it. In fact, this impatience in dealing with frustration is the primary reason that most people fail to achieve their goals.
… And accept that quality long-term results require quality long-term focus. No emotion. No drama. No beating yourself up over small bumps in the road. Learn to enjoy and appreciate the process. This is especially important because you are going to spend far more time on the actual journey than with those all too brief moments of triumph at the end.
Having said that, ruthlessly focus on improving your weak areas (we covered this in point # 1). That’s critical for progress. Otherwise, you may languish at the same level of averageness for years together, like many do.
4. Embrace discomfort. Embrace it gradually
When you move out of your comfort zone, you face discomfort. If you’re used to watching YouTube for an hour every day, you’ll find it tough adjusting to 30 minutes. If you’re used to waking up at 7 AM, you’ll be discomforted getting up at 6 AM.
If you’re used to speaking in your native language, you’ll be discomforted speaking in English. If you’re used to writing only texts and short emails, you’ll be discomforted in writing 500-word essay or report or email in English.
You got to embrace discomfort, albeit gradually. (To take YouTube example, you can reduce your watching time gradually by, say, 5 minutes every week. If you can do it faster, even better.)
However, what most do?
They switch to their native language at the first instance of discomfort when speaking in English. If you also do, you’re set for poor result. Such discomfort is common and you got to embrace it. Those who do, progress far quicker than others. See examples in this post on immersion to learn how some master the language quicker than others by embracing discomfort.
In your moments of discomfort, remind yourself why you’re learning the language. For professional success? For building a better network? For speaking to small and large audiences? Or for studying abroad? It’ll help you overcome those moments.
5. Embrace imperfections
You’ll mispronounce simple words. You’ll make awkward pauses for want of simple words when speaking. You’ll slip into thinking in your native language and then translating into English despite effort to not to. You won’t understand some of the content you’re watching or reading. This is fine. Embrace these imperfections.
You’ll make mistakes many times in your journey. Sometimes you’ll even embarrass yourself in presence of others. Let these mistakes not deject you, make you hesitant. Mistakes are an essential part of learning language. The key is to notice them and correct them.
After some time, gradually, you’ll reach a new level that will be better than the earlier. In this level too, you’ll make mistakes, but fewer. Over time, this level will keep rising, with imperfections going down slowly. But they’ll never leave you completely. So make friends with them. Embrace them.
In other words: Don’t try to be perfect. Try to be better.
6. Discipline is key. So, make habits
To quote Tony Robbins, the renowned American author, philanthropist, and life coach, from the book Tools of Titan on how people become master at something:
Mastery doesn’t come from an infographic. What you know doesn’t mean shit. What do you do consistently?
Which exercise routine is more effective – 30 minutes a day five times a week or three hours once a week?
Even though you exercise more in the latter option, the former is far more effective. Right?
Same holds for learning English and for that matter, any skill. You got to be regular even if it’s just 20-30 minutes every day. And when you’re just starting out, you can start with even less time and increase it gradually over few weeks.
So make your practice a daily habit by practicing at particular times in the day. (Time flies quickly when you form habits. Remember, you’re on a long journey.) And maintain the discipline even if the practice is discomforting for you.
7. Attention is another key
An overwhelming majority watches English movies, listens radio and podcasts, and reads books and articles for few hours every day, but sees little impact of these on their English.
They fail to immerse in the content with attention even for few minutes.
When you pay attention you learn better. To quote John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:
The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded – that is, learned – and retained… Whether you are an eager preschooler or a bored-out-of-your-mind undergrad, better attention always equals better learning.
8. Use it or lose it
If you don’t use what you’re learning, you’ll lose it. As far as English is concerned, thankfully there are so many daily opportunities to practice.
9. Observe your progress. It’ll keep you going
It’s easier said than done, though. Because progress is slow, you won’t notice it unless you consciously look out for it.
Why observe progress?
Because progress toward a meaningful goal is probably the biggest motivator one can have. When you see your methods are paying dividends, you’ll gladly adopt even an uncomfortable practice. When I observed that I was using right pronunciation and more apt words in my conversations (that’s real progress), when I started spotting pronunciation mistakes even among news presenters without paying attention to every word they spoke, I streamlined and increased my efforts on improving my vocabulary and pronunciation.
Without progress, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain an arduous daily practice, which seemed a breeze when I knew my methods were working. That’s the impact even small progress can make.
10. You don’t need to carve out much additional time
It’s not easy to take out significant chunk of time out of our busy schedules. And you actually don’t need to.
You can squeeze in most of your English-learning activities in the time you otherwise waste – commute, wait time, standing in queues, or speaking to people in your native language. It’ll take some resolve though.
And even bigger is replacing (as much as possible) your native language with English in your day-to-day activities. Make English your main operating language, and you’ll practice it daily for few hours at least without even realizing.
Don’t be afraid to experiment.
If you develop liking for certain type of content for reading or watching, go for it. If you think you’ve a different take on building vocabulary, try it out. Because mastering English is a long journey, you would like to include as much stuff as possible you enjoy. Just make sure what you try yield results.