10 Hard Truths You Need to Hear about Learning English

10 hard truths 1 min

It’s January once again, and the time of year when we all decide to make our new year’s resolutions. And for many people, high on that list will be learning English. But how many times has this been your goal, and do you feel you have ever achieved it? Have you ever asked yourself why learning English is constantly on your to-do list? Well, I’m here today to drop some truth bombs on you. If you are really ready to make progress in your English this year, read on!

1 – There is no one perfect methodology

One of the most common questions I get asked about my courses is what methodology I use. And it’s not a question I can answer easily, because I don’t use only one. In my 17 years of teaching, I have seen and applied countless different methods and I can categorically say that none of them are perfect. Much like anti-ageing cream, if there was one that actually worked for everyone all the time, then we wouldn’t use any other.

Every methodology has positives and negatives, and will be better or worse for different people. We all learn differently and have different learning needs. So if someone is selling you the perfect methodology, I’m afraid it’s not a real thing. Look for experienced teachers who know how to use the best parts of everything.

2 – Turning up to class is not enough

Guys, this one might hurt because we have all done it. But if you actually want to make progress, going to your one or two hours a week and doing nothing else is not going to cut it. You need to make sure you are working on your English consistently, and following up on what you learn.

Compare this to another common new year’s resolution – going to the gym. Paying for my membership and using the sauna once a week will never get me in shape. You need to commit to a regular programme and do the work.

Photograph of someone pressing a remoted control in front of a TV to symbolise reading subtitiles as a way to
If you want to learn English, you need to do actual reading, not just reading subtitles

3 – Reading subtitles is NOT reading in English

My students get bored of me banging on and on about how important it is that they read in English. And when I ask them if they have been reading, they say “yes absolutely. I’ve been watching TV with subtitles”. Now, I think that’s a great thing to do. But for your listening skills, not reading. Dialogues are not the same as written texts.

You will learn a lot from subtitles, especially vocabulary, however you won’t be developing the same skills. Reading in your target language will let you learn implicitly – for example, you will be picking up sentence order, structure, and cohesion without explicitly learning it. This will make you a better communicator. Don’t skip it.

4 – I’ve been learning English all my life, so I must be bad at it – NOPE!

No you are not. Here’s the question – have you actually been learning English, or have you just been ticking the boxes of what you were told to do? Most language learning at school or in university (and even in language academies) is based around you passing a test. That means you are normally taught stuff which is easy to grade. In other words, grammar.

It also means it can be pretty boring and you probably didn’t engage with it. Not passing tests doesn’t mean you’re bad at communicating in English. Don’t let your previous experience be what holds you back.

5 – Your reading and writing skills aren’t as good as you think they are

This one goes out to Spanish learners especially, but is also true of many other nationalities! I can’t tell you how many times students have told me they just need to work on their speaking. If you come from a country who takes a grammar testing focused approach to teaching English at school, your reading and writing skills have not been developed. You have learned how to construct grammar structures like the present continuous, but you haven’t learned how to apply it in context.

Photo of a person writing notes while learning English
We often have the wrong idea of what being a good writer or reader in English means

As I said earlier, reading is one of the best skills you can use to make real progress, and so is writing. And if you want to improve, you are going to have to work on them. Speaking has been the main focus in most language teaching for a long time now, so we forget that in our modern life, we interact a lot with written language too.

Emails, messages, posts; all of these require us to read and write. Not only that, a great deal of professional writing is in English – think of academic studies, or scientific papers. If you need English for work, you are going to need these skills. Don’t ignore them, even if it’s tough. Developing them will be amazing for your progress.

6 – You need to make time (but you can get creative with it)

As I said earlier, going to class is not enough to make progress in your English. You also need to commit to making space in your life for it. And this is not always easy, especially if you are juggling work and young children. As a mother to a 5 year old and someone running their own business, I understand this well, and I am in no way trying to blame you for being busy or not making the time. Because, quite frankly, sometimes we just can’t. And if that’s the case, I don’t suggest a weekly class.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t make progress. Look at your day, and think about how much time you can realistically commit to. It might be 30 minutes a day, or it might be 5. But using 5 minutes constructively, and doing little but often, is going to have a much better effect on your learning than trying to go to a weekly class for an hour and a half that you end up missing, or that you can’t do any work for. If you can’t keep up with the lessons, then you feel guilty for not going, and this creates a negative relationship with learning English. Do what works for you.

Photo of pinboard with a notes saying Make the Time pinned on it to illustrate the fact that we need to find time in our schedule if we want to learn English
If you don’t make the time, you won’t learn English. It’s that simple.

7 – You need to consistently study for 3-6 months EVERYDAY if you want to get an English certification

If you are one of the many people who want to get their Cambridge or IELTS exam, then you need to be prepared to work HARD for the next 3 to 6 months. If you don’t, then expect it to take at least a year until you are ready to take the test. I have seen students take years to get their certification because they didn’t dedicate the time. Think about how much money spent on exam courses that adds up to! Getting ready in a shorter time span also means you will be better prepared as your knowledge of the test, technique, and strategies will be fresh.

As discussed earlier, sometimes we just don’t have that much time to dedicate to English. And that’s OK guys! If things are crazy busy, then wait until you have the space to dedicate yourself to it. I also know that sometimes that’s not possible – people need certificates for all kinds of reasons including visas and job applications. But in that case, make sure you are realistic with yourself. Better to work hard for 3 months and get it over with!

8 – Your teacher can’t learn things for you

Let’s be clear about what a teacher’s role is – they are a facilitator of learning. Their job is to guide you through your course. The actual job of learning stuff is yours! The teacher/student relationship needs to flow both ways for it to work. If you don’t follow the path your teacher is setting out for you, you aren’t going to progress.

My students who complete the assignments I set them, that do the writing, that listen to my feedback – they are the ones who reach their goals. The ones who don’t, do not. Believe me, your teacher wants to help you! We are lovely people us teachers. But we are not miracle workers. We need you to play your part too

9 – You need to know what you want to learn English for

If you are not clear on the reasons YOU want to learn English, not the ones that society has told you, then you won’t make the progress you want to. Doing something because you should do it has very different motivations to doing something you know you want or need to do. This will also make sure that you are actually learning things which are relevant to you.

If you don’t actually need an exam qualification, then why put yourself through the extremely hard work of getting one? If you only need to understand academic texts, why spend time on listening skills? Working out and establishing clear reasons for studying English and your goals means that you can start to make actual progress.

10 – The only person with the power to decide if you reach your English goals is you

I’ve saved the most important truth bomb for last. Do you really want to learn English? Then YOU have to do it. We need to take ownership of our decisions and our lives, and learning a language is a big part of that. Perhaps, as I’ve mentioned many times in this article, it’s just not possible in our lives right now. That’s fine. But take ownership of that fact as well. Don’t play the victim in your language learning journey.

If you don’t have the space to reach the level you want at the moment, accept it and give yourself grace. Adapt those goals to what works now. And if you are ready to take on the challenge, then you have to ask yourself the difficult questions of what’s holding you back and do the work. You are going to feel so great when you do. You’ve got this guys! 

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