I don’t think everyone has to communicate in English, but I love it because it liberates me. It has allowed me to access more information, people and places. I am sure there are plenty of people who appreciate the benefits of English for their own reasons.
As a non-native speaker, I understand how difficult it is to learn. I have been learning it for more than 10 years and am finally feeling comfortable communicating with it.
In this post, I’m targeting people who know just enough English grammar to understand my writing but who still have difficulty communicating smoothly. Examples of people who might fit in this category would be:
- Someone who has slogged through K-12 education
- Someone who was born and raised in a non-English-speaking country like I was
- Someone whose native language is so different from English like Japanese, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, French and such
- Someone who has never lived in an English-speaking country for more than a year in their youth
Me and English
I was born and raised in Japan, which was not the best place to learn especially for someone like me who spent most of my youth in the countryside. I rarely had a chance to communicate in English up to high school. We had English class at school but it sucked because it focused mostly on reading and I could not get enough chances to improve my oral communication and writing.
When I moved to Tokyo, things got better. My university had enough people I could practice English with. There was enough chance to improve my English if I dared to do so. I would say I proactively started to learn then.
I learned English mostly in Tokyo. My English was terrible when I got into college. I was having a hard time formulating sentences while speaking, and I didn’t understand more than half of what native speakers were saying. I remember I embarrassed myself in front of some exchange students when I gave a presentation. They would be surprised if they could talk to me now.
As you can see, I have never lived abroad. I have spent 6 weeks maximum overseas until the age of 25. My life has been within the boundaries of Japan.
Now I am staying in the US. People I meet here say that I am fluent in English. They actually don’t even mention it, and they are surprised when I share my background. Let us eschew humility for the sake of argument and suppose that I am good at English.
Why Are You Bad at English?
How did you learn English? People often ask me this question. That got me thinking: what is the difference between people who are good and people who are not?
I have been talking to people who say they want to get better at English, and I found out one thing. They simply do not allocate their time to learning it. And the reason why they don’t keep learning is because they don’t know how to enjoy learning it. On the contrary, people who are good learn constantly, and they enjoy it.
If you think you cannot communicate well in English, the odds are that you haven’t been spending time on learning it. I think this is almost always the case.
Learning English in 10 Years
Before I begin talking about how, there is one thing I would like to mention. It takes 10 years to learn English.
Some might say that this could prevent people from learning English because it sounds intimidating, but you are better off knowing it in advance. If you think it will take only a few years, you will feel demoralized along the way and stop learning it.
The point is not to rush.
I know this empirically because it took 10 years for me.
It might help to think about the other things which take 10 years to learn.
People talk about the similarities of computer language and natural human language. Natural human language is more ambiguous, redundant and literal, but features such as tokens, structure, syntax or semantics are pretty similar. There is a great blog post about learning to program in 10 years. He argues that everyone is too rushed to learn to code, and states that it takes 10 years to learn to program.
Natural human language is no different. It takes at least 10 years to learn. In fact, I am still learning everyday.
Here is the first key principle of English learning again.
Enjoy learning it.
This sounds like an obvious thing to say. However, I would like to emphasize the importance of this principle because, as I said, it takes 10 years to learn English. You will give up if you don’t have fun doing it. Who would want to put up with the stuff that they don’t like for 10 years?
The good news is, it is not difficult to enjoy. Have you ever enjoyed something with your native language? I am sure you have. If you think about it, your native language is just the means to read, listen to, write or speak something. English is the same. It is just a medium of information. There are tons of things that we can enjoy in English.
How to Enjoy Learning English
Here are three ways that worked well for me.
Love entertainment in English
I watched drama in my off time. I watched it with subtitles so that I could learn the vocabulary while I watched it. I even pretended like I was one of actors and talked to myself out loud. I usually watched it during lunch/dinner because I didn’t want to waste my time. Here are some of my favorite dramas.
Those shows above are relatively easy to understand, and the story was good. Choose something you love; otherwise, you stop watching it. Television dramas are better than movies because they are short and you can easily find time to watch them.
I listened to music a lot. I had an iPod that had a few thousands songs in my pocket. I didn’t just listen though. I read the lyrics while I was listening. I was even singing sometimes. For your information, LyricsMaster was helpful to automatically download the lyrics.
Be Friends with English Speakers
Be friends with native speakers, and ask them to practice together. This might sound difficult if you are still uncomfortable with talking.
Here is the trick. Find someone who wants to learn your native language. In this way, you won’t feel scared because you are both in the same situation. Plus, you won’t be able to build a good relationship if you just take without giving. When I was in college, I randomly talked to exchange students on campus, and I asked them if they wanted to practice Japanese. We met up for lunch every week and had a chat in English for 30 minutes and then in Japanese for 30 minutes.
Maybe you can find someone on Tinder? ;-)
Learn Something That Makes You Curious
There is an enormous amount of things that you can learn because you understand English. It’s impossible to list everything here, but here are some of my favorites.
I personally like YouTube channels. I learned about science, programming, design, startups, bodybuilding, cooking and such. You can find many videos with subtitles. Just push a “CC” at the bottom right if you feel intimidated without. Here are some channels that I love.
Quora is also a great source of knowledge. It is amazing to read high-quality questions and answers there. Here are some questions/answers that I found interesting.
- What can I learn/know right now in 10 minutes that will be useful for the rest of my life?
- How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Sir Richard Branson?
- What are the best new products or inventions that most people don’t know about?
- What is the biggest surprise about getting rich?
I like podcasts too. They might be difficult because they don’t have subtitles, but the beauty is that you can listen anytime and anywhere. Usually, I listen to podcasts when moving from one place to another. This is a good way to make the most of my time. TED Talk and TED-Ed both have podcasts. If you are a developer, I recommend Developer Tea. Those are all bite-sized podcasts so you can listen even for a short travel.
English Learning is a Long-term Investment with a High Return
Even though I don’t think everyone has to learn English, I can assure you that it makes you powerful.
English is a language, and language is the medium that carries information. Information is powerful. It allows us to make good decisions and collaborate with others. English obviously allows us to access more information and communicate with more people.
I would say learning English was one of best ways to invest my time. It was a long-term investment, but the return was high. And the only way to keep learning is to enjoy learning it.