How to Improve Your English Language Skills

Taking the Smart Approach to Learning

Imagine baking a layered cake. Your first attempt is met with frustration as you search for particular ingredients. Likely you forget to preheat the oven and grease the pan. The cake won’t come out easily, and a significant portion stays stuck to the pan. Underestimating the time necessary to cool, you find the icing melts in between the middle layers. Each time you bake future cakes, your mistakes and methods smooth out, eventually yielding a polished cake.

Improving your English is no different. When you start the process, it is shaky and unnatural. Expect mistakes and confusion, but each attempt teaches you new tricks. Before you know it, your English will look markedly developed. In the words of author Stephen McCranie, “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”

In this article, we focus on why you should improve your English, the top points to focus on, what makes English so difficult, and how you can use techniques to improve your spoken English skills. Whether your goal is to prepare for an English proficiency test or simply to sound more like a native English speaker, this article is for you.

Why you should improve your English language skills

According to Merriam-Webster, a language barrier is “a difficulty for people communicating because they speak different languages.” Language barriers create misinterpretations and lost opportunities. Understanding and speaking English generates worldwide opportunities, including professional and personal growth. 

English is the official language of 53 countries

Over 50 countries list English as their official language. Even with this number, it is difficult to say precisely how many countries speak English. While many countries list English as their official language, they may not speak it daily. Eighteen countries do, however, declare English is the language regularly spoken by its citizens. 

To add even more confusion to the exact number, in many countries, English is the de facto official language. While English is not listed as the official language, it is the primary language used for work and daily life. On the opposite end, some countries speak English but mainly due to tourism and school.

It’s the most widely-spoken language worldwide 

One in five people in the world can speak English. About 20% of the world speaks English, breaking down to nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide. The United States contains around 231 million English speaking people, whereas Canada has roughly 19 million. In Europe, 13% of the population, or 58 million people, speak English natively. In Asia, India has 125 million English speakers, Pakistan has 94 million, and the Philippines has 90 million. Unsurprisingly, Australia’s population is made up of 70% English speakers. Although only about 6.5 million people in Africa speak English natively, they have 700 million Africans that can speak English.

It can help increase your chances of landing a job

With 6,500 languages spoken globally, knowing one used worldwide translates to higher odds of holding a conversation no matter where you find yourself.  It also increases the chances of you having a job. According to the Harvard Business Review, English is the language of business. 

When businesses expand, they need to attract and market to new customers. Global marketing opportunities allow companies to work with vendors in all parts of the world. If language limits communication, the chance of profit may not be worth the headache of a language barrier.

Therefore, many companies adopt the philosophy that working in English unfolds a greater opportunity to attract a global market. By increasing your English skills, you help sell yourself to companies across the globe.

Traveling becomes easier

With so many people speaking English worldwide, there is a high likelihood you will be able to talk with people during your travels. A common language allows you to strike up conversations, make small talk, and create potential friendships.

When traveling, speaking English helps with situations like airports, busses, hotels, and street signs. Many high traffic areas have signs translated into commonly used languages. Since English is one of these languages, you have a higher chance of understanding needed information. 

While many tours accommodate people of all languages, if you are looking for a self-led experience, you need the skills to communicate. Because so many speak English, you can typically find a person to help you get the answers you need while traveling. This independence gives you the ability to explore a bit more than you would otherwise.

English is the language of the media 

When it comes to languages used online, English comprises over 25% of internet users, higher than any other language. Within the last two years, minutes spent on digital media has surpassed traditional media. Consequently, more people are exposed to English via the internet than ever before. Social media highlights the use of English language skills through online forums and commentary. Film festivals often require English subtitles to be provided for non-English films, and songs from all of the world are created or translated into English.

The top 3 things to focus on

Now that you know why improving your English is so important, how do you do it? What can you do to take your language skills to the next level? Vocabulary, pronunciation, and natural flow of the language are essential in sounding more like a native English speaker.

Expand your vocabulary

Even native English speakers focus on expanding their vocabulary utilizing a series of methods from elementary school through adulthood. When learning vocabulary, they start with commonly used words and phrases. This approach allows memorization and real-life application. The repetition of these words and phrases supports quick learning.

By adding a phrase or word daily, by the end of the year, you will have acquired 365 new words or phrases. If you are unsure of where to find these words, listen to popular music or watch television shows in English. If you hear a common word or phrase unfamiliar to you, make that your word of the day.

Improve your pronunciation

While reading and writing in English is impressive, it will do you no good if you cannot be understood during a conversation. The oxymoron is how one improves their pronunciation of a word when they do not know how to pronounce it in the first place. Luckily, with today’s technological advantage, online dictionaries, YouTube, and podcasts often contain pronunciation guides. 

One trick of native speakers is to work on tongue twisters. “Sally sells seashells by the seashore,” is a well-known child’s quip. “Peter Piper picked a pair of pickled peppers. How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?” is another. While these may have limited real-life applications, they help improve the articulation needed for the English language.

Learn the natural flow of the language

Once you have your pronunciation and vocabulary down, the next step is to sound like a native speaker. First up: contractions. In the ebb and flow of conversation, most native speakers use contractions. For example, “I am” becomes “I’m” and “cannot” turns into “can’t.” Take time to learn commonly used English contractions.

Second, pay attention to where the stress of a word or a sentence falls. Questions end with a higher sound on the last word, whereas statements do not. Furthermore, stressing the wrong word can completely change the meaning of the sentence. For example, “What do YOU think?” could come off as aggressive, whereas “what do you think?” with no emphasis merely is inquiring about a person’s thoughts.

What makes learning English difficult?

With billions of people worldwide speaking English, it can be challenging to master the language. There are exceptions to rules, patterns that are unlike other languages, and the pronunciation of words confuse. With so many novelties in the language, English learners often find themselves frustrated when trying to master the idiosyncrasies.

It has many rules and many exceptions to those rules

One of the more frustrating parts of learning English is the rules. A close second is how many of those rules are broken regularly. Unfortunately, these words have to be memorized but are easy to add to your vocabulary list.

Some of these odd rules are as follows:

  • Add an “s” or” es” to make a word plural. This rule works in many cases, but some words like “foot” turn into “feet” or goose and geese. Others like “fish” stay “fish.” There is an English phrase, “there are many fish in the sea,” not “there are many fishes in the sea.” 
  • Irregular verbs do not always follow the rule of adding “ed” to the end of a word to make it past tense. It is valid from some, such as changing “end” to “ended” in the sentence “the movie ended.” When you look at a plethora of other examples, you will not see the same pattern. For example, “he feeds the goats” turns into “he fed the goat.” Another, “she swims in the pool,” becomes “she swam in the pool.” 

English is unlike any other language 

Unlike every other Indo-European language, English does not assign gender roles to nouns. Also, with most other languages, their close cousins can somewhat understand each other. For example, the Spanish and Portuguese share enough commonalities to grasp what the other is saying. English has no cousins like this.

Because of the influences of other languages, English has become a blend of many styles. Due to this, the rules do not always apply, as that rule did not apply in that language.

Perhaps because of this influence, English has more sounds than letters to make that sound. For example, the schwa sound is the short sound of a vowel found in the word’s unstressed part. Many times, the sound is simply skipped over, like in the word “camera.” Many people say “Cam-Ra” instead of “Cam-er-a.” The same is true for chocolate. The second “o” is silent. 

Pronunciation quickly becomes confusing

Keeping in mind the different influences of other languages and that the English language has more sounds than alphabet letters makes it easy to understand why pronunciation could be confusing. Even words seemingly spelled to rhythm do not follow the same rules.

Words such as “flood” and “good” seem like they should rhythm but don’t. It is the same with “break” and “freak”, even though only one letter is different in the two words. “Sew” and “few” are another pair that do not follow the same pattern. 

If that was not enough, there are times when a word can be pronounced in two ways, depending on its use. Read is such a word. The following sentence exemplifies the two ways: 

Yesterday, I read a book that told me that the best way to learn is to read a little every day.

Another example of this is the word “lead.” This can mean to lead, such as when you are the leader of a line. However, it can also mean lead, as in a type of metal. Check out the sentence below:

I was allowed to lead the line today when we went on our field trip to see how lead is made. 

Techniques you can use to improve your spoken English language skills

With so much information on the difficulties of learning English, you may feel like it’s a lost cause. Do not despair. Some techniques can help you improve your spoken English. The five tricks below, when practiced, will result in marked improvements in your English skills.

Speech shadowing

The basic premise of speech shadowing is to repeat the words you hear. Find a text and read aloud in English. Rewind and listen a few more times. Repeat what you hear. Your goal is to sound like the recorded version in your pronunciation and ebb and language flow. When you feel like you have that phrase down, move on to the next one. 

If there is a particular area you want to perfect, say for travel or education, try to find podcasts about that niche. Pick out parts you see being useful for you in the future. Perhaps you are planning a trip to Washington. Find a podcast on the state of Washington and find key phrases to develop. Because you already have vested interest in the subject, your attention will be less likely to wonder.

Thinking in English

Look outside your window. What do you see? How did you describe what is outside? Was it in your native language? This very same idea is what you need to do now but with English. By changing the internal dialogue to think in English words instead of translating the words, they will naturally appear to you when speaking.

This is no small task. Start small with your translations. Perhaps a word here or there, or a phrase. Name items regularly in English versus your native language. Install an app on your phone or carry around a dictionary to look up words that you do not yet know. Incorporate them.

Talking to yourself

It is one thing to think the words; your next challenge is to say them out loud. As you go about your day, say what you see. Include the words you have just learned. Listen to a pronunciation guide first to ensure you are enunciating correctly.

It will be virtually impossible for you to have a conversation with someone and feel comfortable if you are not used to saying the words. This logic applies to any other facet in your life. You would not drive a car solo before you have practiced driving, nor would you walk a tightrope by only reading about it. 

The cliche “practice makes perfect” rings true here. By narrating your life, you practice English regularly. This consistency is particularly important if you are studying for an exam and helps you stay on top of your game while not becoming complacent. 

Re-telling a story in English

We all have favorite stories from childhood. Despite if this is a fable recited by generations or merely a memory from your life, our stories create wonder and draw us in.

Use stories to advance your English skills. Re-tell them in English. Your goal is to think of the story in English versus translating it into English. As you picture the events, attach their English names as you recreate the images out loud.

Remember to give yourself patience. Re-telling a story is a difficult task that can be repeated until you master the technique.

Practice English tongue twisters

As we mentioned before, tongue twisters are helpful for even native speakers to learn how to form words properly. The kicker is repetition. It isn’t enough to simply say it once. 

Before you speed up how quickly you can say the phrase, focus on the articulation. It is imperative you feel the way your tongue works to form the words and work out any kinks.

If you are still stuck on certain formations of words, check out Pronuncian.com to explore mouth positions. Since English likely has positions that you have not used before in your native language, it is helpful to dissect where you may be tripping up.

Go Practice

Whether you are learning English for an English proficiency test or simply to travel and open up more opportunities in your life, it takes consistent practice. Find ways to sneak in opportunities to learn the language. Watch movies and read books in English. Look up websites written in English. Find pen pals and befriend others who speak English.

The more you make speaking, writing, and reading in English a part of your daily life, the better chances are you will continue to see a marked improvement in your abilities. Imagine a year from now looking back to where you are today and seeing how far you advanced. You can get there; all you need to do is practice.

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The International Test of English Proficiency (iTEP) was introduced in 2008 to modernize English language assessment with on-demand scheduling, 24 hour grading, and accurate test data. iTEP provides a convenient and cost-effective testing option delivered in a highly secure environment.

iTEP offers a variety of assessment tools for university and secondary school admissions and ESL placement, hiring and employee assessment (including tests for specific industries), and iTEP Conversation, which assesses conversation skills in 30 minutes. All iTEP exams are graded by certified and trained native English speakers.

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