Helping Yourself

A post from Tunu Sodhi, English Language Specialist:

There has been a common question around the English Language Support for Faculty program. The question is how internationally trained professionals can improve their English on their own. There are many things one can do but it begins with honesty. When I talk about honesty, it is important to be honest with yourself as to what your needs and goals are. What do you want to achieve with your English? If you want to work on you speaking, there is no need to do grammar exercises. This might seem like simple logic but people often don’t see what they need and work to their strengths without considering their weaknesses.

As an English teacher, I believe that the best way to improve your skills is alongside a trained professional. This person can see areas that need to be corrected from an objective point of view. They can give you activities that will improve your abilities and provide feedback that you had never considered. With that said, there are things you can do on your own that could enhance your skills.

If improving grammar is your goal, this is easy to do on your own. There are some excellent grammar books such as Grammar in Use by Martin Hewings. There are also some fantastic websites such as Perfect English Grammar and English Grammar Exercises. Both of these sites can improve your understanding of the tense system and other English grammar.

The “in Use” series by the Cambridge University Press can also be helpful for vocabulary. They give explanations, examples, exercises and answers. Books like Vocabulary in Use, Phrasal Verbs in Use and Idioms in Use can all be very valuable in building your vocabulary. However, another route is to simply read. Find a book or newspaper and circle the words or phrases that you don’t understand. Try to figure out the meaning by the context. Try to keep an eye or ear open for these words and phrases in other contexts to confirm and further develop your understanding of their meaning. It doesn’t give you the answers like a book would but a very natural way to learn vocabulary. It also helps with your reading comprehension.

Listening can be done by simply watching TV or listening to the radio. At first, you will not get everything but, as with the reading, you start to pay attention to the vocabulary and it gets easier to understand what is happening. Television and film are especially good in that you often get physical actions to go with the vocabulary. This helps with understanding the context that surrounds the word. One thing you can do is get a family member or friend to watch a video before you do and create questions for you to answer. This can create a focus for your listening.

Mentioned above were passive skills. Writing and speaking are active skills. These can be trickier to do on your own but not impossible. In the case of speaking, the purpose is to get your jaw moving. The best situation is if you have a colleague or friend who is willing to tell you where you need improvement but even this is fraught with pitfalls such as how often, where and when do they correct you. I’ve been told that volunteering at local community groups is very helpful. For example, although speaking isn’t the primary objective when working at a food bank, there are conversations that happen when working. These are every day conversations that can only improve your English. If volunteering is not your thing, find something that you like to do that involves speaking. Obviously a thinking game such as chess is not your best bet. However, a lot of small talk happens at the gym. Even if you are not getting corrected, you are practicing speaking and listening.

Writing is the most difficult skill to improve on your own. The automatic question is how one improves one’s writing when there’s no interaction. Sending emails to friends can be beneficial especially when you see the response and are able to analyze how your friend replied. Keeping a journal is an easy to do. You write in your journal and check for spelling mistakes the next day. This could even be done as you are writing it.

None of these are perfect solutions but they are simple and can be done on your own. As stated earlier, it is best to have a professional helping you reach your goals. This does not mean that you can’t do a little extra-curricular activity on your own. Look at yourself honestly and try to improve what you can in a way that is best for you.

Learn more about the English Language Support Program from the LTO

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