Phil Roeland

How to improve your English

Tips for students


Although most of you readers are teachers, in this article you’ll find a number of tips for students to improve their English. 

I started off by putting on paper a set of tips and tricks to improve the students’ fluency. As you all know, a lot of people in Thailand study English and many of them are quite good when it comes to passive skills, i.e. reading and listening, but they aren’t very fluent. Being able to read and listen is important, but the active skills, speaking and to a lesser degree writing, are even more important. 

Communication is all about using a language to transfer a message and to make yourself understood. If the students can’t say it, if they can’t get their message across, if nobody understands them or doesn’t even bother listening to them anymore, their knowledge of English is virtually useless and all the hours of studying it have been a complete waste of time.

To make the column a bit more interesting for English teachers, I added some comments to the advice. The advice itself addresses the students directly using the second person singular ‘you’, whereas in my comments I refer to the students in the third person. 

After I started writing, I decided to include tips to improve the students’ overall level of English, not just their fluency. If students follow these tips and guidelines, their English skills will surely improve. I guess I’d better use the second conditional here. If students followed these tips and guidelines, their English skills would surely improve. 

Although I regularly give these tips in the classroom, I sometimes can’t shake the feeling that although most students recognise the advice as very valuable, few follow it. What you’re about to read probably sounds good in theory, but in the real, i.e. Thai world, I’m afraid it’s just not going to happen. Or is it?

Pronunciation

First of all, before trying to improve your fluency in English, you might want to improve your pronunciation. What good is it to talk fluently when nobody understands a word you say? In English, nearly every letter has to be pronounced, especially final consonants. If you don’t, it will become a lot more difficult for people to understand what you say. If you have trouble pronouncing a letter or a word, repeat it until you get it right. 

Read words and even small newspaper articles out loud. Do it on your own at home, in a park, wherever. It’s a very good idea to use a tape recorder and listen to your own voice. You might be surprised of what you hear. If you can’t even understand yourself, it’s no wonder others have a hard time understanding what you say. Don’t get disappointed and keep practising. If possible, use speech recognition software. You’ll get it right in the end.

Good advice, right? Probably, but it’s just not going to happen. Although it seems good in theory and most students agree with me – even to the point of ridiculing other Asians or fellow countrymen for their poor pronunciation - I just don’t believe for a minute that students will practice their pronunciation on their own. The most problematic of letters for Thais is of course the final ‘s’. Students just seem unable – or obstinately refuse - to pronounce this sound. It drives me mad sometimes. It’s very easy for anyone else, yet apparently extremely difficult for Thai learners. 

There are of course other difficult sounds such as l/r, x, ch and v, as well as the challenging consonant clusters such as sp-, st-, str-, spl-, etc. which prove difficult for Asian palates. Although many claim they think that learning English is important, I have the impression most people lack the drive to further their language skills on their own.

Study, work or travel abroad

Living in a country, preferably an English-speaking country, where you have to use your English skills to get around, to survive even, is probably the best way to master the language quickly. If you are forced to use English on a daily basis, becoming fluent is just a matter of time. The most important thing to remember is to get as much practice as possible. To benefit maximally from this kind of experience, it is advisable to go alone. Taking a friend who speaks the same language as you will slow down your progress enormously as you will still talk a lot using your mother tongue.

• Study

Instead of trying to get into a foreign university after graduating, you should consider going on a summer course abroad when you are younger. These kinds of courses are offered worldwide and often combine the language course with a homestay to help learners practise their newly acquired language skills outside of the classroom. 

When looking for a course (use Google to find language schools worldwide), look for a school that provides a wide range of extracurricular activities such as welcoming parties, sports activities, sightseeing etc. In my opinion, socialising with other students is as much of a learning experience as sitting in a classroom. Moreover, these activities are very helpful if you are somewhat afraid of going abroad on your own, getting homesick or being unable to make friends.

• Work

It doesn’t really matter where you work or what you do as long as it’s in an English-speaking environment. The possibilities that I can think of off the top of my head are fruit picking in Australia or a working stay in America. Some job agencies in Thailand can arrange jobs for up to three months in the USA followed by a week of travel. These packages usually offer jobs in the hotel industry and make the necessary accommodation, visa and airfare arrangements.

The packages are aimed at university students who want to improve their English and make some money at the same time. The participants are paid an hourly rate that would be considered rather low in America but high in Thailand (e.g. 8 dollars per hour). I’ve had two students recently who signed up for this kind of deal and both will end up in a hotel in Nevada, the heart of America’s gambling industry.

• Travel

Travelling into English-speaking territory doesn’t have to involve long journeys. Any country where English is spoken will do. If you don’t have the opportunity to travel to the usual western (i.e. expensive) destinations, try Singapore, Hong Kong, India or the Philippines. Using English will be essential to get by. Whatever you do, don’t go on a package tour. Remember that the aim of your voyages is to improve your English, not to go on a shopping spree or create an overdraft on your credit card in the company of fellow countrymen.

The three above-mentioned possibilities, study, work and travel, can of course be combined in whatever combination that suits your needs and/or finances.

Good advice, right? Probably, but it’s just not going to happen. I don’t think a lot of Thai students will go abroad to learn English. Money is probably one of the problems. Enrolling at a foreign language school for a few weeks or months, combined with a home-stay with a local family, isn’t exactly cheap. The work package might be a better option for those with limited resources.

Also, studying English abroad for two weeks isn’t going to do the trick for most, it’ll be just a drop in the ocean. Students who have a good IELTS or TOEFL score as their objective will need at least a few months or more of full-time study to acquire the necessary skills in order to do well on either test. Knowing this, it is plainly ridiculous to see elementary students on Thai soil signing up for 20-hour (or even 50-hour) TOEFL or IELTS preparation courses and actually expect good results. Test preparation is all too often a case of too little, too late.

As for the ones who do go abroad to learn English, quite a few of them will be scared stiff of going alone to a faraway, foreign land. They’ll be afraid of getting homesick, of not liking the food, of not being able to make friends, of being lonely, of getting ill and so on. Their answer to these irrational fears is to take a friend. And that is exactly what they shouldn’t do. 

If you study English at in a foreign language school, attending classes is just a small part of the learning process. What you learn outside of the school is just as important. People often enhance their English skills by making friends with other foreign students and by socialising. The use of English is usually the bonding factor between different nationalities and the English you speak in an informal situation, i.e. outside the classroom, is the real test to see if you are ready to communicate in English. Taking a friend who speaks the same language as you do will just undermine, if not completely eliminate, this valuable process.

Use your English in Thailand

If it’s impossible to study, work or travel abroad, then try to get in touch with English speakers in Thailand. Bangkok is ideal as many foreigners travel or live there. I can’t stress enough that, in order to become fluent, practising free conversation is the clue to success. I firmly believe in learning by doing. Never mind the fact that you make a lot of mistakes while talking, you’ll learn from them. By the way, the main purpose of using a language is communicating with others, not uttering beautiful, grammatically correct sentences. 

Talk, talk, talk, and you’re fluency in English will improve significantly. Remember that fluency is the ability to express yourself readily and without pause, which is essential to keep a conversation going. Not being fluent will lead to boring the people you try to communicate with to death with long pauses for thinking of what to say or how to reply.

Although there are lots of foreigners in Bangkok, you might find it very difficult to actually start a conversation. I understand that this can be sometimes difficult, but once you’ve done it, it’ll get easier. Not only will your English improve, but so will your social skills. It’s always a good idea to tell the person you approach why you want to talk to him or her. Be honest and admit that you’re a student looking from some free conversation practice. Buy a round of beer if necessary, it might help loosen your tongue and diminish your stage fright.

Also, when you’re in an English classroom, don’t forget to speak as much as you can. Remember that the classroom is a non-threatening environment where you can afford to make mistakes. Good teachers will never point the finger at you for making mistakes when speaking, scold you in front of others or continuously interrupt you when you say something wrong. On the contrary, they’ll give you plenty of opportunity to improve you fluency. 

Talking students are a teacher’s dream, so do try and don’t worry about making mistakes. I believe in learning by doing, which means it’s imperative to try to talk as soon as you can and learn from your mistakes as you go along. If you try to be perfect before you open your mouth, you’ll never speak at all. Nobody will make fun of you if you struggle, make mistakes or can’t find the right words.

Good advice, right? Probably, but it’s just not going to happen. Most students are too shy to talk to foreigners or too afraid of making mistakes when talking. As for talking in the classroom, even though I try to make students as comfortable as possible and use materials and topics adapted to age and level, students all too often clam up and are quite unwilling to utter more than a few one-word answers. With some groups, getting learners to talk is like pulling teeth.

Even with one of my private students, getting the young adult to say something is often mission impossible. I only get very short and slow answers in reply to my questions and the student continually wants to use a dictionary to look up words she doesn’t know, although I usually pre-teach important words. Moreover, I’ve told her countless times that a combination of simple words can be used to describe an unknown word, e.g. cancer is a dangerous disease, disease is something that makes you sick, subway is an underground train, coughing is a noise you make when you have a cold etc. All to no avail. 

Every time I see her, I try as hard as I can hoping that she’ll get it one day. I’m sure she will eventually. Anyway, by the time I really feel like banging my (or rather her) head against the wall during a lesson because she’s yet again trying to convey her ideas by just looking pleadingly into my eyes and willing me to read her mind, we do some grammar or reading exercises and all is well. After all, I’m no mind-reader nor do I have other supernatural powers.

Read, listen, watch, write, think

Read newspaper articles, books, Internet stories, course book materials or anything else that’s in English. Not only will reading boost your vocabulary, which will in turn enhance your fluency, it will also improve your insight into the structure of the language, hence make you better at writing. It doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you do it on a regular basis. If you really don’t know what to read or you don’t have regular access to English materials, get yourself an English-English dictionary and read a few entries whenever you feel like it. 

The Basic Oxford Dictionary is not expensive and provides not only an English explanation of words, but also examples and a Thai translation. A bargain really. Also, when studying a language, I think it’s important to surround yourself with it. English books or newspapers lying around, a few posters in English, your Internet homepage in English, all bits help. 

Don’t expect all that knowledge to seep straight into your brain, but give it some time – a long time actually – and you may notice that you pick up a few words or expressions along the way.

Listen to anything you can in English. Getting your ear tuned into to that strangest of languages is also vital if communication with other human beings is what you’re aiming for. Do it as much and as early in life as you can, because it is quite difficult to improve your listening skills just inside the classroom. Don’t just try to understand conversational and informal English but use it actively yourself whenever you can. You’ll benefit greatly from it later in life. If you don’t, well… just look at doctors. Many Thai doctors are fairly proficient in academic English, but unfortunately they all too often talk nonsense when explaining something (like many foreign doctors actually). 

When they talk to you realise that they speak English, but you don’t really understand what they say because they are incapable of using everyday words to describe a patient’s condition.
Why don’t you start off by simply listening to the radio news (Virgin 95.5Mhz) every day? Don’t get disappointed when you don’t understand everything, as it is quite fast and sometimes difficult to understand. Arm yourself with a tape recorder so you can listen to it several times until you get most of it (this can be done with a group of friends). Use a dictionary. It’s a challenge but it will do you a lot of good in the long run.

Watching TV, films, anything that exposes you to authentic materials and a different range of accents is just an extension of the listening practice, with moving pictures as an added bonus (probably necessary for the many comic book addicts). It’s also a good idea have a small notebook ready in case you don’t understand an expression and you wish to discuss it with your teacher (or anyone else) later.

Write in English. It doesn’t have to be seven novels of a new Harry Potter series, just a few words will do as a start. Start a diary, find email friends or online chat friends (which really shouldn’t be a problem in the Internet Age), or just write whatever comes into your head in a special notebook to keep track of your progress. Many people hate writing, but it’s a skill that might come in handy one day. Your writing skills might even be a lifesaver if you ever need to take a TOEFL or IELTS test later on in life.

Think in English as much as you can. When you’re having a conversation, try not to think in your own language before translating into English. If you can do this, fluency will come naturally after a while. I know it may be difficult in the beginning, so why not start on your own without the pressure of somebody to talk to. Think and talk to yourself in English. Imagine you’re having a conversation or a discussion or describe everything you see around you in English. You may be surprised of how many everyday words you don’t know. Use a dictionary to do some additional vocabulary building.

Use the Internet to put into practice some of the above mentioned tips. Listen to online radio stations, download music and lyrics, surf to the Bangkok Post or Student Weekly sites and check out their free stories and learning materials (www.bangkokpost.com and www.student-weekly.com). Write emails and chat to friends. Find some international friends online (www.interpals.net) if you haven’t done so far. The Internet is anonymous and easy to use, so it should be doable for even the shyest or clumsiest of surfers. Do online tests and quizzes, look for test preparations materials, read message boards or participate in discussion boards. Although you’re not actually facing someone, all of this won’t do your English any harm, quite on the contrary.

Good advice, right? Probably, but it’s just not going to happen. Reading isn’t the favourite pastime in Thailand, not even reading in the mother tongue. Picking up an English book or newspaper seems to be a problem for many. When surfing, the majority of learners will have a hard time not straying to the popular Thai sites or gaming websites. As for writing, even though finding online friends is easy and straightforward and chatting online anonymous, I haven’t seen it happen very often. Diaries are probably a Western thing and thinking is something that doesn’t seem to be encouraged in local education.

What to do about it

You’ve just read what the students can do to improve their English on their own. What can teachers do to help them? For starters, teachers should do their very best to be good teachers. I don’t want to explain in detail what makes a good teacher (maybe in another column), but I think we’re looking for words such as flexible, empathetic, motivating, well-prepared, intelligent, good sense of humour, patient, etc. By the way, I’m talking about one single teacher, not seven. If a teacher doesn’t even bother motivating students, who will?

As for the students, when the teacher tries hard to get them interested in learning English or motivate them, the students should put in a little – or should I say big – effort themselves to let themselves be motivated. I can’t stress enough that learning a language depends significantly on the learners’ will to learn it. Drive, motivation, the will to learn, the passion for a language is what can help people acquire a foreign language relatively quickly and painlessly. In my experience, unfortunately, this motivation is what is lacking most in learners of English, esp. the younger ones. It doesn’t matter how hard a teachers tries, if the students aren’t willingly participating, the effort will more often than not be a waste of time. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Fortunately, some people are changing their attitude towards learning English and really work hard to get better at it. Right now, I think the winners of this changing attitude are mainly motivated university students looking into the future at a possible career where English is important. Other winners are young professionals trying to get a promotion in the company they work for and, last but not least, a handful of young learners – children as well as teenagers - for whom studying English has become something they really enjoy. The former ones are probably motivated by financial reasons, whereas the latter are often unconditionally motivated, probably thanks to parents, teachers or parent-teachers. Hopefully more people will follow soon.

Let’s also not forget that all schools should have sufficient and adequate teachers and good learning materials should be available. A good curriculum, well-trained and motivated teachers using efficient learning methods and appropriate resources are important keys to success. Sounds obvious and logical, but it’s no small feat in some parts of the world, believe me.

A final word

I am aware that the tone of the column has been rather pessimistic. Do I really think it’s not going to happen and are students doomed forever? The answer is no. Although I think the immediate future is still looking rather bleak, I can see a watery sun at the horizon. More and more people are beginning to understand the importance of (some) English in education. For many people, English might be important for their future.

Policymakers are beginning to see the light and are changing their attitudes towards education, not only for English but also for computer classes and the way the national curriculum is taught in the mother tongue. Rote-learning will gradually be phased out and replaced by more effective learning methods (see column November 2005). Let’s not forget, however, that government schemes shouldn’t try to make the whole nation proficient in English within the next five years, but should ensure that the people who will need it most – esp. the younger generations - will be able to use the mere basics of the most important international language fairly fluently.

Although everybody starts learning English in secondary school, few become fluent. This is mainly due to large classrooms (in my opinion, fifteen students per classroom is a maximum to learn a language effectively, ten or less is ideal), a poorly designed curriculum, old-fashioned teaching methods and sometimes unqualified teachers. Fortunately, something seems to be moving and I expect to see a few changers for the better in the years to come.

A number of learners complement their school education by taking private language courses. Language schools are booming and students enrol for all kinds of different courses, both class and private courses. Conversation classes, general English and test preparation courses are among the most popular. Needless to say that most students benefit greatly from these extra hours of study, which are often done in small groups with an experienced native speaker.

A final word of caution though. Although some English courses offered by language schools can be quite costly (especially the one-on-one courses), students shouldn’t expect the course fee to include a magic potion (like the famous bird’s nest beverage that comes in small, expensive bottles) to boost their English skills. Nor should they expect that skills will be transferred by just listening to a teacher without actively participating in a lesson. As someone said on this website, there are no magic (English) bullets. Also, I imagine we’re still a long way from being able to clone and transplant English stem cells or inserting a bionic memory stick into someone’s brain. Until we can, becoming proficient in English will involve a hard day’s work. Don’t get discouraged. Consider it a hobby and get addicted. Learning can be fun.

+++

This has been the longest column so far. I hope you didn’t get bored by it. There might not be a lot of news in it for teachers, but sometimes I think it’s good to read the basics again and think about them. There are of course many more tips and you are welcome to share them with me if you feel like it. I don’t think the column would be good reading material for actual students, unless you cut out my cynical remarks which predict none of it is going to happen.

Finally, I’d like to wish everyone a lot of teaching pleasure in 2006 and thank all the readers who reacted to my columns. Although I may not have had the time to reply to al of you individually, I am grateful for the valuable feedback and appreciation you’ve given me.




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