First, let me tell you a little about myself and why I do what I do, and why I’m making this video.
I was always fascinated by foreign languages. I remember the first time I went to a foreign country. I was nine, and I went to Holland.
The thing that I liked best was hearing all of these foreign sounds. I’d never really heard people speaking other languages before.
Even then, I thought that speaking another language would be a really cool thing to be able to do.
Being able to open your mouth and produce all of these foreign words and actually be understood… That seemed almost like magic to me as a child!
My Mum bought me a ‘How to learn Dutch’ book. It didn’t work! I didn’t learn any Dutch.
But, I did study French and German at school for many years. They were always my favourite subjects.
When I was around 20, I set myself a goal. I would travel the world, and by the time I was 30, I would speak four foreign languages fluently.
I don’t know why. There wasn’t much logic to it. It doesn’t seem like the most coherent life plan, even now. But, that’s what I’d decided to do, so that’s what I did.
I lived in Russia, and studied Russian to quite a high level. Then, I moved to China. I studied Chinese, including written Chinese.
By the time I was 30, had I reached my goal? Kind of. I could speak Russian, French and Chinese well, and I could still speak some German, though not so well.
Close enough—I don’t have any regrets.
Anyway, I made so many mistakes along the way. I got so many things wrong. I wasted lots of time and energy on things that didn’t work.
There are so many lessons I had to learn the hard way.
So, what were they?
1. You’re Not at School Any More
I remember my first few Russian lessons. They were bad. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t learn anything.
Why? Because I had just graduated from university, and in my head, I was still at school.
When the teacher asked me a question and I got it right, I thought: “Great! I achieved something!” I thought this even if I just guessed the answer.
If I got a question wrong, I thought, “I feel bad!” I felt embarrassed.
If we did an exercise or a test, I thought, “If I get a high score, I’ve succeeded!”
Worst of all, I thought that just turning up to class was enough. After all, I wasn’t responsible for my learning. The teacher was responsible. That’s the teacher’s job.
I hope, I really hope, that you realise that I’m saying these things because they’re totally wrong, not because they’re how you should think.
Getting a question right or wrong in class means nothing by itself.
Getting a high score in a test means nothing by itself.
Going to five classes, ten classes, or 500 classes means nothing by itself.
There’s only one thing that matters: what have you learned?
What can you do that you couldn’t do before?
Teachers can make a big difference, sure. One of the best teachers I’ve had (Hi Lola!), helped me to change how I think.
Instead of feeling embarrassed about making a mistake, I realised that mistakes are a chance to understand something new.
Instead of worrying about getting things wrong, I started to experiment and play with language.
Instead of seeing tests and exercises as targets for someone else, I saw them as opportunities to express myself and explore my own strengths and weaknesses.
I put this at number one because it’s the most important thing to learn.
It’s the biggest mistake I see English learners making. I see adults, many of whom are older than me, very professionally successful, acting like they’re still at school, just because they’re in a lesson with a teacher.
I’ve seen people copying their homework from the answer key. I see people—full-grown, successful adults—really caring about whether they get a question right or wrong in class.
None of this matters by itself. All of this—questions in class, exercises in your textbook, tests and exams, English courses, certificates—they’re just steps; they’re tools.
What’s your goal? To get a piece of paper that says you speak English, or to actually speak English?
If you start at lesson one and finish lesson 100, is that enough? Have you finished?
Do you want to get a high score in an English exam, or do you want to speak such good English that you never need to take an English exam?
So, get these old ideas from school out of your head. Classes, exercises, tests and certificates… All of these things can help you; these things can give you structure and motivation, and that can be important, but they aren’t the end goal.
These things aren’t important in themselves; they’re important for what they can help you achieve.
Focus on what you can actually do.
Because that’s all that matters.
You should use tests, exercises, certificates, etc. to check your progress and make a plan to improve from there. Things like English level tests can be an excellent tool to get you moving in the right direction. Don’t aim to get a high score, aim to get a realistic score so you can make the proper adjustments to improve!
2. You’re Never Finished
When I first moved to Russia, I was planning to stay for six months.
After six months, I thought my Russian was okay. But it certainly wasn’t good enough. I decided to stay longer.
I thought that with six months more study, my Russian would be where I wanted it to be.
After six months, I thought, “My Russian’s alright, but if I just studied for another six months, it would be good.”
I studied for another six months.
I thought, “Yeah, my Russian’s not bad. You know what I need? Six months’ more study. It’ll be really good with another six months.”
There were a few more like this, but you can see where this is going, I think.
Even when I left Russia, and I could speak to a high level, I didn’t feel completely satisfied.
It’s not just me.
You never feel like you’ve finished. You always feel like there’s more to do, and more to learn.
I promise you, this will be the same for you with English. You’ll never feel like, “I’m done now.”
Often, students ask me things like, “How long will it take to get fluent?” “How long will it take to learn English?”
No one wants to hear, “Forever!” It’s not a popular answer! But, it’s true.
Why is this?
I think there are two reasons.
The first is that there is always more to learn. I’m still learning things about English, by teaching, writing and editing other people’s work. I haven’t finished learning English, just like you haven’t finished learning English, because you never do.
What about the second reason?
Partly, it’s just human nature. We focus on what we can’t do, just like we focus on what we don’t have.
What you don’t have is much more interesting than what you already have, right?
In the same way, what you can’t do seems more important than what you can do.
When you learn something new, it’s satisfying for a very short time. Then you forget about it. You focus on what you don’t know; you focus on what you can’t do.
This is natural. We all do it. All the time I was studying Russian, I was getting better. I was learning lots of new things.
But, it didn’t feel that way.
I’m sure many of you who’ve been learning English for a long time can relate to this!
You study and study. You learn new things, but you always feel like there’s something you can’t do.
This is how it is. That feeling never totally goes away.
So, what can you do about it?
Accept it. It’s not going to change!
Also, remember that how you feel isn’t always the best guide to how things really are.
Just because you feel you aren’t getting better, it doesn’t mean you’re not getting better. It doesn’t mean you aren’t learning anything new.
It’s just how you feel, and how you will feel.
It’s not a reason to stop or get discouraged. Keep studying; keep working and you will improve, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
3. Learning a Language Means Changing Your Life
I don’t know exactly when I first got the idea of moving to China.
But, I know when I made up my mind: I read a book called “River Town.” It’s about an American guy who spent two years living in Sichuan, in southern China.
He went there to teach English and study Chinese. He lived in a small town where there were two non-Chinese people, including him.
I loved the book, and at that moment, I knew: I was going to China.
But, I wasn’t as brave as him. I couldn’t imagine living in a small town with no other English speakers. It sounded lonely.
I moved to Shanghai, where there are about half a million foreigners.
I could meet people from many different countries, and mostly my social life was English-speaking.
I wasn’t lazy, though. I studied hard. I really wanted to get better. After three years, my Chinese was quite good.
But, it wasn’t perfect. There was a lot I couldn’t do. There was a lot I didn’t know.
Why am I telling you this?
It’s because my Chinese was a reflection of my life: I chose to move to a big, international city, and I chose to hang out in mixed groups where the common language was English.
So of course my Chinese wasn’t as good as it could have been.
I had a couple of friends who did things differently.
One guy in particular did almost everything in Chinese. He had Chinese roommates, most of his friends were Chinese, and he worked for a Chinese company.
His Chinese was perfect. Not just good, perfect.
It wasn’t because he studied harder than me (although maybe he did). It was because he lived his life in Chinese and I didn’t.
I see this a lot with English learners, particularly in English-speaking countries.
Many of the students I meet live in the UK, but don’t speak much English. They have a community of people who speak their language, and they don’t go outside that much.
I also see this a lot with people saying, “I want to learn English, but I don’t have chances to speak!”
To be clear, I know that big life changes, like moving to another country, aren’t realistic for everyone. I get that.
But here’s the thing:
You can’t separate language learning from the rest of your life.
If you go to class twice a week, and don’t use English or think about English the rest of the time, your progress will always be limited.
Do you want to speak perfect English? Do you want to master the English language? Yes? Then you need to live your whole life in English.
That might not be practical, but even so, improving your English (or any language) means changing your life.
It might mean moving to another country, working in another company, changing your social circle, or other large changes.
And yes, that can be very difficult! It can involve making big sacrifices. I understand that, but that’s how it is.
Language is a part of your life. The way you live influences what you can learn.
4. You’re Not Special!
How dare you, Oli! I am special!
I’m not saying you’re not special. I’m not special. No one’s special when it comes to learning a language.
Learning English, or any language, is very democratic. Everyone’s in the same position.
It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how rich you are, how professionally successful you are… None of that really matters.
Let me tell you the last part of my story.
Now, I live in Greece. I’ve been here for around three years.
If people ask me if I speak Greek, my answer is “Not really.”
I can communicate in a basic way, and I understand a lot, but I don’t claim to speak it.
After three years in Russia, I could speak good Russian. After three years in China, I could speak good Chinese.
So, what went wrong? I should speak good Greek by now, right?
Remember: I’m not special; none of us are special. I don’t speak good Greek because I haven’t done enough work.
Partly, that’s because I’m busier. If I’m honest, I’ve also been a little lazy sometimes.
Okay, at this point, I want to say thanks for listening to me. This is a more personal video, and I appreciate that you’re still watching.
So, let me finish by giving you the secret to learning a language.
That’s right: I’ll give you the secret to learning English, or any language!
Don’t get too excited—it’s really boring.
YouTube and the Internet are full of people saying they have “the secret to learning fluent English,” or “a way to learn English in ten days.”
Normally, the secret is “buy my book – 99 dollars!”
I don’t have a book, because I’m too busy to write one, so I’ll just tell you the secret. You can have it for free.
I’ve taught thousands of students at this point in my career, and the picture is very clear.
People who study and work consistently, over time, get the best results.
It’s not necessarily the smartest students who do best.
It’s not necessarily the natural language learners who do best.
It’s not necessarily the most enthusiastic learners who do best, because enthusiasm tends to burn out.
It’s the people who just keep going, who don’t give up, who work and work and don’t stop, who keep going even when it’s hard and boring and they’re not enjoying it: they do best. They get what they want.
Boring, I know, but it’s true.
So, thanks again for watching and listening to me!
For more English study practice, be sure to watch other Oxford Online English lessons: English Study Advice.
See you next time!