Stop saying “It’s difficult.” Definitely, never say “It’s too difficult.” Instead, say “I need more time.” When you say “It’s difficult,” you’re immediately taking a negative approach. It’s like saying “I can’t do it,” “I should give up,” “There’s no point trying.”
This way of thinking makes you feel bad about yourself, and it discourages you from trying further. Everything is difficult when it’s new and unfamiliar.
When you learn English—or any language—you have to deal with many new and unfamiliar things. But, guess what? With time and practice, everything gets easier. So, don’t say “This grammar point is too difficult.” Don’t say “Writing essays is too difficult.” Don’t say “Speaking fluently is difficult.”
Say “I need more time to understand this grammar point.” Say “I need more time to learn how to write essays well.” Say “I need more time in order to speak more fluently.” This helps you approach your English learning in a positive way, so that you’re focused on improving and progressing.
Stop saying “I understand.” Don’t say “I understand this vocabulary.” Don’t say “I understand these grammar rules.” Don’t say “I understand what people say, but I can’t respond!”
Many English learners—and language learners generally—fall into the same trap. They confuse understanding something with knowing it. But, really knowing something—for most learners—means that you can use it.
I understand *how* to play the piano. You hit the keys in the right order at the right times. I can’t play the piano. So, is it useful that I understand how? No.
Let’s come back to you, and your English. You’re reading something in English. You find a word you don’t know. You look it up in your dictionary, so you know the translation in your language. You think to yourself, “I know this word now.” You go to English class. Your teacher gives you exercises on a grammar point. You do the exercise, and you get most of the questions right. You think to yourself, “I know this grammar.” Maybe you even complain to your teacher, and say “This grammar is too easy! I know this already!”
You read a text. You understand it, or at least most of it. When you try to write something in English, it’s a mess. You can’t put your ideas into sentences, and your writing is full of mistakes. So then, you start saying things like “I understand words but I can’t use them!” “I understand when I listen, but I can’t speak!” “I understand grammar, but I make mistakes when I speak or write!”
First of all, it’s natural for your passive skills to be better than your active skills. It’s natural that your listening and reading are better than your speaking and writing. To some extent, this is normal and it isn’t a problem. It’s true for native speakers, too. But, many English learners do have a problem here. They focus on understanding, and then they complain that they can’t use what they “know”.
If you can’t use it, then you don’t know it. If you make mistakes with a grammar point, then you don’t know it. If you can’t use a word when you’re speaking, then you don’t know the word. It doesn’t matter if you’ve studied something a hundred times. Can you use it? No? Then you don’t know it. So, don’t say “I understand…” Instead, say “I can use this,” or “I can’t use this.” That’s what counts. That’s what you care about, right?
Stop saying “How do I…? Don’t say “How do I remember new words?” Don’t say “How do I get 7.5 in IELTS?” Don’t say “How do I improve my listening?”
Instead, ask yourself “What can I do today?” Say “What can I do today to learn some new vocabulary?” Say “What can I do today to prepare for my IELTS exam?” Say “What can I do today to practise my listening skills?”
We meet many students who ask huge, general questions like this. “How do I speak fluently?” “How do I write a high-scoring IELTS essay?” “How do I speak with a British accent?” These questions are too big. You don’t do one thing to speak fluently, you do many, many things over a long time.
When you ask big, general questions like these, you get trapped in abstract generalities. You’re living in a future dream, where you somehow speak perfect English. But, you can’t control the future.
All that time you spend thinking about the abstract future, you’re wasting time right now. Focus on what you can do today.
There’s a saying in English. Actually, it’s in the form of a question: how do you eat an elephant? Have you heard this? Do you know the answer? You eat an elephant one bite at a time.
That’s what learning English is like. If you look at the whole task, it seems impossible. It’s like eating an elephant. It’s too big. But, you can do it. People do it! It’s not even rare. You can do it, too. You just have to do it one bite at a time.
Focus on what you can do today. That’s the only thing you can control.
Stop asking questions like “How long will it take me to…?” Don’t say “How long does it take to become fluent in English?” Don’t say “How long will it take me to get band seven in IELTS?” Don’t say “How long will it take me to learn to negotiate in English for my work?”
First, no one knows. You don’t know, and I don’t know. No one knows. Maybe you’re a genius and you’ll do it in four weeks. Maybe it’ll take you four years. Maybe you’ll never do it. How am I supposed to know? How’s anyone supposed to know?
Every learner is a little bit different. No one has the same experience. Secondly, often, this question hides something underneath. This question often says “I don’t want to study English; I don’t want to spend my time and money studying English, but I have to. So, how can I get what I want while spending as little time and money as possible?”
Look: being efficient with your time and money is a worthwhile goal, but if you’re trying to learn English and your starting point is: “How do I do this cheaply and without spending much time?” then your chances of success are slim.
Here’s the answer: if you don’t want to study English, then don’t. You don’t have to. If you really don’t want to, then you probably won’t learn much anyway.
So, what should you say instead? Instead, ask “What’s the next step if I want to…?” Say “What’s the next step if I want to get band seven in IELTS?” Say “What’s the next step if I want to improve my speaking?” Say “What’s the next step if I want to stop making so many grammar mistakes?”
Again, these questions focus you on the present and encourage you to take action. This increases your chances of making progress.
Stop saying “I can’t.” Don’t say “I can’t speak fluently.” Don’t say “I can’t understand films and TV in English.” Don’t say “I can’t write without making mistakes.”
Instead, ask yourself “Why?” “Why can’t I speak fluently?” “Why can’t I understand films and TV in English?” “Why do I make so many mistakes when I write?” There’s a reason. There’s an answer to all these questions.
If you want to learn, you need to find the answer. There might not just be *one* answer, there could be many. The answer might not be simple. In fact, it almost certainly won’t be. But, finding an answer is the first step.
Why can’t you speak fluently? Maybe you don’t get enough opportunities to speak English. Maybe you live 99% of your life speaking and thinking in your native language. Maybe you lack vocabulary. Maybe your pronunciation needs work. Maybe something else. I don’t know.
Remember: every learner is a little bit different! You need to find the answer for you. Thinking this way will encourage you to take action and do something now. Saying “I can’t…” all the time just makes you feel bad. Find out why, then do something about it.
Stop saying “I want…” Stop saying “I need…” Don’t say “I want to improve my speaking.” Don’t say “I want to have a bigger vocabulary.” Don’t say “I need to get band six point five in IELTS.” Often, when English learners say, “I want…” or “I need…”, there’s a second meaning. It’s not bad to have goals or to want things. But, if you say this, is this all you mean?
Many people who say these things really mean “I want *someone else* to give this to me.” I want someone else to solve this problem. I want someone else to wave a magic wand and get me my IELTS result. I want someone else to take away all the bad feelings and the hard work and the difficulties.
It doesn’t work like that, and it’s never going to. You heard this before, but I’ll say it again: you don’t have to learn English! But, but, but… I need it for my job. I have to learn English to emigrate to Australia. I have to learn English for my exams at university.
No, you don’t. No one’s forcing you to learn English. You want to, or you don’t. If you want to, then do it. If you don’t, then save your time, your money and your energy.
And, for sure, no one else will make it happen for you. Other people can help. Good teachers can help. English-speaking friends and colleagues can help. But, in the end, it depends on you. So, don’t say “I want…” or “I need…” if what you really mean is “I want someone else to give me the solution.”
Don’t wait for someone else to solve your problems. Take responsibility for your own progress. I’m not saying that to be unkind. I’m saying it because you’re the only person who can. That’s it, hopefully you found this Oxford Online English lesson useful!