Is my English getting better?


in Beyond the Basics, Tools & Techniques

Is my English getting better? This is a common, and important, question asked by many English students. They certainly hope so! And if it is getting better, they feel good about themselves and they’re motivated to keep working at it. But how can they know?

A little background

Before we try to answer the big question, let’s take a minute to review some things about acquiring language. Language acquisition is a natural process. It’s something our brains do very well when the conditions are right. When we read or listen to something we understand, and we are relaxed and feel good about ourselves, we acquire language. Our brain does the work automatically, and we don’t usually notice it when it happens.

Part of the difficulty in knowing if our new language is getting better or not comes from the fact that language we acquire is stored in our brains subconsciously,[1] below the level that we can consciously examine it. That’s different than the way we learn and remember “2 x 2 = 4.” And that difference makes it more difficult to tell if our English – or any new language – is getting better. And it’s difficult to design a test that can effectively measure total language improvement.

Testing the language that we learn formally – vocabulary, grammar rules, etc. that we have memorized – doesn’t tell us very much about how good our language is. It doesn’t tell us anything about our ability to use it. Mr. M., one of my former adult ESL students was a retired English teacher from another country. The first day he attended my class, Mr. M. identified a subjunctive verb, and everyone was impressed. Some of the other students were actually a little intimidated, or frightened, by him! Then we discovered the truth: Mr. M. had memorized many facts about English – in his language – but he had never acquired much English. As a result, it was very difficult for him to have a conversation or write a paragraph in English. He would have gotten a high grade on a grammar or vocabulary test, but it wouldn’t had told us the truth about his ability to use English.

In this article, I want to describe some informal methods – without testing – that English students can use to get an idea of how much their English is improving.

So what can we do?

In the classroom, and with my tutoring students, I always try to notice improvement and let my students know about it. Sometimes they don’t believe me at first (Remember that language acquisition happens subconsciously, so they don’t always notice the improvement themselves as quickly as I do.).

But what if you don’t have a teacher who can do that? What can you do? I have several suggestions. None of them is a complete answer to the question, but all of them will help you know if your English is getting better.

Your friends can tell you

The biggest encouragement one of my students received came from a friend he hadn’t seen for several months. After a few minutes together, the friend turned to Greg and exclaimed, “Your English is so much better!” Greg hadn’t been aware of how much better his English was until his friend noticed it and told him.

This is something you and your friends can do to help each other. But for this to work, you and your friends need to be focused on improved communication, not absence of mistakes. You need to pay attention to the quality of English communication you share with each other. If you are mistake counters, focusing on what’s wrong, it will never work! However, if you focus on how your ability to communicate improves, this can be powerful encouragement.

You’re able to read and listen to more difficult material

If you are consistently, or regularly, choosing reading and listening material that is easy to understand, it is natural for you to choose more and more difficult material as your English improves. Take a look at what you were reading last year and compare it with what you’re reading right now. You’ll probably be surprised!

There are two writers that can help you with this process. Francine Pascal and Judy Blume have both written series of books that begin with very simple English and gradually become more difficult. By choosing books from these two series, you can get a general idea of how much your reading ability has improved.

Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley books progress from easy to more difficult in several groups. They begin with Sweet Valley Kids for elementary students followed by Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley Junior High, Sweet Valley High, Sweet Valley Senior Year, and Sweet Valley University. Each group of books is more difficult than the group before it.

Judy Blume has written books for children, elementary, middle grade, young adult, and adult readers. As you would expect, each level becomes more difficult.

You depend less and less on your first language

I asked Adrian, the student I wrote about in Frustration to success and Frustration to success: how he did it, how he measured his improvement. Adrian acquired English autonomously (by himself), without attending classes. He told me that as his English improved, he noticed that he depended less and less on Portuguese. He said he didn’t hesitate as much when he used English. He began to read faster and pause less. He read and listened to more difficult material.

Adrian made a special point of “respecting the process,” of reading and listening at an appropriate level – easy enough to understand without stopping. He told me that when he did that, he made faster progress. As a result, it was easy to recognize how his ability to read and listen to more difficult material changed as his English improved.

Yusmary, another student, told me that, as her English improved, she didn’t have to think so much about what she was doing. The words came easier and easier, and she understood more of them. She says she’s reading faster, and she doesn’t have to pause to think as often as she did in the past.

The reflective English student

When I was studying for my master’s degree in education, we were encouraged to be reflective teachers. We were encouraged to be aware of what we did in the classroom and how students responded to it. We were encouraged to spend time thinking about our teaching, about what we did well and what we needed to improve.

This is a good habit for English students to develop. Take time to reflect on, or think about, your English. Don’t focus on your mistakes (That’s a big mistake!). Think about how your ability to use English – for reading, listening, speaking, writing – is changing. How it is getting better. Notice some of the things that Adrian and Yusmary notice. If you do, you’ll begin to get a good sense of how your English is improving. You’ll feel good about yourself. And you’ll be motivated to keep working at improving it!

Warren Ediger

[1]Krashen, Stephen (2003) Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use.

Paulo Silva June 7, 2010

Hi Warren!

In my opinion, the worst thing is to leave your English class and be impossible to talk in English with someone! It’s terrible wait for two or four days till the next class. The pactice of speaking English out of class, without pressure, freely, is so important and necessary, but… As I told u before, is not always like that! :S

Thx, see u after!

p.s. Your posts are much helpfull, I really like them!

Rodrigo June 8, 2010

You know Warren, our friends can tell, you are absolutely right.
Yesterday I was chatting with my friend, she lives in Canada. Well, I explained her that I’m studying english (obviously I didn’t tell her how haha) and of course I asked her to be patient with me, because I have some dificulties, you know. Mainly when I have to describe something, grammar, vocabulary, slangs and so forth.
The thing is that she wrote me this:
you know, looking at your written English i do not see the struggle in the language. Nice!”.
That made me feel much more confident!

Greetings from Paraguay, the heart of South America! (maybe the knowless country of South America haha)

Warren Ediger June 8, 2010

Rodrigo – Great example of what I was writing about! Thanks!

Sanaz June 9, 2010

Thank you Warren.
This article like other articles is so valuable. Now,I would like to know whether it’s good or not to think about progressing and getting better all the time. I mean, when I think about it so much and it occupies my mind while I’m reading and listening, I cannot feel relax. So, should I let it go?
Thanks in advance.

Warren Ediger June 10, 2010

Sanaz – When we eat, do we worry whether or not our bodies are going to use the vitamins or other nutrients to give us energy and keep us healthy? Probably not. Why? Because we trust our bodies to make proper use of the nutrients in the food we eat. Language acquisition is also a natural process. It will happen automatically, as I wrote, “when the conditions are right.” If you understand and enjoy what you’re reading or listening to, you will acquire more English. Trust the process!

We want to be able to recognize signs of language improvement, but we don’t want to obsess – to constantly think or worry – about them. Obsession, about anything, is rarely healthy. Be aware of improvement, but don’t be obsessed by it. In other words, relax, enjoy the process!

Gabriel Fernando June 10, 2010

i have a problem: I´m not sure of myself, i have afraid to talk to someone because i think i don´t have good pronunciation, or afraid to make mistakes about grammar rules. I have a great problem! What can i do?

Warren Ediger June 10, 2010

Gabriel – I made a new article out of my answer. Best wishes to you!

Jeff McQuillan June 12, 2010

Warren – First, great post! I agree with everything you say.

In my personal experience acquiring languages, I have found that a good test for me is to find a book or article that I thought was difficult several months ago, and then try reading it again. I am always surprised how much easier it is for me to read things that – in the past – I found very difficult.

This is a good test of whether you are making progress, as long as you realize that you aren’t going to find Shakespeare difficult in January but easy in April! We have to be reasonable about our expectations, of course.

Warren Ediger June 12, 2010

Thanks, Jeff! Since I wrote this, all my online tutoring/coaching students have said almost exactly the same thing. And a couple of them have emphasized the importance of being aware of, but not obsessed with, progress.

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