This is a blog post I really enjoyed writing. It made me look more closely at beliefs about and attitudes to learning English. So I’m very happy to republish it as part of Heide Liebmann’s advent blogparade Oldies but Goldies. A great idea!
When people hear that I’m English and that on top of that I’m an English trainer, there’s one thing I hear over and over again: “Ach, ich müsste doch was für mein Englisch tun!” It seems to be an automatic reaction. I have to admit it’s one I’m familiar with, too. Tell me you’re training for a marathon and I’ll have to bite my tongue so that I don’t come out with “Oh, I ought to start jogging again.” But the less said about that the better. 😉 People then usually go on to tell me why they aren’t actually taking any steps to improve their English.
The reasons are often similar, so I’ve taken a closer look at the top five. Can you hear yourself saying any of the sentences below?
“Sprachen waren noch nie meine Stärke”
True, languages do come more easily to some people than others. Just as some people are more musical, have a better sense of direction or are stronger swimmers.
But I get the impression that when people say this sentence they’re usually thinking back to their school days. And because they weren’t good at English at school, they believe that they won’t be good at it now. And that’s where they’re making a huge mistake. Knowing exactly why you want to learn English – whether for your job or for traveling – is a very different kettle of fish to having to learn English at school. The motivation can sweep you along, making the learning process both enjoyable and effective.
“Um Englisch richtig gut zu lernen, muss man schon 6 Monate in einem englischsprachigen Land verbringen.”
True, immersion is ideal. If you’re surrounded by the language all day every day, you pick it up faster and with less effort.
But you can immerse yourself in English in your home country, too. You can start by changing the settings on your phone, tablet or PC to English. If you have the radio on in the background during the day, tune in to the BBC, you don’t have to concentrate on it all the time. Get into the habit of reading a couple of English newspaper articles online every day. So much easier today than not so many years ago, when you had to buy English newspapers at ridiculously high prices. Watch films in English, read English books, make a point of talking to non-German-speaking neighbours or colleagues.
“Ich komme mit meinen Sprachkenntnissen schon zu recht. Mehr brauche ich nicht.”
At first this seems perfectly reasonable. Why spend time working on your English if you really don’t need it?
But, remember, this sentence was also preceded by “Ach, ich müsste doch was für mein Englisch tun!” And then I wonder if it’s strictly true. Does someone who says this perhaps have an inkling that the situation could change in the future. Maybe they don’t need it in their current job, but are aiming for a job where English is important. If this is the case, it certainly makes sense to plan ahead and invest some time and effort in their language skills now. I’m sure everyone would agree that a new job brings enough challenges without having to improve your English fast, too.
“Ich bin zu alt, um richtig gut Englisch zu sprechen. All diese junge Kollegen waren schon als Schüler in den USA. Die hole ich nie ein.”
True, someone who’s spent time in their youth in an English-speaking country has an advantage.
But I find the idea that anyone is too old to learn something new or develop existing skills extremely depressing. You’re never too old to improve your English. Over the years, I’ve recognized that those who made the most progress in my courses were often older. Some already had reasonable English skills, others were absolute beginners. But what they all had in common was that they knew exactly why they were learning. And they really appreciated having the opportunity to learn. They were often the ones who developed a real love of the language.
“Ich habe keine Zeit dafür.”
I’ve saved this sentence until last, because it’s a little different to the others. I don’t believe that you can learn English in your sleep, so yes, you will need to schedule time for it. As you can see from the ideas for immersing yourself in the language which I described above, you can make improving your English part of your daily routine. But it still takes time. And the more time and effort you can devote to it, the more progress you’ll make.
Perhaps you can’t make that sort of commitment, because you have other priorities. That’s ok!
But in that case, I strongly recommend deleting the sentence “Ach, ich müsste doch was für mein Englisch tun!” Otherwise it’ll always be there at the back of your mind, making you feel bad about not taking any action.
In short, whether you decide to take steps to improve your English or whether other things are more important at the moment, do what you do wholeheartedly – and enjoy it. 🙂