You can take steps to improve your English at any time of the year, of course. And circumstances – a new job, new responsibilities, a planned trip – may well lead you to do just that. But what if there’s no real reason, you just feel generally dissatisfied with your language skills? Or perhaps you’ve been meaning to take your English up a notch for a while now, yet never seem to get round to it.

Then I think the beginning of a new year is a great time to start your language learning project. To ensure that you get off to a flying start and establish good habits you need a plan. This post is intended to help you draw one up.

What exactly do you want to achieve?

“I want to improve my English.” That’s a very sweeping statement. And not really helpful when it comes to drawing up you language learning plan. 😉

So the first step is to pinpoint exactly what you want or need to be able to do (better) in English. Write it down in a sentence. For example:

  • I need to be able to play a fuller role in meetings
  • I want to be able to write emails that are understood the way I mean them – but without having to spend hours on them.
  • When I go to Cornwall in summer, I want to be able to enjoy talking to the people I meet – no searching for words, no stress.

You may well have more than one objective. Take the time to define each of them.

What skills do you need to achieve this objective?

The next step is to go through each of the goals you have defined and think about the skills you need to be able to achieve them.

For example, if your aim is to play a fuller role in meetings, you will probably need to widen your vocabulary, improve your fluency, build your confidence, etc.

And each of these points can be narrowed down further. For example, think more closely about the areas in which you need to widen your vocabulary. Do you need specific vocabulary for the topics dealt with in the meetings you attend? Do you need the language that helps a meeting go smoothly and ensures that your opinion is heard (e.g. phrases for expressing your disagreement appropriately, for interrupting politely …)? Do you need to brush up on expressions for the social interactions that take place before and after the meeting or during a coffee break?

Especially when time is at a premium, I’d recommend focussing your language learning efforts on one or two precisely defined goals at a time. That way you’ll notice improvements faster – and when you’re satisfied with what you’ve achieved you can move on to tackle the next challenge.

What exactly are you going to do?

Based on the areas you identified in the last section , you can now decide exactly how you’re going to acquire the skills you need.

Let’s assume your aim is to widen your vocabulary. Where will you find the words and phrases you need to learn? Where will you record them – in a note book, on index cards, in an app? How much additional information will you include? How exactly will you go about learning this vocabulary? What tools will you use? What fun activities could you introduce to keep yourself motivated?

If, on the other hand, you want to write better emails, what exactly are you going to do to achieve an improvement? Where can you find tips and/or useful phrases for effective emails? Do you need to brush up on your grammar? Who could give you some honest feedback on what you’ve written, pointing out where misunderstandings might arise, for example?

Again make notes. Being completely clear on what you intend to do and writing it down, helps to keep you on track and makes it easy to check your achievements later.

How much time have you got?

Is there a deadline? Do you simply want to make 2019 the year you concentrate on improving your English? Or can you only commit yourself for the next three months? Or is there a special event later in the year by which time you need to have upped your game?

How much time can you commit to learning? This depends to a great extent on your individual situation, of course. And also on the priority improving your English has at the moment. Remember: generally speaking, learning a little and often is the more effective than sitting down for two hours once a fortnight.

Based on your answers, decide what you want to commit yourself to. This could be 15 minutes a day every day, 30 minutes three times a week or 2 or 3 hours a day for the next month. But make sure you’re realistic. Then write it down so that it becomes “official”.

Get into the habit

During the first few weeks, identify which learning times work best for you. If these times aren’t connected to something specific, like the commute to work, it’s all too easy to forget to learn. So until you really get into the habit, set a reminder on your phone. Another useful tool is a habit tracker where you record how much time you’ve devoted to learning English. Very motivating!

I don’t know about you, but I often overestimate the amount I can actually achieve. So if you notice that your plan is unrealistic, adjust it – but don’t give up too easily.

Another idea which can help to keep you on track is having an accountability partner? That’s a rather grand term for someone who either gives you a pat on the back or a kick up the bum. But seriously, it could be a trainer or a colleague or a friend who you arrange to tell about your progress at specified intervals. Someone who you can share your pride in your achievements with but also talk to about your frustrations. And ideally someone who can not only provide encouragement, but also help you find a better way of going about your learning.

Ready to have a go? Let me know if you would like my support on your language learning journey. In March I’ll be writing about reviewing your progress and staying motivated.

Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too.