When people ask me to support them in improving their English, they’re in one of two typical situations.
In the first case, they want to be prepared for the future – whether that’s a couple of months or a couple of years away. Maybe they’re aiming for a new job. Or perhaps they recognise that the company they work for is becoming more international. They’re usually feeling pleased with themselves for having taken the bull by the horns.
In the second case, someone contacts me because they need stronger English skills now. They may have just started a new job or have been asked to hold a presentation in English for the first time. They feel uncertain about the image they project in English or are frustrated at not being able to do the job as well as in their own language.
I’m happy to work with people in either of these situations. There’s generally a great energy in sessions when someone has been thrown in at the deep end and needs to improve immediately. And I love supporting them so that they can achieve the best possible results in this situation.
But it’s not about me here. It’s about how you can best improve your English. And that’s why I want to make a case for working on your English in good time.
You can take a structured approach
If you start working on getting your English up to scratch before you actually need it – whether on your own or with a trainer – you can take a structured approach. If someone comes to me for support, I conduct a needs analysis to assess their current level and find out what they are likely to need to be able to do in English. I can identify which skills and areas of grammar, vocabulary and language use we should work on. All this information is then used to draw up a learning plan – with clear milestones to make sure everything stays on track.
If, on the other hand, someone’s need is more immediate, e.g. because she’s just started a new job, learning takes place on a needs basis. What does she have to be able to do next week (or even tomorrow) in order to do the job well? In this situation, the training is driven almost completely by the person’s direct requirements. We focus on the skills needed to play a full role in the next meeting, we practise the presentation to be held next week or work on an important email that has to go out today. There’s usually little time for anything else.
Being able to take a structured approach has an impact on two important factors: confidence and enjoyment.
Confidence grows steadily
Preparing in advance with a clear plan generally leads to greater confidence. Knowing that you have a solid basis and are well equipped to cope with situations likely to arise in the future gives satisfaction and a sense of security. Think, for example, of that great feeling when you’re reviewing an area of grammar which has always caused problems and it suddenly “clicks”. Being able to look back over a three-month period of learning and seeing the progress made gives a real boost to confidence.
On the other hand, if you prepare on a needs basis, it can often feel like you’re constantly fire-fighting – just about coping thanks to the preparation you’ve put in. Of course, it’s wonderful to have mastered a challenge (to have chaired your first meeting in English, for example) and that could increase your confidence. But I find that people often can’t really celebrate things that went well, they’re more focussed on what didn’t go as well as they would have liked. In addition, there often just isn’t the time. The next challenge is waiting.
The learning process is more enjoyable
Taking the stress and pressure out of the situation is a smart move. In a new job there are many other demands on your time: a range of new challenges, new relationships to build, new things to learn. Even if you “only” have to hold your first presentation in English, there’s a lot of extra work involved.
Adding improving your English skills to the mix just increases the load. Whereas if you start in good time the whole learning process is actually enjoyable. Not only can you add in fun activities like watching series, reading books and articles on non-work-related topics. What you’ve learned can settle and connections with other topics and skills become evident. You have the chance to reflect on the learning process and what works best for you, allowing you to use your time and energy to the best effect. Charting your progress and seeing your English improve brings a feeling of pride.
People are different, some achieve their best results under (time) pressure. And not everything can be planned, of course. But I’d encourage anyone who thinks they’re likely to need more English in the future to start work early on. The challenge here is to make sure you stay on track, that you give your learning efforts the priority they need in a busy working week. That’s where building good habits comes in. I’ll be writing about that in February.