English is one of the most popular languages in the world: More than 1 billion people speak it, about 380 million consider it their native language and many countries make sure young students learn it.
There are lots of advantages to speaking English, including:
- Business: Many companies do business with the largest English-speaking countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada – and people who work for those companies might have to be fluent in the language.
- Study: There are about 1 million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, with many of them from countries where English is not a native language.
- Travel: Native English-speaking countries are popular travel destinations – for example, the U.S. had about 79 million visitors from other countries in 2019.
- The arts: English-language media are popular around the world, especially movies, TV shows and music.
There are differences in British English, American English and the language used in other English-speaking countries, but the standard versions of all of them are very similar, says Alexander Poole, interim department head of modern languages and English professor at Western Kentucky University.
“A person who learns English in Great Britain can certainly come to the United States and survive just fine,” Poole says.
It’s ideal to focus on the dialect of the place where you want to live, says Patricia Bayona, assistant professor of Spanish at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.
Here are some tips on navigating the journey of learning English, such as how long it might take to get to a beginner or intermediate level and some of the best ways to learn as quickly as possible.
If you’re struggling to learn English, here are some possible reasons:
- The need to memorize how to spell and pronounce specific words instead of being able to figure them out based on similar words. An example is knowing whether a word – like weird – is spelled with “ie” or “ei.”
- Figuring out which words and syllables you should or shouldn’t emphasize in a sentence, because if you do it the wrong way, you could change its meaning.
- Pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar differences between English-speaking countries and even in regions within those countries
“All languages have aspects that are very challenging for learners, and all have aspects not challenging for learners,” Poole says.
How much difficulty you have in learning English might depend on whether your native language has similarities to it. “The type of language that the student brings with them is a key factor,” Bayona says.
If the language is similar – for example, Spanish and French have the same alphabet as English, some of the same vocabulary and also read left to right – it could be easier to adjust, Bayona says. But other languages read from right to left, rely more on symbols and have other rules that could make it more difficult to adjust to English. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute says the toughest languages for English speakers to learn include Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.
People might also think that English is easy because many countries, like ones in Northern Europe, are “inundated with popular culture from us and Great Britain from Day One. Sometimes programs are not even dubbed or translated,” Poole says. “Even if you are not very accomplished in school, you will see American and British media all the time.”
Often, the most important factors in whether you can learn English are motivation and commitment.
You have to say, “OK, I am going to study English for a certain amount of time each day, and I’m going to do it every day or every other day because I want to reach a specific goal,” Poole says. “You have to have a commitment, you have to be consistent and have to have a goal with it.”
Studies show that strong motivation is vital to learning a language, Poole says.
“It’s the name of the game here. It’s the magic wand for learning English successfully,” Bayona says.
There are several factors that could influence how long it takes for you to learn English, whether you want to reach the beginner level or pursue advanced skills:
- Your age: Studies have shown that it can be easier to learn a language as a child.
- Your day-to-day exposure to the language.
- Why you want to learn.
- The type of program and/or teacher that you’re using to learn the language.
“There is definitely an advantage for age,” Poole says. “If you’re exposed to a language from an early age and consistently have it in your life in the form of school or popular culture, it will just become part of your life. That is an advantage a lot of people don’t recognize.”
Students could benefit greatly from full immersion or two-language programs in which English is the only or primary language used all day at school. Even if they’re not in a formal immersion-type program, students can relate to English speaking all day long, such as through teachers, friends and sports teams, Bayona says.
Adult learners who have to work full time and can only study English in their down time are affected greatly by the amount of time and type of exposure they have, Bayona says.
That’s why your reason for learning the language is important, because it can influence your motivation. Studies have shown that if you’re just looking to learn a language to pass an exam or do well during an interview, you’re not as likely to be successful. In contrast, those who have a stronger motivation, such as trying to integrate into the culture and get to know people better, have better results.
For example, if you want to be a chef and learn everything that it requires – the names of foods and utensils, and the ability to read and write recipes – that can inspire you to learn the language.
“If you have that motivation, you can transfer that skill into learning other parts of the language,” Bayona says.
You’ll quickly realize that you’ll need total commitment to be successful, however.
“You cannot just do it part time,” Poole says. “You have to be kind of obsessive about it.”
To have a beginner’s level of understanding – where you could navigate through an English-speaking city – you would need about six months of studying for several hours a day, Poole says. If you want to reach an intermediate level – where, say, you could interact on a basic level with people at a get-together – it would take about a year and a half to two years of study. Fluency could take five to seven years.
The program you use to learn English needs to be systematic, requiring you to study several hours a day every day, if possible, Bayona says, adding that some people can learn independently through language software if they’re motivated enough.
Teacher quality is another important factor in your success.
Teachers need a background in linguistics “because linguistics allows them to understand how the sounds of the English language are produced and how they are combined,” says Bayona, who oversees the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, minor at North Central. “From there, they’re also able to explain the pronunciation of the English language, articulate it properly and model it properly for people trying to reproduce and follow. They need to be able to teach with methodologies that are effective for English language learners.”
In addition to studying and practicing English consistently, there are other tips that experts recommend to help build your language and writing skills faster:
- General immersion: If you can live where English is spoken all the time, “you will be inundated with authentic language,” Poole says. This is easier for school-age children, who might attend a full- or partial-language immersion school. For adults, it can be more difficult because this approach requires time and money, Poole says. Also, it can be emotionally challenging for adult learners who feel that they can’t participate in discussions in a new country. “It takes a very thick skin for someone to be able to do this,” Poole says. “You have to accept discomfort” and not know everything that’s being said.
- Personal immersion: If you’re in a relationship with a native English speaker, it can provide the motivation to learn the language as well as an invaluable opportunity to discuss it every day. “You’ll have your own grammarian and dictionary right in front of you,” says Poole, who learned Spanish so he could communicate more effectively with his in-laws.
- Review media: Even if you’re not in an English-speaking country, it still should be easy to access English audio and written media. Movies, graphic novels, TV shows, children’s books – they can be educational as well as enjoyable. You should consume as much media as you can because “speaking is a result of understanding,” Poole says. “First you understand, then you speak.” Watching videos with subtitles is especially helpful because you’re reading, listening and associating pronunciation with the written language, Bayona says. If you’re passionate about a particular part of the culture, that could be a way to get into the language. If you enjoy English-language music, for example, then following the lyrics can help you learn, Bayona says.
- Practice speaking: You could hone your skills by talking with people who are also trying to learn to speak English or with native speakers such as friends or tutors. Online forums can be helpful. If you’re not in an English-speaking country, seek out places where it’s the primary language, such as a pub that caters to English speakers. These methods can give you a chance to learn idioms and slang in addition to vocabulary and grammar.
- Practice writing: Your English-speaking friends can help you learn how to improve your written skills with texts and emails. Also, consider writing on your own every day, such as in a diary or short stories. You can also use social media, but make sure you’re comfortable putting your writing on public view.
- Make it visual: You can label items in your home with their English names and post some of the more difficult rules in places you’ll always see, such as your bathroom mirror when you’re brushing your teeth. Flashcards are another way to connect words to pictures. You could also try putting your cellphone settings in English, to see how much of it makes sense. Playing board games – especially ones that rely on pictures and some language – can also provide vocabulary practice.
Online resources, such as websites, videos and programs with multiple courses, are an ideal way to learn English, as they can give you the basic grammar and vocabulary you need while you practice each day.
Here is a look at some of the options:
- Babbel, which includes website access and an app, offers a subscription model that provides courses tailored to your native language. Prices range from $13.95 for one month to $6.95 per month for one year, and the first lesson in each course is free.
- Rosetta Stone is an online-based language education company that offers English lessons at $11.99 a month or $199 for lifetime access. Tutors are also available for $14 to $19 per session.
- Duolingo provides short, game-like sessions that are tailored to your learning style on a computer or an app, which might make it more appropriate for brushing up on a language rather than learning the basics.The ad-free Duolingo Plus is available for $6.99 per month.
- Loecsen offers free online language courses geared toward people who want to learn a language quickly for a trip abroad.
- EC English Language Centres provides virtual options as well as in-person classes in English-speaking countries such as the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. EC also has a YouTube channel with more than 100 videos, featuring a variety of destinations.
- Voice of America has a collection of videos that includes a 52-week course, covering grammar tips, idioms, business – including agriculture and economics – and health.
- Englishclass101.com features many free videos, plus more educational materials for an additional cost.
With packaged programs, “you get a base in grammar and vocabulary, it exposes you to the language and gives you an idea of what you should know,” Poole says.
You can pace yourself, but you need to do more than just watch and/or listen to the programs.
“At some point, you’re going to have to incorporate other materials,” Poole says. “The language is gargantuan. There is no one place that is going to teach you everything.”
If you’re considering a program, look for reviews and ask for testimonials from others who have used it.
If you’re not interested in learning English primarily or partially online, you have other options, including:
- Traditional books, such as grammar books and textbooks that can help you understand the basics and more advanced concepts.
- Audiobooks, which can provide a primary or secondary way of learning, especially when combined with written language.
- In-person or remote video English classes, which might be offered at a local college, nonprofit organization or company that specializes in language education. There are likely several options, depending on your skill level and time that you can devote to classes.
Before signing up for a course, you’ll want to check the credentials of the teacher or tutor.
“One big problem with language teaching is that many people think they can do it because they speak the language,” Poole says. “That’s a fallacy. Just because you speak the language doesn’t mean you can teach it.”
You could find out what type of training instructors have, such as whether they’ve completed linguistics studies and methodologies, Bayona says.
If the teacher is just called a native speaker, “I’d be cautious about what I’d get in return for my money,” Bayona says.