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Learning English independently looks easy from afar.
You might imagine yourself sitting in a cosy coffee shop, surrounded by cool jazz, learning phrasal verbs by heart, warm light streaming through the plant-framed window.
There are tonnes of reasons independent learning English is attractive: No commute! No organising lesson times! Materials are easily accessible online!
And think of the money you would save by not taking classes… it could buy you a lot of lattes.
What’s not to like?
Well, if you’ve ever learned something on your own, you’ll know there are several challenges: knowing what to study, finding time to study it, and then actually sitting down and learning.
In this article, I’ll talk about how you can realise that vision of effectively learning English on your own. I’ll cover what independent learning is, its advantages and disadvantages, and then I’ll outline some strategies for overcoming its challenges.
What is independent learning?
Independent learning is learning that is self-directed. That means you guide the learning process yourself.
Of course, anytime you learn something, some percentage of it is “independent”. Nobody can learn on your behalf.
But a teacher and a classroom provide a structure for you to learn. When you learn independently, you don’t have that structure: the curriculum, the materials, or anything else.
Independent learning means creating your learning path from scratch: deciding what you’ll learn, creating a learning system, choosing materials, and then actually finding the time to sit down and learn.
What independent learning isn’t
Independent learning doesn’t mean you learn completely by yourself. Indeed, communicating with others in English is often an essential part of a self-guided learning programme. You absolutely can (and should!) involve others in your independent learning activities.
Finding conversation partners, developing a peer group, and joining language communities can contribute to your enjoyment of the process and are strategies that I’ll recommend later on.
Independent learning also doesn’t mean just doing input activities like listening and reading. While these are essential language skills, there can be a lot more to a self-guided learning endeavour than just receiving language input.
You’ve got to produce it too: you’ve got to speak and write.
Advantages of independent learning
Why learn English independently in the first place?
Independent learning is fantastic because it’s so flexible: you can go at exactly the pace you want, study when you want, and use the materials you want.
When done properly it can be way more effective than learning in a classroom, all while being less rigid and more affordable. Learning on your own lets you:
- Use any materials you want. Don’t like learning from a textbook? Then don’t. Find your Audiobook boring? Change to a better one. Learning on your own means choosing materials that you like and that work for you.
- Learn any time you like. You can fit language learning to adapt to your schedule and into your routine. You can take it with you on the bus, in the kitchen, or even while you play video games.
- Choose your own speed. In English classes, sometimes the other students can hold back our learning. Other times, the teacher rushes through something we find difficult. Independent learners can choose the pace of their learning to be more effective.
- Focus on things that matter to you. Maybe you need to do really well on an English test so you can get into an English university… or maybe you just want to be able to communicate with your sister-in-law. Independent learners can let their needs guide their study.
- Pay less. Private lessons with a tutor or courses from an English school can be very expensive. English immersion programmes can be even more. Independent learners get to avoid these costs.
- Meta-cognitive effects. Metacognition is thinking about thinking. It turns out that the process of evaluating your own learning—considering questions like, “What do I need to know? How well do I already know it? How can I learn it?”—helps you learn better. Independent learners get more opportunities to practise metacognition than those in more structured learning environments.
Disadvantages of independent learning
As satisfying and effective as self-guided learning can be, it does come with some significant disadvantages.
- It can be lonely. Much of our learning done independently is done by ourselves. That’s the case even if you have a great community around you.
- Lack of accountability. It can be difficult to actually follow through with independent learning because there aren’t any consequences if you put it off. Holding ourselves accountable is a major challenge for independent language learners.
- Nobody to guide you. It’s easy to get a bit lost—especially at the beginning when there’s so much you don’t know. Deciding what to learn first and what to learn next can be difficult and may lead to less efficient studying.
- It’s difficult to know when you make a mistake. English teachers and tutors are able to notice our mistakes and immediately correct them. As a self-guided learner, you usually won’t get that immediate feedback.
- Hard to find someone to speak to. Finding an English conversation partner isn’t as hard as you might think… but it can still be a challenge.
Strategies for successful independent English learning
So how can you maximise the advantages and mitigate the disadvantages of learning English independently? Here are some strategies you can use.
Set your goals (and revise them as you go)
Goal setting is important for any kind of endeavour, but it’s especially important for learning on your own. There are two main reasons:
- It helps you make a plan. If you know where you want to end up, it’s easier to make a plan to get there. Being clear about your goals helps you decide what to study, when, and for how long.
- It’s motivating. Accomplishing your goals is satisfying and makes us feel good. Breaking big tasks into little pieces helps us see our progress and encourages us to keep going.
How can I set my own goals? Check out this article for a step-by-step process to effectively set language learning goals.
Make a plan (and choose appropriate materials)
Once you have your goals, make a learning plan. I like to think of this a bit like a road map: figuring out how to get to your goal from where you are.
A plan is important because it helps you decide where to spend your time. It also helps encourage you to actually do your English activities, even when you don’t feel like it.
In your plan you’ll want to include:
- A list of tools and activities. These are the things that you will use to learn English. It could include textbooks, websites, apps, dictionaries, English podcasts, and anything else you’ll use to learn. Make sure that you’re learning actively for at least some of your learning activities.
- A curriculum. This doesn’t have to be super complex, but give yourself a sense of what you’re going to learn and when. Maybe you’ll start with the first 500 most common English words and basic phrases. Then, when you’re more advanced, you’ll start to use podcasts and do shadowing exercises. Here’s an example curriculum I am using to learn Portuguese.
How do I make a plan? Check out this article for a complete guide to making your own independent learning English course. It’ll show you exactly how to make an English learning plan.
Measure your progress
One challenge for independent learners is being able to see how far they’ve come. And if you can’t see improvement, it’s hard to keep putting effort into your learning.
In a classroom, you might take a test to show your progress. Or, you might get feedback from your teacher.
But when you learn English on your own, it can be really difficult to see improvement. This is especially when you get to the intermediate level—it can sometimes feel like we’re stuck on the intermediate plateau forever.
The solution is to find other ways to measure your progress. Recording yourself speaking, taking online English tests, and doing self-assessments, are just a few of many ways you can measure your English development.
Seeing your progress will help you see the value of all the effort you’re putting in and stick with it.
If you’d like to learn more about this, I’d recommend checking out our guide on measuring your progress in English..
Be prepared to change often
Independent learners need to be ready to adapt.
You’ll find out as you go that some things don’t work well for you, and others do. Or, you’ll find that you can’t concentrate at night, so you need to start learning in the morning.
In the best-case scenario, you’ll improve your English so much that you need increasingly complex activities.
This is all normal. Give yourself some space to try things out, make mistakes, and re-visit your plan.
How do I know when to make a change? Make time to revisit your learning plan regularly. Think about what your progress has been like, and whether you think there’s room for improvement. Then adapt as you think necessary.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for independent learners is consistently actually sitting down and doing your learning activities.
It’s a little easier to do your homework when you know your teacher will ask for it. But it’s harder when you are your own teacher.
How can I keep myself accountable? Here are a few of my favourite tips for following through on the goals you set for yourself.
- Make an activity schedule for a week. I find that it’s easier for me to follow through on doing the activities that I want to when I plan just for just the next week. When I try to plan for a month, I often find that I don’t stick to it. But planning just for the week helps me follow through.
- Tell someone about your goals. When we are public about our plans, we’re more likely to follow through on them. Try to find someone who could be an accountability partner for you. Or, tell a group of people in your language community—perhaps like the Leonardo English community. We even got together recently to discuss this exact topic - strategies for independent English learners.
- Set aside time. I find it easier to study languages when I set aside time for studying. For example, I set aside time in the morning to listen to a news podcast. Having a specific time for podcasts helps me stay accountable to actually listen to it.
- Work with someone. Studying with others can help you get started. Once you’ve started, it’s usually not that hard to keep going. You can meet a friend in the library to study together, or even work together silently over Zoom. Some YouTubers even have live streams where they study… and you can study along with them.
- Use an app. I find some productivity apps, like Way of Life, Forest, and Cuckoo really helpful for both getting started and for focusing on my language learning.
Get feedback from others
What about your mistakes?
They’re hard to notice on your own.
Your best bet for speaking is to find a conversation partner. This could be a native-English speaker or even another English learner. Having someone listen to you can help you discover any errors you’re making.
What about writing?
There are communities for that, too. Lang-8 is one of them: the platform lets native speakers help correct the writing of language learners.
Avoid these 5 critical independent learning mistakes
Making mistakes in your language learning is usually a good thing: it’s how we learn!
But some mistakes can impede your learning. Here are five mistakes that independent learners make that can slow them down.
- Not having a plan. As an English teacher, this is the most common mistake I see students make. What happens when they don’t have a plan? They stop studying seriously after a week or two. If you’re serious about learning English, make a plan.
- Only doing passive learning activities. It’s certainly easy to watch a show on Netflix or stick a podcast on in the background while you’re doing something else. But that may not be the most effective way to learn. Instead, make those activities opportunities for active learning.
- Sticking with input activities. It’s also easy to stick with reading or listening activities—after all, they don’t require other people. But output is important too. Find speaking activities you can do by yourself, and incorporate some writing as well.
- Doing it all alone. The purpose of language is to communicate with others. So don’t cut them out of your learning process. Join a language community, forum, or even a meetup to get the most out of your independent English learning.
Final thoughts on Learning English independently
Learning by yourself can be one of the most effective and satisfying ways to learn English. And you can do it: you have everything you need.
But make sure you set yourself up for success.
Do that by setting goals for yourself, and then making a plan to achieve those goals. Measure your progress, and then use that to help you stay motivated—and revise your plan if needed.
Find ways to stay accountable to yourself, so you actually do sit down and work at your English. That may include learning with a friend or joining an English learning community.
Doing those things will help you realise all the promise that learning English on your own has to offer.