There is a common myth about learning English: you have to be smart to become fluent.
I’m an English teacher and I hear this all the time from my clients. They say things like, “I’m not good at learning languages” or “I don’t have a natural talent for English.”
Let me say it clearly here: you don’t have to be smart to learn English.
Some people do find it easier than others to learn English. But that’s not because they are smarter.
Some people find it naturally easier to learn English because they were exposed to it earlier, or they had English-speaking family, or their English school teachers made it fun.
I wasn’t good at learning French until I had a Quebecoise roommate. I really improved my French living with her. What changed? I didn’t get smarter, I got more motivated. I wanted to talk to her so I tried harder!
You don’t need to be smart to learn English. Here’s what you need instead:
- To be focused
- The right attitude
- Activities that are interesting to you
The best thing about all of these? You can start developing every single one today.
To become fluent in English, you need to engage with native English users and authentic English texts. You need immersion.
Now, I don’t mean that you have to live in an English-speaking country or even travel to one. Going to another country is great if you can afford it and have time. But lots of us can’t just move to another country.
Don’t worry. There are lots of ways you can create an English immersion programme for yourself wherever you live. All you have to do is find activities that you can do where you actually engage with and consume authentic English content.
Immersion activities include:
- Reading English books, articles, or the news.
- Listening to podcasts like the Learning English for Curious Minds podcast
- Talk with a native English speaker
- Play video games in English
And many more. Check out this post for more English immersion activities.
Basically, to become fluent, you’re going to need to genuinely engage with English texts and native speakers. Immerse yourself in it.
Not only do you have to engage with native-speakers and English texts, but you also have to focus on them. Forget passive learning; the best way to become fluent in English is to use strategies for active learning.
Active learning means focusing on the activity and working with the information. Active learning strategies include:
- Making flashcards, use a vocabulary app, or make your own
- Listen to podcasts, read the transcripts, and define key vocabulary
- Write a summary of your favourite Netflix show
- Read a book and look up the words you don’t know.
Active learning is much more effective than passive learning. While some people may tell you that they became fluent in English simply by watching Friends or How I Met Your Mother, the reality is that this is very rare, and they were probably doing lots of other things in addition to this.
The majority of people who become fluent in English do it through hours and hours of concentrated practise. They use active learning strategies, they have goals, and they stick to them. You should too.
The Right Attitude
Your attitude will affect how you learn.
Research has found that English students that have a more friendly attitude towards language learning actually learn more. If you have a positive attitude towards learning English, you are more likely to become fluent.
This is what happened when I met my Quebecoise roommate. Rather than think of learning French as a chore that I had to do, it became something I wanted to do. My attitude towards French changed.
How do you develop a positive attitude towards learning English?
Make it fun. Choose language activities that you like and that you find interesting. If you love to play video games, order a video game in English and play it. If you love to cook, find recipes in English. If you are a curious person and love learning new things, listen to interesting podcasts in English.
By choosing activities that you like and that give you pleasure, you’ll develop a more positive attitude towards learning English. Avoid grammar exercises and textbooks and start learning English by choosing activities that you actually enjoy doing.
This is similar to having the right attitude, but not quite the same. Whether it’s being confident in your ability to speak, being confident to try to listen to a podcast or read a book that’s just out of your comfort zone, or just having the confidence that it’s okay to make mistakes are all essential to learning English.
We all suffer from a lack of confidence to some extent when speaking a foreign language. This is completely normal.
But the more confident we are, the more we will engage in actually communicating in the language we’re learning. The more confident that I am speaking Portuguese, and doing it even though I know I am making lots of mistakes, the better I will actually get at Portuguese.
The key thing to remember is that nobody cares if you make mistakes. What’s important is that you have to practice; the more you practice, the better you’ll get. If you can try to lose the sense of embarrassment or feelings of uncertainty, you’ll speak and engage more and progress a lot faster.
I see this all the time with my clients—those that have learned to accept that they’ll make mistakes, but have the confidence to know that it doesn’t matter almost always make better progress than those that are afraid of making mistakes.
It’s also a virtuous circle; if you develop the confidence to speak or listen without fear, then you’ll improve even faster.
Confidence isn’t black and white, and your confidence will increase as your language improves. So, the more you practice listening or speaking (both “live” or even recording yourself) the more confident you’ll get.
But even with your current level, you can improve your confidence simply by reminding yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes. No one thinks less of you. It’s part of the process.
Becoming fluent in English will take time. Probably thousands of hours if you really want to achieve fluency.
That may sound intimidating, but it’s actually very doable to put those hours in. The trick is to set aside some time every day for a few years.
How can you do that?
- Devote yourself. Be dedicated to your English learning. That means knowing why you are learning it and committing yourself to regular practice.
- Set aside time. Make your activities part of your schedule by building them into your week. Try planning them in your daily schedule. Actually set aside the time you need to practise.
- Create habits. It’s much easier to continue to do a task when it is part of your routine. You can include English in that routine very easily. Try reading the news in English before work, listening to a podcast and reading the transcript on your commute, and talking with a native speaker for a few hours on the weekends. Whatever activities you choose, building them into your routine will help you actually do them.
- Engage every day. Aim to do at least half-an-hour of English activities a day. Staying engaged every day will help you become fluent faster. At the same time, don’t take on too much—you don’t want to get burned out.
Doing these things will help you put in the time that you need to really get fluent in English. Remember that it’s not a race. You are not competing with anyone else. Just be consistent and don’t give up. If you keep focused, you’ll improve a little every week until, eventually, you’re fluent.
You don’t need to be smart to learn English. We all have the ability to learn a language—even babies. And babies, who are the best language learners, aren’t exactly what we would call “smart”. Intelligence isn’t nearly as important as other factors.
You can optimise your English learning by making sure that you make time to do English-immersion activities, do them with focus, and develop a positive attitude towards your learning. These things will take you much further towards fluency in English than being “smart” will.
And although the process of becoming fluent will take thousands of hours, if you’re consistent in your learning, you’ll be constantly improving. The more you learn, the more enjoyable you’ll find it, and the easier it will get. You’ll be able to learn through actually using English. It will feel less like “language learning” and more just like “life”.