How to learn English on your own: A general guide to the Inglesk method

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(Note: Any broken links will be fixed at a later date. Thanks for your patience.)

Ok... let's say the Men in Black break into my house, break open the door of my room and throw me to the floor to arrest me (I suspect maybe because I taught a bit of English to some aliens that seemed cute and harmless, but were actually intergalactic criminals... oops.) As punishment, agents K and J wash my brain so hard they make me forget everything I know in English, even how to say "Help, mommy!!!" and what that means.

If something like that ever were to happen (it's... a possibility, right?), then this method, in general, is what I would follow if I had to relearn English from scratch.

This method is based on the research, experiences and ideas from various language experts and probloggers whose work I've followed over the years. It's also based on my own experiences learning Japanese (no longer doing it) and learning new English words on my day to day life. You can follow and try out this method word by word if you want, or you can also add ideas / activities / materials / etc. from other learning methods you might want to try. And also remember that I explain in more detail each aspect of this method on the other articles of this website.

Ok, without further ado I present to you the Inglesk method to learn English reaaaaaaaaaally well...
  • In about a year and a half if you are disciplined and truly work the method each day.
  • In a self-directed way.
  • And whether you are living in a country where English is the native language or not.
Here we go:


0. Minimum requirements to be able to follow this method


You need to have access to a computer with Internet connection, and have enough knowledge about how to use your computer and how to browse the Internet.

You need to have access to a device that allows you to play audio and video files (your computer, or maybe also a tablet, smartphone, etc.), and you need to know how to use it. And most importantly, you need to have the will to learn new things, and to search for solutions by yourself when you don't know how to do something. If you don't have that kind of initiative, you are pretty much doomed.


1. The fundamental principle of language learning – The input hypothesis


If there is a fundamental principle, almost like an axiom, that all methods, courses, websites, books, software, etc. that exist about learning English (and other languages) that actually work share, it would be this:

We learn languages in one way, and only one way: When we understand messages. We call this comprehensible input.

Profesor Stephen Krashen, PhD

Input refers to any kind of content in your target language (English, in this case) that you can consume. Input is whatever you can see with your eyes and listen to with your ears, as long as that content is in English. Comprehensible input is when you somehow manage to understand part of all that content that you are consuming in English.

An example of this is the use of images, like when you see a photo of a ball with the word "ball" under it, or if you see the image of a gorilla with a tie and the word under it is "donkey" (... wait a minute...) One of the most common ways to transform raw input into comprehensible input is to search for words you don't understand in a dictionary. That way you can check the meaning of those words, as well as examples of how to use those words.

This is the fundamental principle of language learning: If somehow you make understandable, more or less, what you read and/or listen to in English, then you will gradually acquire the language. Whatever method you follow, whatever materials you use to learn, if you are receiving comprehensible input in English you will improve your understanding of written and spoken English. You can find evidence that supports the input hypothesis (which at this point should already be called the Theory of Input) on studies like these ones, conducted by doctor Krashen and others.


2. Mindset


Any project that you try to complete in life starts in your mind, and learning English is no exception. Once you know about comprehensible input, and before you start your marvelous choco-adventure in English-land with the mission to reach the top of mount mastery, what follows is to develop and keep a healthy and realistic learning mindset – a mindset that encourages you to learn more English and to enjoy the language as much as possible.

Your mindset towards learning English is conformed of several ideas and beliefs that you've developed over the years. Some of those beliefs could be useful, but others can be damaging. Each case is different. Right now I won't try to explain all possible beliefs (both positive and negative) that could affect your English learning. Instead, as of right now I will share with you 8 ideas that I think it's important to internalize if you want to develop a mindset that pushes you to progress in English instead of one that drags you backwards:
  • You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in your own capacity to do whatever is within your reach to learn English. Also, you have to never doubt that if you are obtaining comprehensible input one way or another, whatever learning method you are following, then in the near future you will be able to understand native content in English just like if it were in your native language. Never doubt it.
  • It's better if you have internal and personal reasons of why YOU want to learn English. First think about what YOU would like to do if you mastered English, and then think about what society requires of you. Exactly what kind of projects do you want to be able to complete in your life, where English would be a great help? What would you want to do with your English? If you have personal reasons to learn the language, the learning process will be more bearable.
  • Never feel intimidated by English. Learning the language from scratch (or from a low level) will be hard, and that's normal. But as long as you keep your learning rhythm, English will gradually become more and more natural to you.
  • Treat your English learning as your project, not your hobby. Treat learning English for what it is: Something important in your life in which you want to succeed, something you will not stop investing time into every day just because "life is tough". You need to treat English as something that you will NOT give up on.
  • Having a good mindset means absolutely nothing if you don't use it to keep yourself disciplined in your learning rhythm. Learning English will require a good chunk of time and effort each day for about year and a half if you want to reach a high level. Some sacrifices will be necessary, like eliminating entertainment activities in your native language in favor of activities that help you learn new things in English.
  • You have the right to use whatever contents you desire, about the genres you want, to learn English. If you like certain music genres, certain kinds of videos, movies, series, videogames, blogs, books, podcasts, whatever, about any topic, as long as they are in English and full of English words, then you can use them to learn English. Think about what kind of content you like to consume in your native language, and use that same kind of content in English to learn English.
  • Also, if you DON'T want to use some kind of content in English, don't use it then. There's a looooooooooot of content to choose from to replace any content you don't like. For instance, you don't need to use academic textbooks or workbooks to learn English if you don't want to, but you can use them if you actually like them. The only tool that I really think is indispensable for your English learning are good software dictionaries.
  • And something else: Do you actually see yourself using English every day of your life once you master it? If you think about it, and it turns out you don't really see yourself using English every day of your life, or you only want to "learn" because you are required to pass an exam or something... I suggest you invest your time and energy learning a different language, or working on a different project. You are NOT obliged to learn English. If you work under the limitations of now knowing English you can have a happy and productive life in your target language, and/or in any other language you decide to work on.


3. Reading – Learning to read in English


Well, the very first step to learn to read in English is learning the English alphabet. If you can read this article then you obviously master it already... but not necessarily your fellow natives who don't know English yet. Remember you can translate this portion of this article (or the whole thing!) in your native language and share it with people who may benefit from it :D

Anyways: If you know Spanish / French / Italian / German and other languages that implement the Latin alphabet, then you already know the English alphabet, as it would be a subset of the alphabet in your native language. But if your native language uses a totally different writing system, like Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, etc., then you need to learn the English alphabet.

Searching for a phrase like "learn English alphabet" (but translated in your native language) in Google should give you enough resources to help you learn the English alphabet. If you want, I suggest you use review software like Anki to help you review the symbols.

Now, it's very important to have in mind that written English is non-phonetic. This means that the way an English word is written doesn't tell you how to pronounce it. Thus, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was invented to help us write on paper how words are pronounced in several non-phonetic languages, including English. If you master the few symbols of the phonetic alphabet assigned to English you will have at your disposal a tool that will allow you to READ the correct pronunciations of words in English that you don't know, instead of depending only in audio files to check pronunciations.

Once you master the IPA you will be able to start doing the one activity through which you will train your reading skills in English... reading. Ok, not exactly – not reading as easily and effortlessly as in your native language. What you will have to do is a process I like to call "deciphering" (or you can just call it, "studying" or "learning English"). I call it "deciphering" because when you are trying to read any text in English for the first time, almost all that text is unknown to you – you don't understand most of it. That's why you have to sit down and decipher what those texts mean.

This is why you need to use a tool that helps you decipher the texts that you decide to read – something that helps you transform all that content in English into comprehensible input. The best tool (I know of) to do this are software dictionaries, which allow you to quickly find:
  • Translations in your native language for that word.
  • Their definitions in English.
  • Their pronunciations in IPA (knowing the correct pronunciation of a word is crucial!)
  • And examples of how to use that word.
You check these elements twice or three times, return to your text, and you keep deciphering it.

Doing this process of deciphering a lot of texts in English about things you like, a bare minimum of an hour a day, day after day, month after month... that's what will make you understand written English.

If you are learning English from scratch I recommend that you invest the first two months deciphering simple and easy texts in English like:
  • Parallel texts in English and your native language.
  • Comics and stories for kids (if you want).
  • Graded Readers books.
  • Lyrics of songs in English.
  • And Simple English Wikipedia
After getting used to the process of reading/deciphering simple texts in English, then you can "graduate" into reading/deciphering whatever written contents in English you want: Blogs, articles, news, stories, comics, technical books, whatever you wish.


4. Listening – Learning to understand spoken English


What you have to do to learn to understand spoken English is... listen to it. But again, this kind of listening will not be as easy is throwing yourself on the couch to watch (and thus, listen) to shows and movies in your native language. And it's also not as easy as half-hearing some music and podcasts in English while you do other things. And forget about scams like "Learn English while you sleep with your magical audio-CDs for only US$49.99 incredible offer limited time!!1"

Listening to stuff in English like that, passively, without paying attention to what you are listening will NOT help you in any way. In other words, English will not penetrate your brain via osmosis.

Listening to audio content and watching content with audio in English, and giving the content your full attention, is a better exercise... but doing this will only maintain what you've learned to understand in English. To actually improve your English understanding, and not just maintain it, you need to decipher what you listen to in the language.

The process of deciphering English audio is, basically, listening to some kind of content in English, like a song, a podcast, an episode of a TV series or a video – whatever has audio, and giving it your full attention. Now, whenever you listen to something and you are not sure about what it was, or what it means, you search in your dictionaries for those words you didn't get.

Deciphering audio in English would be very complicated if you don't have a transcript at hand of said material. Because of that, if you are going to decipher a song or a video or a movie or whatever, it's best (I would say necessary) if you can find the respective transcription for that content. Have it handy once you sit down to watch/listen to something in English.

For instance, if you are going to listen to some songs in English, get yourself the respective lyrics first. If you are going to watch an episode of The Simpsons in English, search for the transcript of the episode you will be watching. If you are going to listen to a podcast, visit the website of said podcast to see if they offer translations, etc. That way, when you listen and you encounter a word that it's not clear to you, you can pause, go to your transcription, find the word, and then search for the translation / definition, pronunciation and examples of said word in your dictionary. And then you keep consuming your content, and you repeat the process.

Passively listening to audio in English doesn't hurt, but in the long term it's practically useless. Listening actively and deciphering what you listen to, a bare minimum of an hour a day, day after day, month after month... THAT'S what will make you train your ability of understanding spoken English. Keep doing it, and in the near future your understanding will go sky-high.


4.5 Hey... what about grammar?


Now, maybe you are wondering: All right Santiago my dearest... what about grammar? How do I study grammar rules and all that grammar jazz?

I said it before, and I will keep saying it until the end of days: You don't need to know grammar rules to master the grammar of the English language. Or any language, for that matter.

You don't need to know what is a gerund or relative clauses or the past imperfect form of whatever. What develops your natural sense of grammar is comprehensible input – what you manage to understand by reading and listening to content in English, what you decipher. With time, with work, reading, listening and deciphering, your brain will gradually get and put in their place all those grammatical patterns that you find on everything you read and listen to.

Moreover, trying to consciously apply any grammar rules you learn (just like if you activated a grammar monitor in your head) will hinder your understanding and fluid expression in English. True ease of understanding and fluency in expression in languages is achieved through practice, which leads to a subconscious mastering of the grammatical patterns of the language in question (as it happens when learning how to dance, drive, touch-type, etc.). Said subconscious mastery DOESN'T happen as a result of conscious study and application of rules formulated on paper. If you personally like to learn about the grammar rules of the English language, then consume content about them... written in English.


5. Writing – Practicing your English writing


If input is the content you consume in English, output would be what you produce in English, whether written or spoken.

Before I share with you how to practice your writing I would like to share when I think you should start practicing it. When should you start writing in English? And when should you start practicing your speaking?

What I recommend you do, if your circumstances allow it, is that you DON'T worry about writing or speaking yet. Focus on practicing your writing and speaking in English once understanding written and speaking English is no longer a problem for you.

I understand that not everyone can have that "luxury", but ideally, I think it's better to focus on practicing your writing once understanding written English is piece of cake to you. After all, in order to write meters you need to read kilometers, and that's true both for your native language and a foreign language.

Whether you want to practice your writing soon or much later, the most effective way I know of to practice is to create writings and share them on a website like Lang-8.com. In particular, Lang-8 is a website where you can upload your writings in English, and natives will correct any mistake you've made and will give you suggestions on what you can improve... that, as long as YOU correct writings in your native language that other users submit to the site.

There are other ways to practice your writing, but it's highly unlikely that anybody will correct your mistakes in those ways (a "grammar nazi" might correct you, but will be as rude as possible when doing so). You could write a blog in English using Blogger or Tumblr, you could write on forums in English, you could exchange messages/emails with natives (or language exchange partners) that you've met on Facebook or some other site, and you could even play an MMO if that's your thing.


6. Speaking – Learning to speak in English


As I mentioned before, ideally, worry about talking once understanding spoken English is no longer an issue for you. Once you can watch a movie in English, or listen to a one-hour podcast, or watch a lot of TED Talks and YouTube videos, and you can understand the most of what you are listening to, THEN start working on your speaking. If not, focus on obtaining more comprehensible input first.

Look, to me it doesn't make sense trying to have a meaningful conversation in English with somebody else if you can't understand well what the other person is telling you. Moreover, the amount of things that you are able to express in English is proportional to the comprehensible input you've consumed up until that point. You just can't produce what you haven't internalized.

But again, I understand not everybody can wait to reach a high level of understanding before starting to speak. If you need to be able to speak English as fast as possible, even in a rudimentary way, Benny's work at Fluent in 3 Months is what you need. Benny's advice for practicing your speaking, whatever your level may be, is the best you can find on the web.

Ok, now, regarding how to practice your speaking: First, you have to know that the most important aspect of speaking English really well is your pronunciation. You could speak fluently, have impeccable grammar and a wide vocabulary, but if your pronunciation sounds like this, NOBODY will understand you.

That's why it would be a good idea to invest some of your time improving your spoken pronunciation. If you followed my previous suggestions, if you obtained lots of comprehensible input, if you reached a high level of understanding in English, and if you looked up the correct pronunciation of English words you didn't understand (I told you learning the IPA was important, dammit!), then practicing your pronunciation will be a lot easier, and any mistakes you make while practicing will be minimal. This is so because you will already be familiarized with how all those pronunciations should sound.

A very simple exercise you can do to practice your pronunciation in private is taking any text in English and read it out loud. Don't try to speak very fast, and vocalize each word individually. "Well. You. Only. Need. The. Light. When. It's. Burning. Low. Only. Miss. The. Sun. When. It. Starts. To. Snow." Try imitating as close as possible the correct pronunciation of each word. If you are not sure about how to pronounce a word correctly look it up in the dictionary. DO NOT try to guess how it's pronounced. Freaking look it up!

Another way to practice your pronunciation is to speak out loud your internal monologue... but in English. We all have an internal monologue – we speak with ourselves in our minds about our thoughts and things that have happened to us during the day. If you are in the privacy of your own home where you will not bother anyone by speaking alone, try saying out loud the things that you are thinking, but do it in English. Just like before, don't try speaking too fast, vocalize well each word, and try to imitate as well as you can the correct pronunciation of each word you say.

That's one thing. Now, besides doing exercises to improve your pronunciation, the next thing you have to do is train your conversational skills in English. In this case I have to ask you: With whom will you be speaking English most of the time? With coworkers and clients? With friends and family? Will you be singing, talking to a big audience, or speaking in front of a camera and microphone to make videos?

If your main goal is to speak with people in your work environment, then I suggest you pay a tutor (or a tutoring service) with whom you can practice situations and vocabulary that you would use with your clients and/or coworkers. A free solution would be to get a language exchange partner on the Internet, with whom you can practice your spoken English in exchange of helping the other person practice your native language with you. By the way, if that tutor or partner has experience in your work area, even better.

If what you want is to speak better with friends and family who speak English, then just practice with them. If you don't have friends who speak English and you would like to have some, then you will have to engage your social side and start meeting new people.

It's true that friendships is not something that can be forced, but you can increase the possibilities of meeting compatible people if you participate in communities about things you like (like Facebook pages, forums, groups on Meetup.com). If things work out you can practice with these new friends via Skype, or by meeting with them if they live near you. By the way, if it turns out that some of them want to practice your native language with you, excellent! That way you can help each other.

Now, if you need to practice for something more specialized, like singing or doing talks or making videos, I suggest you search for resources and tutorials that guide you about how to train those particular abilities... but I deduce that things like that involve a lot of rehearsal.

For instance, if you are going to sing, then you rehearse your singing, you evaluate it, and you try to correct any part where your voice broke or something like that happened. If you are going to give a talk to an audience, you repeat it and repeat it and repeat it 1000 times until you learn by memory all of the content that you are going to share. If you are going to do videos, then you try to record yourself doing whatever you are going to do, but you don't publish the result – you analyze it, you look into what you have to correct in your way of speaking, and you keep rehearsing until you feel ready to publish your video. Etc., etc. If you have how to pay for one, hiring a mentor expert on what you want to do to help you improve is worth it.


There it is. This is the general method I would follow to learn English from scratch. This is what I did on and off for years to (try to) learn Japanese. And I will probably start implementing this method to learn French soon given my current goals. But before we finish, I want to share with you some variations of this method that, if you want, you can try out to see if you like them:


Variations of the method and additional stuff


Something several authors like Tom from Antimoon.com and Khatz from AJATT.com recommend is that you use a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) to review characters and vocabulary in your target language. An SRS, like Anki and SuperMemo, is a software application where you can add pieces of information you want to remember, and the program assigns optimal review dates for each of those pieces of information, so that you don't review either too frequently or too infrequently.

I used the program Anki for many years. It helped me review Kanji using Heisig's method, review the Hiragana and Katakana, the IPA symbols for English, and even helped me review individual letters in English. But for several reasons (which I might explain in a future article), Anki didn't help me review vocabulary, so as of right now, I don't recommend you use an SRS program for that end. Instead, I recommend you focus your time and effort reading, listening and deciphering actively. For me, it's better to invest more time deciphering content than adding words in Anki.

That said, if you have the time (a lot of time), and the patience to input words with their translation / definition, pronunciation and examples into your program, and to review what you have to review every day, then take a look at my favorite SRS, Anki. Also check out this article at Antimoon about card formats you can use to review vocabulary. Anki has helped many people learn vocabulary, so who says it can't help you just like it helped them.

If you decide you want to use Anki to review vocabulary, and you are learning English from scratch, I suggest you get started using a frequency list with the first 1000 (or 2000, to be even more prepared) most commonly used words in English, and that you search for examples that use each one of these words. Add those words and examples in Anki using one of the formats shared in the article above, or use the format I recommend. After putting those 1000/2000 words in there, then proceed to use content in English you like to continue with your learning.

Something less time-consuming than Anki is using a system like LingQ.com (paid) or Learning with Texts (LWT) (free). In a system like this you import a text in English and you start deciphering it. When you find a word you don't know, the system will help you search for its meaning, pronunciation, etc., and will highlight that word in yellow. Then you continue reading/deciphering the text normally.

Then, in the future, if you upload a text that has that same word, you will see the word highlighted in yellow, which will make you remember that you've seen that word before. Besides that reading system, LingQ also contains a system with virtual flashcards that allow you to review methodically all the words you've highlighted in yellow.

Something else I would recommend, which is a nice extra skill to have, is knowing how to spell each letter in English. I, personally, still have trouble spelling the 'a', 'e' and 'i', because of their pronunciations in Spanish. Knowing how to spell each letter in English correctly could be useful to you if someone were to spell some weird name in English to you over the phone or in person, or if you need to spell someone for somebody else.

Finally, if you are super lazy you could not learn the IPA, and you could learn the correct pronunciation of each word by just listening to content, and listening to pronunciations using audio recordings in your favorite software dictionary. But still, I really encourage you to learn the IPA. The symbols you have to learn are very few, and reading the pronunciation of a word gives you much more security about how it should be pronounced, while an audio recording can be confusing sometimes.


Oki doki, now there it is: The Inglesk method to learn English in a self-directed way, effectively (as long as you are disciplined and train everyday, of course) and fast (compared to being stuck in an English classroom for 5 years without seeing results).

You can decide to follow all of my recommendations, or try out some of the extras I just shared with you, or just try some of the things I recommend and mix them with recommendations from other authors. As long as what you do follows the principle of comprehensible input, what's important is that you manage to build a method that better adapts to your language needs – a method that you like to follow, and that gives you very good results.

Lastly, I reiterate: You can find much more detailed information about all these aspects of learning English in the Table of Contents. I wish you great success in your idiomatic adventure, and I hope your efforts end up in you rocking and ruling in English!

Keep going forward, and keep your hopes up!


Summary


0. Requirements: Computer/device that plays audio and video. Internet connection.

1. Axiom: A language is acquired when you understand messages in the language (comprehensible input).

2. Mindset:
  • Believe in yourself Simon!.
  • Have personal reasons to learn English.
  • Don't feel intimidated by English.
  • Treat learning English as a project, NOT a hobby.
  • Mindset is nothing without investing time and efffort.
  • You have the right to use any kind of content you want to learn English, and to NOT use content you don't want to use (except dictionaries).
  • If you don't see yourself using English every day of your life once you master it, it might be better for you to learn another language, or focus your efforts in another project.
3. Read:
  • Learn the IPA for English.
  • Decipher: Read a text in English, look up in the dictionary each word you don't know. Look up the translation / definition, pronunciation and usage examples. Repeat. Deciphering for months will make you learn to read in English.
  • Beginner: Start deciphering simple texts in English.
  • Advanced: Decipher any written content in English you want.
4. Listen:
  • Listening English content passively doesn't hurt, but it's useless.
  • Listening English content actively, but without looking up what you don't know, maintains your understanding skills, but doesn't help you improve them.
  • Decipher: Listen/watch actively a piece of audio or audiovisual content, and use a trustworthy transcription and a dictionary to look up words you don't understand. Repeat. Deciphering for months will make you learn to understand spoken English.
* You DON'T need to learn grammar rules to master the grammar of the English language. Comprehensible input gives you your natural sense of grammar, not studying grammar rules directly.

5. Write: Use Lang-8 (or blogs, email, forums) to practice your writing.

6. Speak:
  • Practice pronunciation by reading out loud and imitating carefully the correct pronunciation of each word.
  • To speak in a work-environment: Practice with a tutor or language exchange partner (ideally, someone who knows about your word area).
  • To speak in a social-environment: Practice with friends who know English, or make new friends to practice with.
  • Others: Rehearse. If you can, hire a mentor.
Variations:
  • Use an SRS like Anki to review vocabulary.
  • Or use LingQ or LWT to decipher texts and review vocabulary.
  • Learn to spell in English.
  • You could not learn the IPA, but it's better if you DO learn it.
* As long as whatever you are doing gives you comprehensible input in English, you can build your learning method however you want.

▶ TL;DR-ception, just in case this TL;DR was too long for you :/


Last updated: July 8 of 2015

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