I think it should be obvious by reading this post, but just in case, a disclaimer: I’m not an English teacher.
I was taught English as a second language at school, for many years. Of course, I learned all the basic grammar. But due to the way I was taught, I ended up having serious problems to understand spoken English and, needless to say, to speak it. A few years ago, I started trying to improve my English by myself. Now I want to share some of the things I did —and still do today— to dramatically increase my level, hoping they’ll work for others.
Watch videos with English subtitles on a regular basis, never less than two or three hours a week (ideally more). Any kind of videos will work: movies, TV shows, documentaries, recorded talks… The more diverse, the better. Watching videos with subtitles might be a bit tough at first —especially with subtitles that are not in your mother tongue—, but don’t give up. After some time you’ll notice that you won’t need to read the subtitles all the time. It’s also a good idea to watch some videos without subtitles from time to time, to test your listening skills and push them further.
Read in English every day. You don’t need to read a lot, but you do need to get used to reading every day. Besides reading books, you can read stuff on the Internet, such as blogs, news or social network updates. You might find that easier, because books are long, and sometimes dense and complicated —this is often the case of novels and literary texts—, whereas Internet texts are generally shorter, lighter and more informal. Changing the language of your computer to English can help as well.
Listen to audio in English for half an hour a week at the very least. It can be a weekly podcast, or an audiobook, for example. One could argue that you already listen to audio if you watch videos, but it’s not the same thing: even if you do so without subtitles, images provide contextual information and all sort of clues that help you understand what’s happening. Understanding audio alone is usually more challenging. Exactly what you need to make progress.
Consume real content, made for and by native English speakers. This applies to the three points above. I’m not saying that you should avoid the so-called learning material altogether —you know, those dumbed-down novels made for English students and that sort of things—, but make sure that it isn’t the only content you consume. If you want to take your English to the next level, you need to read, watch and listen to the contents native speakers are exposed to.
Focus on the general meaning. This again applies to all of the above. Looking up every single word you don’t understand in the dictionary can sometimes be pretty bothering and eventually lead to frustration. That’s why I think it’s fine to let an unknown word pass you by from time to time. Many times, in fact, you’ll be able to guess what it means by context or repetition. Pay special attention when you see a word used a number of times in different situations: that’ll help you figure out its nuances and connotations.
Write something in English once or twice a week. Make sure to put quality —understood as minimizing mistakes and using new words and expressions whenever possible— over quantity. In other words, write carefully rather than a lot. A few lines are enough. It is key that you write your own thoughts, feelings, opinions and ideas, instead of descriptive texts. It’s not that the latter won’t help you, but you won’t learn as much. Try to think and write in English right from the start, as opposed to thinking in your mother tongue and then translating to English. The former won’t work: you’ll probably end up with a too literal translation. Social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook are great for this task, because they encourage you to write short texts regularly, but of course you can just use a good old notebook.
Speak out loud in English as much as you can. Language exchange over Skype is a pretty convenient option. You can also find out if there are language exchange meetings at bars and cafes in your city. If or when you can’t talk to someone, talk to yourself. It might sound a bit silly, but it’s a great exercise. Say what you’re thinking out loud or try to describe what you’re doing —e.g., the steps you follow when cooking, as if you were giving a recipe—.
Solve your own doubts. Not having a teacher to answer your questions doesn’t mean you’re doomed to failure. You can solve a lot of doubts by making smart use of Internet search engines, like Google: the number of results that a certain expression returns —don’t forget to put quotes around it— is a clue for whether it’s right or not. Search engines also suggest the correct spelling of a word if you misspelled it. More specific online language resources include dictionaries —both regular and specialized, like Urban Dictionary for slang and colloquial language—, forums like WordReference —particularly useful for idioms, sayings and set phrases, most of which you won’t find in a dictionary—, pronunciation guides like Forvo —that lets you hear the pronunciation of words, even in different accents— and translators —Google Translator is the best by far—. Although not essential, it’s nice to have a grammar reference book. For me, English Grammar in Use is a fantastic choice, because it’s very comprehensive, yet concise in its explanations. It covers all the basic grammar and includes exercises.
That’s it. Thanks for reading this far and my apologies if some of these things sounded obvious to you. I thought it was worth pointing them out anyway. I really hope that this has been of interest to you and that it’ll serve you in some way.
I’m no anime expert —in fact, I haven’t seen more than a few anime films in my life— but I’ve watched Byôsoku 5 senchimêtoru (5 Centimeters Per Second) this weekend and found it visually overwhelming.
Every shot is carefully crafted: colors, lights, framing, camera movement… The movie mimics real cameras behavior so there’s depth of field and even lens flares, and they’re wisely utilized to create beautiful images. There are tons of details everywhere. Everything is exquisitely arranged. It’s really surprising.
Of course I’m only talking about the images here; the narrative —a bit plain and oversweetened for me— would be a different discussion. But even if one don’t find the plot especially compelling, this film is still very worth watching. Sixty minutes of visual delightfulness are guaranteed.