Self-study: Developing habits to learn English on your own

Speaking a foreign language with fluency requires long hours of using the language. Notice that you only mastered your native language after years of childhood, when you listened to other people talking to you for endless hours. How many hours were they in total? Do you think you can learn English properly just by taking a few hours of English lessons a week?

Just by attending classes, doing homework and studying for exams you can gain much vocabulary and grammar, but not fluency and confidence. You need to speak and listen your target language for as long as you did with your native tongue, in order to reach the same level.

Is it realistic to think you can do it through hard study? No way! You would burn out, and it wouldn't make any sense at all. The only way to get through such long hours is not by studying but through entertainment and being social. What if you switched all the activities you do in your own language to English?

Certainly you can't make all your friends and family members speak English all of a sudden, but you can change the language of the books and blogs that you read, or the films and TV shows that you watch. A large share of our communication nowadays is not with other people but with media, and the internet makes it really easy to access a lot of content in English.

In the following sections we'll go through the main four language skills, and what habits you can take up to improve these skills with no studying but having fun. Don't be lazy and take up some of these habits!

Reading habits in English.

How often do you read blogs, novels, non-fiction books or tutorials? Can you start reading them in English?

Most of these resources are easy to find in English. By reading them, you'll learn a lot of vocabulary without looking up words in a dictionary, just out of the context. That's the natural way of learning a language. Complicated grammar structures you learnt at school but never mastered will be slowly memorised through repetition. It will also help you sharply improve your speaking and listening.

Texts in English

Blogs and magazines: Think of all the topics you like reading about, and search on Google the main English-written websites about them. Make all new updates come to you automatically through social media like Facebook or Twitter, or my favourite choice, RSS readers such as Feedly.

Books: Buy books in English on or You can save good money if you buy second-hand paperback copies. They will likely be cheaper than the same books in your own language at your local bookshop.

In case your level is too low, get Penguin or MacMillan books adapted to English learners, or borrow them in a local library. Tutorials and non-fiction books are usually easier than fiction, for its lack of slang and stylish writing.

Online tutorials: Learn to play music instruments, games or other hobbies online. There are endless resources up there!

What to do when you read

1. Don't look up every word you don't know in a dictionary, only the ones that repeat frequently or are relevant to the story. Most times you can simply go ahead without missing the point of the story, or just figuring out the meaning for its context.

2. Underline words and grammar structures you may already know but hardly ever use. Once you finish the book, go over it to review and practice them. Make up sentences of your own with this new vocabulary.

3. Use a piece of paper to take notes, such as best ideas or your own insights. It can also do as a book marker. It's good for your writing.

4. It's not all about comprehension, you also have to pronounce properly. Make sure that that voice in your brain sounds like that of an English speaker. Don't pause after every single word. Link words and create a natural rhythm instead. It'll be great for your speaking and listening.

Writing habits in English.

Do you ever write notes? In an agenda, shopping lists, future projects, personal diaries, and so on? You can start doing it all in English, no matter whether it is on paper or digital.

This way, you'll force yourself to learn words and expressions that are more relevant to you than those you find in regular books or English textbooks.

How to remind yourself to write in English

In the case of paper, I would recommend you to take all your notes in the same notebook or agenda. Write a small E, standing for English, on the corner of every paper. This will be your reminder, whenever you have you take down some note.  .

As to the digital world, you can get started by thinking of an image that reminds you of English and setting it as your desktop wallpaper. It can be a UK or US flag, a monument like the Big Ben or the Statue of Liberty.

Use online dictionaries such as Google Translate, WordReference or The Free Dictionary when you are not sure on how to write certain expressions. Like me, you may end up having a messy desktop is full of text files for personal projects and ideas that never gets cleaned up.

Remember: Learning a language takes many hours using it in a real context, so you'd better take up some of these habits!


Listening habits in English.

Do you like watching movies or TV shows?  For many learners, listening is the hardest skill to master. Spoken English usually has more colloquial words and phrasal verbs. Registers -academic, slang- and accents vary a lot, so don't give up if you don't understand the first videos or audios you try out. There must be some videos that suit your level, coming with subtitles in English to help you go through your first steps.

Subtitles in English

Forget about subtitles in your own language. Improvement is slow, because focus is on the text, not the voices. However, getting subtitles in English can help you prepare for the shift to not having subtitles, provided they stick to the actual dialogue. Unfortunately, there are not many videos with subtitles in English available. Here are a few of them: This site is full of short videos of speeches by prominent scientists, engineers, designers and educators from all over the world. Insightful and easy to understand due to its academical speech. You can switch on subtitles in many different languages, including English. Use search filters on the menu to find a topic you are interested in. Here are some of my favourites:
- Sir Ken Robinson, an English professor speaking about the flaws of the educational system.
- Hans Rossling, a Swedish statistician speaking about the benefits washing machines have brought about.
- Jamie Oliver, an English chef explaining how our eating habits are cutting down our life expectancy and what to do about it.

Original DVDs
: Many films on DVD include English subtitles. Many DVD rental stores have opened in the past years. You can also borrow films at your local library. In case they don't come with subtitles in English, you can try to find the English version on or

Youtube: There are plenty of videos on every topic. To get those with subtitles, just include "English subtitles" in your search. The most popular videos on sites like Youtube or Vimeo with subtitles.  It's an open project, so anyone can collaborate. Some examples:
- Kony 2012, a brilliant viral marketing campaign on Ugandan army leader Joseph Kony and what lay people in developed countries can do to stop violation of Human Rights.
- Neil Gaiman's speech at the University of Arts in Philadelphia in 2012. Regarded as one of the best speeches ever, full of insights for both artists and freelancers of any kind.


Speaking habits in English.

After much reading and listening to English, you'll often find yourself thinking in English.
On that stage, you'll be prepared for fluent conversations, but who with?

Online language exchanges: Also called language tandems. Once again, the solution is online. Many websites are bringing language learners together to practice with one another through applications such as Skype.

Face-to-face language exchanges: For those of you living in large cities, and University o tourist towns, it mustn't be difficult to find some local language exchange group. Check up for them on, or google "language exchange your-city" -or similar keywords- and you'll very likely find exchange groups and individual tandems.

Private lessons: A bit more expensive, but more effective than the previous choices. Whereas learners in language exchanges just talk and listen, good teachers will correct your grammar and pronunciation mistakes and explain you why you make them, as well as provide you with more natural expressions. If you are willing to study grammar and vocabulary on your own, you'll make the most of your time with your teacher just by speaking, listening, and being corrected.

In case you're considering to take online private lessons, feel free to check our fares and contact us.