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Habit formation: 5-minute tips for improving your English
By Sandy Millin
In the process I've tried all kinds of different techniques, some of which have worked better than others. As a teacher, I share these with my students, and encourage them to experiment to find what works best for them. This helps them to become more autonomous, as they take control of their language learning by doing what interests them. Regardless of which specific strategies or techniques my students choose to use, the one thing I emphasise is the importance of habit formation. Here's what I tell my students...
Making language learning a part of my daily routine marked the biggest change in the amount of progress I was able to make, and if you do a little maths, you can see why:
5 minutes a day
= 35 minutes a week
= 150-165 minutes a month
Students at our school pay for two 90-minute lessons a week, so by adding 5 minutes of English a day to their lives, you effectively add nearly two free lessons a month to your learning. If you can manage 10 minutes a day, that makes nearly four free lessons. 20 minutes, and you've nearly doubled the amount of time you spend on English in a month. When it's broken down like that, it seems achievable: we can all find 5 or 10 minutes a day to do a bit of language learning, right?
So what can you do in such a short amount of time and actually make progress? The short answer is: whatever you want! Anything is better than nothing, and every bit of extra exposure or practice helps our brains to process the language better. Having said that, there are some strategies and activities you could use to get more out of this time, depending on what you want to practise.
Extensive reading (reading as much as you can) has been shown to be one of the most effective things you can do to learn a language. I read Harry Potter in Polish for 10 minutes every night, and over the past three years I have noticed a massive improvement in my reading fluency, and I have picked up a lot of new vocabulary and internalised a lot of grammar patterns (without ever studying grammar!) I started when my level was high A1, and because I knew the story I was able to keep up, despite only understanding about 10% of the Polish on a page!
- Choose a story you're already familiar with, especially at lower levels. You'll understand more of it. If you have the book in both languages, yours (L1) and the one you're learning (L2), try reading a page in L2 without looking at L1, then the same page in L1, then again in L2 without looking, You should find you understand a lot more the second time.
- Read to read, not to learn vocabulary. Don't worry too much about the words you don't understand, just keep reading. When you've finished reading for the day, perhaps choose one or two words you want to look up, but don't go overboard. You're much more likely to remember them if you do this.
- Read things you enjoy, not things you think you 'should' read. It's hard enough reading in a foreign language without making it unnecessarily boring! Having said that, the higher your level, the more of a variety of genres and topics you should push yourself to read. This exposes you to a wider range of grammar, vocabulary and text structures.
Think about how children learn their first language: they are surrounded by the spoken word. Obviously, it's hard to recreate that environment as a learner, but as with reading, the more listening you can do, the better.
- It doesn't matter what you listen to: films, TV series, YouTube videos, podcasts, video games, TED talks...aim for variety and enjoyment, without worrying about how much you can't understand. Instead, notice how much you CAN understand, and feel good about that. Over time, this should increase, but be patient. It might take a few months before you start to notice a difference. Don't put too much pressure on yourself.
- Choose one person or accent you would like to understand better. Choose a 10-15 second recorded clip and write down what you think they said. If you don't know the exact words perfectly, just write sounds or nonsense words. Listen a few times - can you understand more? If there are subtitles or a transcript (like a TED talk) compare what you heard to the text. If there is no text, ask another L2 speaker you know to check if they think your version is correct. Then listen again - can you hear it better now? Repeat this with other clips of the same person or another person with the same accent.
- Before your listen, write down a few words or phrases you think you're going to hear, or general topics that might be mentioned. As you listen, tick each one. Add 2-3 others.
A lot of us are worried about writing in a foreign language, mostly because it's something we've never really done. My Polish is probably B1 now, but I've only ever written three or four emails in Polish and nothing much else, so I should probably take my own advice and do the things below!
- Write your social media status in L2. This is a good way to find other people learning the same language, and you might also get feedback from people correcting your grammar or offering other words or phrases you could use.
- Keep a journal where you use your 5-10 minutes to write whatever you can, maybe about what you've done that day, a film you've seen, a friend you've met...it can be as simple or as complicated as you like. If you can find somebody to read it and write back to you, even better!
- Choose a kind of text you want to be able to write, for example a travel blog post. Find an example of this text type and look at the language the writer used, the way they structured the text, and any interesting features, like subheadings or picture captions. What can you 'steal' from them?
This can feel like the hardest skill to practise by yourself if you don't know other people learning the language and you don't live somewhere where you need to use it. It's not impossible though!
- Choose a topic. Record yourself speaking for 1 minute/as long as you can about this topic. then listen back and think about what was easy or difficult for you when speaking about that topic. Are there words you need to look up? A grammar structure you're not sure about? On another day, talk about the same topic and compare the two recordings. Was it easier? Why?
- When you're listening to a conversation, for example in a film or podcast, pause after each person speaks and give your own reply, then compare it to the one on the recording. It doesn't matter if they're different. This can be a good way to notice patterns in conversations.
- Post a short recording of yourself talking about something you like or are passionate about on social media.
In the age of smartphones, vocabulary is probably the easiest thing to practise for a few minutes every day. I use the Memrise and Quizlet apps while I eat my breakfast each day, and over the last 8 years or so they've helped me to learn about 9000 words in various different languages according to their statistics! But there are other things you can do too.
- Choose a topic. Brainstorm as many words or phrases as you can in three minutes. If you don't know the word in L2, write it in your language. Then check any words or phrases you weren't sure of in the dictionary and add them to your diagram.
- Take a vocabulary page you have studied before, for example from a coursebook or your notebook. Look at it for one minute, then close it and write down as much as you can remember. Compare your list to the original. Check spellings, prepositions etc, and circle anything you had a problem with. Try again a few days later. You should notice there are fewer circles.
- Spend your five minutes looking through a range of vocabulary you have studied before, preferably with definitions, pictures or sentences you wrote, not only translations. Just doing this a few times will help more things stick in your brain, even if you don't have time to do anything more active with the language.
I left this until last, because very often when we think about studying a language, we get the idea that it means completing grammar exercises, and I want to show you that there are lots of other quick things you can do to practise. That doesn't mean we should neglect grammar though.
- When reading or listening, make a note of 2-3 sentences you really like, and notice the grammar structures used in them.
- Choose a text and underline all of the verbs. Then highlight each tense in a different colour. What tenses are used? Why? How do they work together to make the text more interesting?
- Think of an area of grammar you find difficult, for example conditionals. Spend five minutes collecting as many examples of them as possible from different texts in a specific genre, for example articles on the BBC.
Whatever you choose to do, aim for variety. Five minutes a day can help you make real progress, especially if you mix up how you practise. Good luck!