“Why isn’t my English getting better?”
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
In my job as the Director of Studies at Milestones, I meet a lot of students who come to me for advice about learning English. A typical question I here is “Why isn’t my English getting better?”.
I understand that learning a second language can be a frustrating experience for some people. Below are some of the most common reasons students feel that they aren’t making progress.
1. They have unrealistic expectations.
Recently a student came to me to say that she had been in the school for 24 weeks and was only at Intermediate level. She was frustrated and panicking because she needs 6.0 at IELTS to get into university and felt that the remaining nine months of her course wasn’t long enough to achieve this.
I reminded her that over the 24 weeks, she had completed three levels – Elementary, Pre-Intermediate and was about to graduate from Intermediate. With the help of IELTS coaching in Melbourne, she had actually progressed more quickly than most students and also had plenty of time to get her desired IELTS score.
Remember not to place too much pressure on yourself to go from a beginner to a native speaker in five minutes. Learning a language is not the same as learning facts. You are building new connections in your brain and this process can take years.
2. You don’t spend enough time on it.
When students ask me why they aren’t making progress, I always ask them the same questions:
Do you spend at least an hour every day practising your English out of school?
Do you come to class every day and attend the full four hours?
Do you always do the homework – including the written task each weekend?
Do you focus on the lessons or do you focus on your mobile phone in class time?
Students who feel they aren’t progressing almost always say “No” to at least one of these questions. Remember that learning a language is a full-time commitment. You have to take what you learn in the classroom and apply it your real life. An expression we often use in English is “Use it or lose it”.
3. You don’t really need English for any real, solid purpose.
When I interview students on their first day at the school, I always ask “Why do you want to Study English?”.
If a student answers –
“Because I work for a trading company and I need to telephone international clients and send e-mails to them”
“Because I want to do a course in nursing and need to read research that is written in English”
I know these students will do well because they have specific, measurable goals.
However, some students answer –
“Because English is a useful international language”
“Because I might need it for a future job”
I know that these students will find progress more challenging because they don’t have an immediate practical reason for learning English.
4. You don’t revise.
This is very important because many students don’t look back on previous lessons. Good students constantly review grammar and vocabulary from previous classes.
5. You don’t keep good notes.
Many students don’t organise their notes from class (worse still, some students don’t take notes at all). Many students write in their notebooks in chronological order – this means they organise their notes according to days of the week Monday to Friday. However, this isn’t the way the brain arranges information.
It’s much better to arrange your notes according to topic. You can do this if you write your notes on A4 paper that you can then put in a file. Use coloured dividers to organise your notes and hand-outs. Good organisation is the key to easy review and steady progress.
6. You rely too much on your native language.
Bi-lingual dictionaries are a great way to check the meaning of a word quickly but they don’t make your brain work to understand the word. This means that you are being passive rather than active so you won’t actually learn words that way.
Also, checking words on your mobile phone or electronic dictionary is also a passive technique. Good language students use mono-lingual dictionaries because they make your brain work to understand the meaning.
Another good technique with paper dictionaries is that you can colour each word you look up. That way if you look up the word again, you will see that you’ve already met this word before. By the end of your English course, you will have a dictionary full of coloured words and you will see how many English words you know.
So here a just a few reasons why your progress might be slowing down. Remember that you can’t learn a language over-night. Also, be aware that you aren’t the only student that feels like this. As you progress through the English levels, language becomes more complicated and the rate that you learn slows down – this is completely natural. Stick with it, don’t place unrealistic expectations on yourself and you will achieve your goal.