Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

How to Solve Your Biggest Problem as an Adult English Learner

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Wed, Nov 07, 2012 @ 08:46 AM

Adult English Learners in Boston, biggest problemLearning a new language isn't easy but it's necessary. Here you are, in the United States, and you are expected to communicate in English with your boss, your colleagues, and your clients. The pressure is on!

So maybe you seek out an English tutor, sit down with him or her a few times per week, do your homework every night and you start to feel more and more confident. In fact, you feel like you could walk right into that business meeting and lead the meeting in English. You start to feel like your days of sitting in the corner during meetings, hoping no one will ask you to participate, are over.

Then you attend the meeting or an important networking event and what happens? You freeze and fear takes over! You forget many things that you worked on in class with your teacher. You can hardly understand what they are saying and you think that maybe they aren't even speaking English...are they speaking Russian? Swahili?

After months of one-on-one practice with your teacher, you start to lose hope and you start to think that there is something wrong with you. You think that you will never feel comfortable around the English language.

Does this sound like a problem that you have faced? If so, you are not alone! In this post, I will show you what is happening here and how to change your learning methods to get back on track so you will start facing that moment of fear less and less in your everyday life in the United States!


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Mistake #1: You don't have enough variety in your English learning methods


not enough variety in English learning methodsPrivate English lessons should only be one part of your English learning plan as an adult English learner. The benefit of private lessons is that your teacher can target the course plan and goals to the exact challenges that you are having (grammar, idioms, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.) and you have a chance to build your skills in a less chaotic environment.

However, private English lessons are not enough. You also need chaos!

You need to speak in large groups of people, on the street, in cafes, in restaurants, at your dance class. You need to use the language in context.

You should be in a less controlled, less predictable environment that mirrors the real world.

In the real world, people will not slow down their speech to be sure you understand and they won't even correct you if you make a grammar mistake.



Solution #1:

English learning strategy for adult English learnersFind a good balance of control and chaos when you decide where and how to improve your English.

Controlled learning situations are private English lessons in a quiet environment with constant error correction, targeted curriculum and support from a teacher who cares about your progress.

Chaotic learning environments are networking events, dinners out with native English speaking friends, parties, hobbies and activities.

A chaotic English learning environment is a place where no one will slow down for you...and sometimes that's exactly what you need!



Mistake #2: You aren't getting enough exposure to the language


not enough English listening practice, adult English learners workingIt's amazing that this could be a problem for adult English learners living in the U.S., but the fact is, if you live in a city that is as diverse as New York City or Boston, you need to make a conscious choice to be around English to immerse yourself in English.

If not, you could easily speak only your native language for years and years.

Perhaps you feel confident when it comes to controlled listening activities in class but when you get into that business meeting or into the shop where you need to understand the salesman, you freeze!

Why? Because you haven't created an environment where you hear English and interact with the language in your daily life, outside of class. You haven't gotten used to different accents, rhythms, and intonations.



Solution #2:

 headphones for English listening practiceRecently, I have been working with a student to overcome this problem.

We decided to implement a plan where she will listen to a conversation between two native speakers or a news clip at least four times per week and during our lessons, she will report back on what she heard and any new expressions that she learned.

Her listening skills are already very good, that is not the point. The goal is to get her used to being around the English language. She needs to get used to hearing it every day. The idea is to develop a certain level of comfort so she can use the advanced listening skills that she has already developed.  Another way to do this is to master English with immersion at home by living with native English speaking housemates if possible. You can also get more exposure to the language by tuning into conversations that are happening around you

Here are some listening sites that you might find helpful if you would you like to try this plan:


  • Ello: Visit this site and check out the archives on the left sidebar. You have hundreds of everyday conversations to choose from. You can also choose which accents you would like to hear and the conversation topic. 
  • 5 Minute English: This site has realistic conversations between native English speakers. Some of the situations involve shopping, searching for an apartment or talking about movies and hobbies.
  • 1 Language: This site is geared toward beginner-intermediate listening and also includes typical, everyday situations like choosing a pet and talking about music preferences.
  •  MSNBC: At least once per week, step out of your comfort zone and listen to some authentic news clips. Don't frustrated if you don't catch everything. The point is to tune your ear to the English and get used to hearing it.



What will happen if you don't make any changes?

 fear in adult English learners, BostonYou already know exactly what will happen because you have already experienced it! You will continue to feel FEAR AND ANXIETY in everyday English speaking situations.

The moment you get into an authentic situation where you need to listen and understand, you will freeze up, you will panic, you will step back and let someone else take over. It's ok. It's normal. But you shouldn't let it keep happening.

The truth is, if you implement solutions 1 and 2 (mentioned above), you will conquer your biggest problem as an adult English learner and you will be much more likely to be happy and successful in your new life in the United States.


So get started today! Take a look at your current English learning methods. How can you add more variety and more exposure to the language? Good luck and let us know how it works for you!



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Photo credits: foeock,   mac.rj,   Nathan Penlington

Topics: Advice for English Students, How to Learn English

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