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Ask HN: How did you become fluent in English?
171 points by dustinty on Apr 8, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 178 comments
I am learning English. My communication skills are not good. How can I improve and become fluent in English?

First of all read a lot. Read local communities like Reddit, HN (here), slashdot, etc. This will make you familiar with the daily language.

Second, listen a lot. Watch movies with original sound and English subtitles. Try to understand, try to make sense of it. If you listen English songs, try to listen a little more attentive.

Then write a lot. Try to take your notes in English. Comment your code in English. Try to comment more into stories or forums around the world.

These three will sharpen you in daily English. You'll become more familiar. Becoming fluent becomes after becoming familiar. As everyone said, also read books, novels in English and take notes, however some books' vocabulary may be drastically different from others (e.g., Both Hyperion Cantos and Ready Player One are SciFi novels, but latter one has a much more accessible English than the former).

Last but not the least, don't focus on your progress. You'll advance inevitably. Just continue doing so, and you'll find yourself much more improved after some time. Fluency is best when it comes with time, and when it's built step by step, it becomes permanent.

Mimicking is the critical skill for spoken English.

I bet you have ugly flaws in your spoken English, although I also bet that your written English is better than many brought up speaking English.

I often deal with tourists, and I detect serious flaws in their speaking as a result of their learning to read and write first (transliteration is a problem too). Common ways of teaching English in schools are deeply flawed IMHO.

Babies and children learn by listening, talking, mimicking, and some correction.

The best late learners of speaking English that I have met, have been those that interact by talking and mimicking, with very little (if any) reading/writing. My favourite was a young Japanese guy that had worked in East London and Australia, and his accent would switch between perfect Cockney and perfect Ocker depending upon where he had learnt a phrase!

Personally, my Spanish only really improved when I had a Spanish speaking girlfriend that didn't want to speak English with me.

Obviously if you mostly interact in English by writing, it doesn't matter.

But if you want to work in a country, you will usually be judged quite negatively if you have a strong accent.

Also clearly not everyone can find a way to talk with native speakers.

Learning by listening to movies and mimicking songs including accent of the singer helps a lot and is fun. (e.g. in my experience Spaniards typically have horrific English due to dubbing films into Spanish, while Portuguese often are way better at English).

Ideally limit reading and limit learning grammar/spelling until after you have a good grasp of the language. That's how all native speakers have done it.

Actually, you're assuming that I'm doing all these to mimic other English speakers, and you're wrong.

I'm not a late learner. I'm exposed to English when I'm ~4 yo, and started to learn it at 7. Also, I cannot learn by mimicking. I listen and read to learn, to understand how the culture is choosing words, how it works in real world. It's a kind of practice.

Because of my Job, I'm talking with Europeans a lot, and I'm considered a very clearly speaking guy. I've some accent which is carried from my mother tongue, but not from mimicking English dialects.

My English education wasn't purely language education. Whole curriculum was in English, so there was no place for mimicking. We were forced to think in English. The language is integrated into our lives for 6+ years. As a result, I can write at the speed of speech. Also while initial spellings are given as complete words, pronunciation is taught to us. So I can reasonably read or speak a work I've never seen.

When I go abroad to attend some meetings, I cannot completely switch to my mother tongue (both in spoken voice and inner voice) when I land for 30 minutes or so.

Sorry to say it, but your written English reads very stilted to me, a native (British) English speaker. Assuming your spoken English is a similar level, your European colleagues are right - it is clear in the sense that it is easy to understand what you are trying to say. But your word choice and grammar are a very long way away from a native speaker. If you do have a desire to sound more natural in the way you use English, I would suggest you actually take the advice to listen to the way native speakers use the language and try to copy what they do. At the moment you sound much more like a tourist than you think you do.

> a very long way from a native speaker

uh....this guy's English is really excellent. it may be distinguishable from a native speaker by occasional poor phrasing or misuse of words, but it's really, really good. i think your criticism is overblown.

The guy's English _is_ excellent (100% intelligible and reads fine), but there can still be a long way between excellent/"functional fluency" and a native speaker. A native speaker wouldn't say "I'm exposed to English when I'm ~4 yo" (they would say "I _was_ exposed..." or "I've been exposed... since...") or capitalise "Job". Small things in the grand scheme of things, but they make it fairly obvious it's a non-native speaker.

Thanks for your comments. I generally write at the speed of thought, and don't read my comments for a second time to correct my errors.

These tense changes happen when I change the structure of the comment in my head in the real time, and don't revisit the beginning of the sentence to align things back.

When I read them for the second time after I send, I spot the errors, but don't always correct them since they are online and intended people possibly read the comment already.

Maybe I should write a little slower while commenting, and read again before sending.

No it isn't, and you are not doing him any favors by saying otherwise. His usage is at a level I would consider intermediate at best. FearNotDaniel's assessment is accurate.

There is no shame in not being 100% fluent. I'm multi-semi-lingual, in that I can read a newspaper, shop at a store, etc. in several languages. But I am only fluent in English. When I speak something else, my friends will frequently correct me. I appreciate it, because that is the only way to improve.

> His usage is at a level I would consider intermediate at best. ... There is no shame in not being 100% fluent.

Your notions about language proficiency are wildly out of whack. The speaker you're talking about is clearly articulating their ideas, coherently and without (one presumes) halting or grasping. That's fluency.

You don't have to agree with me, and that is OK. But my opinion is based off of experience.

You might be interested in http://www.govtilr.org/Skills/ILRscale5.htm as an example of the scales used when defining levels of competency.

I'm sure you meant this reply to be constructive, but without describing the experience in question or saying which category from your link you think applies here, it doesn't convey anything.

For me, my experience is two years as an English teacher and my opinion based on that experience is that someone who can convey complex ideas clearly and without effort is fluent. If you define that to be intermediate, what's left for "fluent" to mean?

Thank you for the friendly reply. Here is the ILR page regarding spoken language, which may be more what you had in mind:


Based on the criteria given, I would estimate that his English writing ability is ~2+. Without hearing him speak, I can't properly assess. Perhaps a 3.

None of this is a criticism or a put down. Achieving this degree of competency in a second or third language takes a great deal of work over a long time, and is something to be proud of. But true fluency happens at level 4 and above.

(My father was a professional linguist and diplomat, and I spent much of my pre-adult life living in different non-English-speaking countries. I say this just so you know where I am coming from. I also want to spread awareness of what the various professional standards of fluency are.)

Thank you in kind, and I understand where you're coming from, but I still think the standard you're applying is pretty far removed from normal. Separate from any subjective rankings, the person describes having been educated solely in English for 6+ years, and from context appears to have been actively speaking it for at least 15-20 years overall. If one ranks that as intermediate, one winds up calling someone with 10 years experience a beginner, and such absurdities.

As for subjective rankings, I'm more familiar with CEFR, under which I see no obvious reason not to rank this person C1 or C2, which is what one would expect for someone with more than 800-1000 hours of study.

CEFR: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_R...

> If one ranks that as intermediate, one winds up calling someone with 10 years experience a beginner, and such absurdities.

I'm sure you are aware of people that have spent decades+ in an English-speaking environment, yet still speak in a stilted manner. Time alone isn't enough- you need active correction. A few folks are able to self-correct via listening, but almost everyone does best with regular instruction by qualified teachers.

Thank you for the CEFR link.

Part of the problem with English in particular (I am sure you are aware of this, I am just stating it for other readers) is that the number of ESL speakers exceeds the native population. This rather unusual case means that many learners are receiving instruction from English speakers who themselves are not fluent, compounding the error. From a strictly academic standpoint, it is fascinating tracing the growth of all the different flavors of English (some mutually unintelligible) but it does present certain practical difficulties in communication!

> people that have spent decades+ in an English-speaking environment, yet still speak in a stilted manner

Again, the standard you're applying is unreasonable. English doesn't have any One True dialect - it's spoken natively in various ways, some of which sound stilted to you. I went to college with a guy from Malaysia whose speech you'd likely find highly stilted (or I did, anyway), yet English was his first language - the only language he used with his parents, the only language he ever used in school, etc. That is what it is - a person can be fluent or native and still sound stilted to you. You may well sound stilted to them!

This is why the rankings you linked don't use such language - they talk about whether someone can use complex grammatical structures clearly and without effort, and so forth, and when judging someone's fluency that's the sort of standard to apply. Saying they sound stilted just says that their English doesn't sound the way you expect correct English to sound, which is neither here nor there.

What a ridiculous comment. Intermediate? I just don't even know what to say.

> uh....this guy's English is really excellent.

It has very good vocabulary, but a whole lot of verb tense and subject-verb disagreement errors, and use of the wrong parts of speech in ways which are (especially combined with the excellent vocabulary) very emblematic of a non-native English speaker who either learned late or learned early but had much of their use of English with other non-native speakers.

Now, it's very good for someone with either of those backgrounds (and much better than my command of any language that isn't English), but the upthread comment that it is very far from that of a native speaker is spot on.

> I'm exposed to English when I'm ~4 yo, and started to learn it at 7.

It's not. He didn't even use the right tense in the first clause. It should be: I've been exposed to English since I was 4 years old, and started to learn it at 7.

His English is certainly perfectly understandable, but also 'a very long way from a native speaker'.

Let me see, if nine out of 10 people asses this poster as having non-fluent english and 1/10 seem to think he is fluent, the most resonable explanation is that there are now 2 people who are not fluent in english. Stop trying to grasp at straws, it quite clear the poster is not a native english speaker nor does he fool fluent speakers.

I never said he was a native speaker, did I?

Actually my language skills, regardless of language, varies according to my mood and energy, and it's late here.

However, this is not to dismiss your comment as moot or anything, I'll keep this in mind. Thanks for the heads up.

I am a non-native speaker so I tried combing through a few of your comments to see how a native speaker might be able to pick you out as a non-native.

> listen a little more attentive


> will sharpen you in daily English

"sharpen" should be applied to the skill, not the person? ("sharpen your daily English")

> Becoming fluent becomes after becoming familiar.

"becomes after" sounds weird. Maybe "follows" or "comes".

> very clearly speaking guy

clear speaking

But I think the most glaring issue is the way you use commas (lots of unnecessary commas, comma splices, and parallel structure violations).

All of this is beyond grammar nazi-ing since some of these are just word choices that I would've made differently rather than grammatical errors. Again, I am also non-native.

> "sharpen" should be applied to the skill, not the person? ("sharpen your daily English")

Possibly depends on the dialect. "Sharpen your skills" is probably more common, but applying it to the person (e.g. "This will sharpen you up") sounds fine to me as a British English speaker (though if specifying a specific skill in the same sentence you probably wouldn't use that form).

> But I think the most glaring issue is the way you use commas (lots of unnecessary commas, comma splices, and parallel structure violations).

Definitely true, but that can also be a trait of some native speakers, FWIW. Some of my sentences have a ton of unneeded commas and "loose" clauses when I first write them, until I refactor them to make them more correct. It's certainly not exclusive to non-native speakers.

Yeah well, there's a lot to nitpick here... "language skills [...] varies" - a skill varies, but skills vary. Obviously I'm making tons of mistakes too, especially in a conversation (when there's no time to think and you can't go back to correct a phrase). Besides, being technically correct - in terms of grammar, vocabulary and so on - doesn't mean it sounds natural yet.

Thanks for your comments. I'll take note of these, and will revisit from time to time.

Most of the commas I use (before the "and" & "or"s) are Oxford Commas which dictates to use a comma before the conjunction if the sentences are separable. If the sentences are separable you don't use the comma. A more general rule is explained in [0].

My juries of my Master's and Ph.D. were very strict in this manner so I learned it the hard way. Now it's hardwired in my brain. Honestly I may be over using them, and will write more carefully.

[0] https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/30516/should-i-u...

> Most of the commas I use (before the "and" & "or"s) are Oxford Commas which dictates to use a comma before the conjunction if the sentences are separable

You seem to be confusing the Oxford (or serial) comma [0] used after the penultimate item of a list with the rule on comma + conjunction (or semicolon with no conjunction) separating independent clauses as opposed to a bare conjunction separating dependent clauses.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma

Generally the corrections were between independent clauses, and I made some research on the matter at that time. It's possible that I just mix the name of the rules since I got them from the back of my memory.

Thanks for clarifying these up. Will keep these in mind too.

Your English is fine and way better than my 2nd language skills. Unless you are going to become a con man or a spy, I wouldn't give it another thought.

Sorry but I disagree. Limit reading and limit learning grammar/spelling?

This is absolutely right. One of the biggest drawbacks of reading to learn a language is that it increases your accent simply because you will start to pronounce the words the way you learned to read in your native language.

Also, it's harder to memorize information when you read it. Mimicking and speaking is the fastest way to fluency. It turns out that embarrassment or the feeling that you need to improve will help you learn.

That might be more apropos for learning Chinese (where premature focus on reading/writing can distract from actually learning the (spoken) language). I think in learning English, reading will help, because the sound/spelling correspondence is sufficient (even though English arguably has the worst orthography after the logographic ones).

> because the sound/spelling correspondence is sufficient

I strongly disagree.

Firstly on listening to tourists, some of the worst pronunciation mistakes I hear are because they have learnt the spelling: you can hear mistakes that can only occur if you know the spelling (or are due to use a "general" voicing rule).

This shows up clearly when you are in another country and you tell someone a word for something and they repeat it back to you perfectly. However they often then ask for the spelling, and after you tell them the spelling, their pronunciation changes to something incorrect. Ouch.

Speakers with English as a mother tongue on seeing an unfamiliar word will ask how to pronounce it rather than making educated guesses at how to say it because any rule is often broken, and we learn not to trust our guesses. In fact someone who is well read but mispronounces words (intuited from spelling) is often laughed at.

One further problem that well spoken English is a sign of a good education, and it is often used to judge social status. In a professional job, correct speech helps one a lot. On the flip side you hear tradesman avoid using "correct" speech because they don't want to associate themselves with "suits" (or it is a group identity thing: I am not a ethanographer!).

The result of the above is that most people find it rude to have their speech or spelling corrected because of the implicit "I am better than you". Which means it is difficult to find anyone that will correct your mistakes because most people are polite. The exception is children: they love to correct adults and they often don't mind repeatably correcting pronunciation errors.

Note I think that a child that speaks English learns "rules" for sounding words primely to help identify the spelling of words they already know how to say. A learner may guess at a spelling, but the spelling is then corrected by the teacher.

You are really overgeneralizing your personal experience. I’m a native English speaker too, and I guess pronunciations all the time. I’d argue that it’s part of the skill of English fluency.

Stop discouraging people by telling them that your way is the only way.

Granted, it's easy to mispronounce an English word from the spelling alone (try to read aloud the poem "The Chaos" [links below], infamous among advanced English learners).

However, the sound/spelling correspondence is good enough, as I said, and certainly better than in Chinese. Thus, I stand by my position that premature concentration on reading/writing is a bigger problem for Chinese learner than for English learners.




> Speakers with English as a mother tongue on seeing an unfamiliar word will ask how to pronounce it rather than making educated guesses at how to say it because any rule is often broken, and we learn not to trust our guesses. In fact someone who is well read but mispronounces words (intuited from spelling) is often laughed at.

I disagree - I guess at pronunciations frequently (as a native speaker), and it is a useful skill to be able to do so. For a learner, it may be _helpful_ to ask how to pronounce (especially to avoid reinforcing misconceptions), but I don't think it's a universal rule of English that people ask how to pronounce words. I also find that many of the mispronunciations are regional variations or misconceptions (e.g. hearing Worchester as "War-chester" instead of "Wus-ter", or Yorkshire as "York-shy-er" instead of "York-sha"), so even if you ask, you might not learn the "true"/regionally appropriate pronunciation.

I've also never come across the later -- I know plenty of well-read people (native and non-native) who have made mistakes in pronunciation (such as a friend who read "parser" as "pa-ray-ser"; native speaker) and they are simply corrected, not laughed at.

> Limit reading and limit learning grammar/spelling?

From my comment: "Limit reading and limit learning grammar/spelling until after you have a good grasp of the language."

You have misquoted me.

This is great, but you're missing out on spoken English.

I think one of the biggest obstacles in speaking is overcoming the fear of saying something wrong, or not being understood. At least that was the case for me. Once you get over that fear and get a more "I don't give a crap" attitude towards if what you're saying is correct, and instead just say it, you've come a long way and it will help you improve.

Simple version of what I'm trying to convey:

Try to not be afraid to say something wrong, just speak your mind. Don't worry about grammar when you speak. It will come naturally after a while.

Personally I learnt most my spoken English through co-operative computer games and speaking to other players over ventrilo / mumble or in-game voice comms. The fear of saying something wrong or being misunderstood was minimized in this online setting, sitting safely at home but still communicating with real people.

You're right. English is not my native language, and I learned it in the school, which included speaking, albeit not too much.

The steps I outlined is how I sharpened my skills after school, during my non-educational life, in a spontaneous manner. I understood these steps years later, and share them whenever there's a chance to share.

I've practiced my speaking skills in the university via presentations, and during my work travels. Also my work requires me to send a lot of English mails, which tend to progress conversation-like. Since they were the things which came to my way rather than I consciously selected, I have no reproducible way of practicing spoken English, so I knowingly omitted those.

In addition to all those points you nailed, I want to add watch pygmalion, the British black and white movie, or my Fair Lady, the American version.

I told that to two people. Both of them had very thick accents. 6 months after watching, they lost their accents.

The movies are inspirational and full of guidance. And they are funny.

I've to completely disagree. Only way to learn to "speak" is to be in environment where you can only speak the new language and you have to speak.

You can read 10 years and won't be fluent. You can watch for 10 years and won't learn a thing. I've been watching Japanese animes before high school. Do I speak Japanese, no! Only 10 or so words.

One thing that cements this the fact grammar is something that's not absolute.

Again from experience, very important, you can take 5 semester of esl courses and still sound like you came over here last month.

> Watch movies with original sound and English subtitles.

Something I've heard over and over is that using subtitles actually stunts your growth, because it's too easy to fall back on instead of making sense of what you hear.

GP is saying to watch with subtitles in the language to be learned, not your native language.

IMO it's good advice. When I do it, I inevitably wind up looking for and finding differences between the audio and text, thinking about how I might have translated things differently, and so on.

Yes, I believe some polyglots recommend that you never watch a movie with a disconnect between subtitles and the audio track.

English audio/English subtitles is fine. Assuming you are French, English audio/French subtitles is bad. French audio/English subtitles is also bad but not as bad as the previous combination.

The reason is that if you have subtitles in your native language, you will tend to just focus your brain on reading them and kind of ignore the audio portion.

There's no substitute for exposure. "Learning" and memorization can help you recognize language use. But it's exposure that makes it second nature (i.e. automatic).

And as far as speaking goes, remember that you're using muscles and nerve signals. Just like with any other physical activity, i.e. a sport, it's practice -- doing it -- that improves facility.

If you're reading in a different language, try readlang (I'm not an owner, just a happy user.) It's a browser plugin that does 2 things: (1) inline translation, including of phrases, so reading becomes much much less painful; and (2) every word or phrase you look up, it saves as a flash card for you to review. It's well worth the $5/month.

Sound advice. Also, try to get to the next step as soon as you can, while still working on the previous ones. We are surprisingly quick to adapt even when facing complicated challenges, so take advantage of that. And always do something that you like. It will keep you both motivated and focused.

You can do all of them at the same time after getting the initial momentum, however not overloading the cognitive capacity is important. Otherwise the process may backfire.

The most important point is not forcing yourself to progress, but integrating the language in your life. A foreign language is not an achievement, but a capability (or ability), like programming in another language. You need to integrate into your life, not achieve and set aside. So not forcing is much more healthy IMHO.

Adding more to @bayindirh's comment. I am currently the active user of this app called 'memrise'. This app will help beginners improve their vocabulary. Also talk to yourself in the language you are learning, that will help you eliminate the translation lag.

This. As a native English speaker, this is a pretty good summary of exactly how I became proficient in a other languages, starting in my teens. True fluency takes years. It is not something that can just be rushed.

Thanks a lot. As a non-native speaker, hearing this makes me happy. :)

That's totally true.

When I start to read everyday and watch series with english subtitles, I fell that I was moving forward.

I need to focus on writing and conversation.

Great idea, Excellent suggestion. read, listen and write a lot for a long time.

I grew up in Italy. Among EU countries, Italians have one of the worst English accent and vocabulary, because Italian TV "dubs" every single movie and TV show ever invented. In fact, you often hear that "Italian dubbers (e.g. voice over actors) are the best in the world".

In my teenage years, my father gave me an amazing present: for two summers, he paid to send me to study English in Scotland once, and in Sussex once. I did learn some English, but most importantly I associated English with "ability to travel and see the world".

My English was quite good for Italian standards, and quite bad in general, until I got to age 18. I then decided I wanted to learn English really well. My resolution became to watch movies only in English, and to read only in English, for years. It worked.

Finally, in 2003, I won a fellowship to study for one semester at UC Irvine. When I came back, my English was at a very good level.

From 2008 onwards, I worked for US companies (Amazon, VMware), and have been living in San Francisco since 2012.

Looking back, I believe it was "hard" for me to make these decisions and put the effort in, compared to my peers. I was also fortunate to have a family that supported me and loved me dearly.

When I go back to my home town (Assisi, in Umbria, Italy), I always think about this. Ah, life. Sliding doors. Decisions. Etc.

I'm English. A couple of years ago I started learning Italian by listening to podcasts (Coffee Break Italian) and reading children's books. I then travelled to Assisi to try it out for the first time. The locals were fantastic, they slowed down and spoke very clearly. It's a beautiful place.

I agree though, travelling and learning about new places in another language is awesome, it unlocks so much, and really encourages you to learn.

> they slowed down and spoke very clearly

I wish Austrians were the same... unfortunately most folks here tend to switch between fast German with a thick local dialect, or talking back to me in English, neither of which helps me to actually improve my German...

If a foreigner came to my country and asked me to speak to them with an accent from another country, I would be insulted.

If living in a region or a country I like to learn the local dialect.

Although I admit that leads to general laughter later e.g. when I spoke Spanish in Seville people laughed at my hick Cuban accent, and then in Madrid they laughed at my hick Andalusian accent!

However I think trying to learn accents helps you a lot later with your spoken language ability... I have seen how strongly some regional people negatively react to a "correct" Spanish Madrileño accent (seen as very snobby/uptight/unfriendly). I had fun the other day taking to a Chilean: I could hear some parts of the accent which were reminiscent of Sevilla, so I could mimic some of the Chilean accent and not sound like a twat (and we had an awesome discussion about it too).

I've given up the idea of ever considering learning German. It's simply not necessary. They all speak English. Unless you're going to live there long term, you don't need it.

> In fact, you often hear that "Italian dubbers (e.g. voice over actors) are the best in the world".

Hah, I've heard that from my Italian relatives, but didn't know that it was a widespread thing to say. When I heard it, I couldn't help but think "What a weird thing to brag about." It'd be like bragging that you're really good at tracing over art. It's a sad brag, because it's conceding entirely the ability to become good at making original things.

Another weird thing I've heard from my Italian relatives is that all the Asian corner/grocery stores in Italy are run by the Chinese mafia. When asked why they thought that, their answer is usually a variation on "There's no other way they'd be able to put together the money to own a store." So, in other words, simple racism. You ever heard this claim?

> It's a sad brag, because it's conceding entirely the ability to become good at making original things.

That's a non sequitur. Being good at dubbing/tracing doesn't concede originality any more than Hollywood studios making remakes concedes them from originals. The dubbing/tracing/remakes are just work for money, but probably actually increase your ability to make good original content of the same nature.

It's a sad brag because if they had a good homegrown film industry they'd be bragging about that, which would actually be impressive. But they don't so they can't.

And there's a lot more to the entire art of filmmaking than what's encompassed by dubbing.

The Hollywood mention is the non sequitur, because Hollywood does produce lots of original work. There's no better film industry in the world, and certainly no higher-earning one (not even close). American film culture is dominant. If all you can manage is dubbing that well, it's a sad brag.

> The Hollywood mention is the non sequitur, because Hollywood does produce lots of original work.

Hollywood producing lots of original work is exactly why I chose that example. You seem to be agreeing with that, but somehow at the same time wanting to disagree with me. It's puzzling.

> And there's a lot more to the entire art of filmmaking than what's encompassed by dubbing.

Absolutely, although this modifies your original claim, which was making original things as opposed to film making. Curiously, that makes the non sequiturness even stronger.

At best I can attribute some correctness to your original statement in the way of opportunity costs. In that being good at dubbing concedes one's ability at being good at film making the same way as being good at mathematics concedes one's ability at being a good dancer. There just isn't enough time to be world class at both. Was your original statement about opportunity cost, or how else would you say that it follows from being a good dubber to conceding the possibility of being a good film maker?


PS. I'm not making any claims whatsoever about whether Italians are good/bad at dubbing or film making. I'm merely talking about a critical logic mistake in your statement.

Adding my experience to the "Italian thread". I want to share just to say that it's easier than you think, and you don't necessarily need special experiences if you can't (or you didn't) have them.

During school I always studied French, and very little/basic English. I did a 3 months full immersion in Dublin, but it didn't help that much. When I started my PhD I literally had issues with the "s" at the 3rd person.

Because I was required to write primarily in English, I started doing that: write a lot, and do exercises to be better at writing. In parallel I started to read more in English, mostly research papers. I still had issues with reading, let alone speaking. Specifically, I never read an entire book in English, and I still used to read news in Italian even though a lot of them, especially technology news, are much better in English.

The major change for me has been starting to watch series in English (the first one was The Big Bang Theory), initially with subtitles in Italian and soon after subtitled in English -- I highly recommend the latter. With that, I transformed. I watched TBBT also dubbed in Italian, I realized how worse it was (jokes not got by translators, weird voices once you heard the real ones, etc.). I remember soon after I was excited and watched the black swan in English, I certainly had improved but couldn't get most of it still.

Fast forward a few years, improvements were clear. I published peer reviewed papers, and spoke to conferences. I moved to San Francisco and survived well. Five years in, I live here, my wife is American, and I work & live primarily in English. I can't work in sales :), but my English is certainly fluent for my work, to talk to people, and to speak in public.

In summary, from 0 to fluent writing a lot, watching TV series, and later talking to others.

I'm a native speaker, but one of my roommates didn't know much English when I met him. After about a year, he was 70% fluent in English. Coming to America and making friends is pivotal in learning English.

Firstly, be immersed in the culture of the language you're trying to learn. It's easier to learn English if everyone around you speaks it. The social pressure to learn it will trump your own motivation. You will be motivated to learn English if you want to interact with people.

Secondly, work with native speakers on a project that has nothing to do with learning English. Find something you find interesting and find native speakers with similar interests. We worked on a side project, and he was learning English and programming at the same time. We were doing something fun, and it helped him pick up the language faster.

Finally, watch English comedies with your native English friends, ask them to put on subtitles. We watched Silicon Valley (HBO) and he started to get the jokes pretty quickly. It helps to have a sense of humor. If you're new to English, your English friends will find some of your sentences funny, and that's a good thing. Laugh with them and learn more.

To improve my english I listened to a lot of Country and Rap music. This way I kinda learn a lot of slang words and expression.

First job in the states my coworkers weren’t really talkative. I used to go to a stripclub during the weekends. Trust me your brain will be more than motivated to learn english when you need to talk to half nudes girls haha.

By far the most unique take on learning English

If you haven’t named this technique yet, I’d suggest “The Atlanta Method”!

I hope the strippers won't be too confused when their club is suddenly filled with foreign geeks following your example :)

I thoroughly support this way to improve your English.

Tip well.

> This way I kinda learn a lot of slang words and expression.

Then I bet you know the difference between a violin and a fiddle.

A violin has strings; a fiddle has strangs.

TV shows. I watched so much TV shows that when I first came to the United States, a taxi driver claimed that I had a "New York accent". Shows like Seinfeld are especially good, because they also help you get comfortable with american culture, which is an important part of communication.

It probably helps that I do rubber duck debugging[0] a lot :)

[0]: https://rubberduckdebugging.com/

I can’t emphasize this more. The first show I watched without subtitles (CC) was Dr House. I watched 6 seasons and it was painful as hell but after watching 100s of episodes it starts becoming easier.

Also, I would write every single word I did not understand and google it.

10 years ago I joined college and didn't know a thing about English. Somebody pranked the whole class in the first day, by coming, writing their credentials on the board in Japanese and speaking in English. I thought to myself, I'm so behind.

Pirated a web design book some time later and tried very hard to learn it. I still remember learning the word "rather" from context instead of translating it.

After that, I made my 'world' in English. Movies, books, everything. Discovered HN by that time, and watched Two and A Half Men repeatedly with friends, over and over and over. I'm sure that repetition helped a lot.

Forcing yourself to speak in English can also help (xbox party chat for example), specially when I kept asking myself, do I really know English or am I just a fraud? Will I be able keep a conversation when the time for it comes?

I know a bunch of people that learned English but never passed that point where you can 'get' things in English. So, it's worth doing it by yourself. Being one of the very few in the theater getting the meaning of a joke, that subtitles did not translate well, is great.

After reading many answers, I'll add one step I didn't see fully stressed: after getting used to read and listen to English, find a way to start speaking it. You can't become fluent without actually speaking it.

For me, what did the trick was actually going to a advanced spoken English course where I lived (I was already very proficient with written English): what we were doing most of the time was just discussing things in English, with the supervision and help of our teacher. Among my best "investments".

Today, you could probably find something online, but I'm not sure if it would be as useful.

Regular speaking is definitely important. I'll add a related advanced tactic. Switch your inner monologue language to English. So whenever you're thinking with the help of language, do it in English. This will go a long way towards making your verbal speaking faster and more natural, because you'll no longer be doing quick translations in your head.

To be more precise, at least for me, this thinking language system seems to be heavily influenced by learning. I've been doing most of my thinking in English for the last decade or so, and most of the things I've learned during this time are stored in my head in English. [1] However my earlier life lessons are still in my memories in my original native tounge. This is interesting because I started learning English more than 25 years ago, but even things I consumed in English got translated and stored in memory in my native language.


[1] Of course there are more factors in play than just thinking in English. I've also been better than ever in English and English media makes up for a larger percentage than ever in my total consumed media. I'm sure all of these and more have played a role, in addition to changing my inner dialogue language, in storing my memories in English now.

People's expectation of what is considered "fluent" is very different and many different approaches can work. Regardless of where you are, there are things that you can do.

I am Vietnamese and studied English as a second language at 10 years old. I have been living in the US for the last 10 years -- 1/3 of my life. I have very little problems communicating in English now, but I want to give you a glimpse of how confident I am with my English. I used to know a professional interpreter who is not a native speaker either but has got an excellent grip on English. He interpreted for a couple of US presidents on their diplomatic trips. He often commented on my Facebook that my English is shit when I had Facebook. He would poke fun at my misspellings and grammatical errors. I still write, listen, and speak like a machine.

If I remember it correctly, the translator fiend's advice to everyone was always that to read lots of books. His advice to learn to speak English was to go out and talk to the English expats. Many long for a friend, and you might learn a thing or two on the way. He did that when he was 20. I think those are a solid advice.

For me, it was a little bit different. I think a big part of it is that I had an itch to do it. When I was younger, I learned English by reading MSDN + VB manuals because I needed to code. Then for a couple of years in HS, I lead an indie translation project to translate a couple of Harry Potter books to Vietnamese. My schedule was totally fucked up in the summer when the books came out: Sleep in until noon, then at night just translate 1/4 of a chapter or so, or proofread other people's translations until 6 AM. After that project, I wouldn't care if my English is not good anymore, I knew I've dealt with enough shit to not be intimidated by English.

But in general, I think what works best is that you have to have a use for it. If you don't have a use for it, your work doesn't depend on it, then you need to have a hobby in which your English skill is needed to get the work done. Maybe you can make an impact or two along the way. It's just like to learn a new programming language or paradigm.

Like now, I'm a professional HN commentator, and it requires some serious English skill, don't you see ;-)?

I tend to think that learning a language is like dieting; it's not a one-time action and there's no end to it. It's a lifetime commitment.

That's said, being fluent is often not as important as being well spoken. I've seen many native English speakers who don't seem to understand what they're talking about even by themselves, while I've seen some non-native speakers who has minor pronunciation or grammatical problems but are very good at choosing right words and making a point. I'd rather want that kind of skill.

I’m a Chinese speaker and also on my way advancing English skills. What I learned from my past experience is that don’t distinguish between good and bad sources of contents. Enjoy nonsensical shouts and murmurs in YouTube, Reddit, or other communities. At first I tried a lot to follow recommandations on Top X lists, only to find myself quitting frequently on the half-way because either I lost interest or they were too far from daily English I can learn for practical usage. Now my opinion is that there’re always gold and craps in contents of a certain language, and since languages were invented first for daily communications, which by nature are full of nonsense and improvisation, “crappy” contents are always far more than well-composed ones, but it’s from these craps that you know what daily interactions sound/look like, and get the bonus of less likely getting bored.

Of course it’s always helpful to keep certain doses of more “serious” contents. I always enjoy the challenge of reading longforms from The New Yorker (forgive me if you don’t think that a challenge, but from my point of view as a non-native speaker the vocabulary thereof is quite a challenge) or non-fiction books. You’ll feel improved in both skill and intellect aspects if you can persist.

On my first year of college at home (Saudi Arabia), we had what they call orientation year which consists of intensive English and math courses. I talked to our English instructor asking him if I could stop by his office everyday during his office hours for a casual chat to improve my conversational English, and he kindly agreed. I spent a semester doing that, and picked up his Scottish accent along the way :D

The following year I travelled to the US for school. My first year in the US had minor improvement in my English fluency because I was mostly hanging out with a group of Saudis. Later that year I learned about a local group started by an ESL teacher called English Conversation Club. They have multiple groups during the week of US Americans hosting meetings at their houses, inviting internationals for casual conversations, playing games, and making friends to improve the conversational English and learn about the different cultures. They also hold parties throughout the year for the different holidays (e.g. 4th of July, Christmas, etc.). At the time, they had 3 different group meeting during the week, and I went to all of them. I also took time to reflect on the conversations on my way back from the meetings (noting misspeeches, word-choice, etc.).

During that time, I learn that the on-campus speech clinic offers accent reduction services, and they offer 50% discount for students. I took those sessions for 9 months until the therapist decided that I have reached an acceptable level.

These were the major players in improving my fluency, in addition to reading, writing, and paying attention to conversations in movies and TV shows.

Some people, though very few, can become native English speakers on their own. The people that can divide into two distinct camps, musicians and heavy movie watchers (English movies of course).

Musicians by training are talented listeners and heavy movie watchers, whether talented listeners are not, get exposed to so much real sounding English that they can't help but to learn it subconsciously if in no other way.

Typical adult listeners no longer here sounds as they are but map sounds of foreign languages into the sounds their brain already knows. This lack of accuracy in listening is the primary impediment to become fluent in a language.

Musician here. I completely agree. But I think anyone can do this. We musicians transcribe solos of jazz players- not because we want to play like them, but because we want the feel in our vocaulary-- because we want to hear and understand better. Every musician I know learns languages easily and many are good at immitating accents and word choice. This is exactly what we do when we improvise in the style of... Mozart or whoever. It works!

Like a lot of people here, I learned English by reading articles online and books in subjects that interested me as well as watching TV shows/movies with English subtitles.

What helped me was to avoid translating every sentences to my native language, but instead watch for patterns in the language and fill in the blanks. When I did not know or understand a word, I'd look it up in the dictionary or Google.

I recently spoke with a native speaker and I saw that my vocabulary could still improve, but overall it went well. If you speak with anglophones, tell them to not be afraid to tell you when you make mistakes. Practice is key.

If you make your learning less like "learning" you will have great chance of learning anything new. Reading, Listening, Speaking, Writing (not necessarily in any order) are key to improving your language skills. Pick few subjects that you are reasonably excited about. Movies, Technology, Fashion, Current Affairs, Religion, Music, Designing... basically anything that do not bore you and spend some time finding channels that talk/write about these. Make sure you are able to spend at least a decent amount of time everyday watching/listening/reading about those.

I had very poor English language speaking skills even after I completed my college. I took it as a challenge and made sure I spent at least 15 minutes every day listening English news (I live in India and this was some 20 years ago, so the options were very limited back then) Read English news papers for about 30 minutes, and always noted down new words and their meaning and kept referring to those when I wasn't preoccupied anything else.. .those notes used to stay with me for few days before I threw those away for newer ones. Also, moving to Bangalore helped me a lot because, many of my new friends didn't share my mother tongue so English was our primary communication medium. Thinking about it, it was kinda boring to be honest, I dont know if i will do the same for learning any other language, but I was really motivated to learn English back then so that probably kept me going.

By doing. Try to write, read, speak and listen to large volumes of English. I've written blog posts, chatted a lot with people in games (mainly text, sometimes voice), talked English at every opportunity (e.g. I'd seek out non-Dutch people in class and do projects with them), wrote elaborate answers on the security stackexchange website, listened to audio books, etc.

I didn't have good experiences with apps that try to gamify the process like Duolingo, but that might have been because I used it in semi-corner cases: in English I wanted to go from mediocre to advanced, and for German I already knew Dutch so most of it was super basic and didn't really help me.

I've also looked for other hacks to get better at a language, but the thing that really helps is just by doing. I guess audio books are sort of a hack, because you don't have to be very actively busy with it: you can put an audio book on while doing laundry, dishes, driving/walking/biking, falling asleep, etc. And it teaches you vocabulary (most unfamiliar words are clear from context), correct word use (including proverbs/sayings), and pronunciation. Unfortunately, I noticed later that I don't know how to spell those words, but that's just a minor issue (easy to look up when needed). I still encounter words randomly and think to myself "oh that's how it's written! I just read this sentence fluently but I never read this word before".

As a native English speaker, sometimes I'll read a word but since I've never heard that word read out loud, when somebody finally says it, my mind explodes because it sounds different to how I pronounced it in my mind.


It is one thing to study English in a country that does not speak it, and a completely different thing when you need it to survive. Being surrounded by people speaking English(French, German,Chinese) and feeling totally stupid as you can not even communicate the basic means you have to learn or have to learn.

I recommend "fluent forever" book and Gabriel Wyner stuff in general to learn as fast as possible. ALWAYS START BY PRONUNTIATION,like kids do, or else you will have to unlearn what you learned badly.

In order to polish it, I joined Toastmasters.

I studied in Tamil medium. When I entered college, I could not speak a sentence in English. Here are the things that helped me.

1. Read Bible cover to cover many time with a Tamil Bible side-by-side. I didn't understand many of the words / phrases. Still I kept reading as long as I understood the meaning.

2. In college we met every evening for prayer. I started sharing messages for few minutes. I made lot (a lot) of mistakes, but my friends helped me improve. Lot of folks made fun of me, but I still kept going because two of close friends kept encouraging me.

3. Watched Friends series with sub-titles. I didn't understand many of the dialogues because I lacked context. Still I would memorize sentences and repeat to myself.

4. Started writing a blog[]. The one I have currently is 2nd or 3rd one. In the first blog, I wrote primarily about what I knew well - SQL, Vantive etc. So the content was there, I had to only find ways to express it. Even now, I write about what I know or what I learn, so that makes it easier to blog.

: https://jjude.com

5. When I read articles or books, I note down the sentences or phrases I like. I store them in Evernote and re-visit them often. I try to use them in some daily usage.

Next month I will deliver a keynote speech in Azure global bootcamp in my city (Chandigarh). From not able to speak a sentence in English to this, has been a long journey of frustration, encouragement, and satisfaction.

Good luck.

Reading the bible to learn English does not seem like a good idea. The English of the bible is not common everyday English that will be most useful for communicating with others today.

Watching films or television in English, with subtitles in your native language is good advice.

> Reading the bible to learn English does not seem like a good idea. The English of the bible is not common everyday English

The degree to which that is true depends on the translation. The KJV is someone arcane, many others are not. And it's one of the easiest large written corpuses to get your hands on parallel (even if separately published) versions of the same source material in English and whatever language you are coming from, and having a large written parallel corpus to study is probably a very good tool for self-study.

Even if you learn old English from that (rather than using a modern English translation), it'd still give you a good base (grammar etc.) for then understanding modern English. It might lead to learning a slightly odd/old variation of English, and might not be the most efficient route, but I can see it being effective for being able to understand English.

For someone not from a Western culture, it will also help them understand a lot of cultural references that won't make much sense otherwise, like "seeing the handwriting on the wall."

> "seeing the handwriting on the wall."

I've known that phrase for...I don't even know how long. But I only learned yesterday that its origin was Biblical. I love how Dan Carlin says "mene mene tekel upharsin" and wanted to read more about it, and made that happy discovery.

Ahh, but actually the 'u' at the start of the 4th word is how they wrote 'and' so it's not clear it would've been written on the wall :)

Yeah, there are a lot of things like that which people have forgotten the origins of...

Most people use modern English translations of the Bible.

If anything, you might learn a _cooler_ English by reading the Bible! :-)

Interesting feedback, but the deed is already done.

Also it worked well for him. Thus, I assume any method would be met with your derision.

Not to mention there are natural english versions of the Bible, so you are casting that one.

Looking from your website you are obviously a religious person. But don't try to use this forum to spread your religion.

This blogger, 8 years ago, wrote an excellent blog post detailing his method for improving his English: http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2010/01/koreans-english-acqui...

Warning: it’s not an easy solution, just an effective one. The main idea is “memorize more” and “practice more”. Judging by his blog posts, it seems to work.

To answer the question in title, I came to Canada and lived here for the last 20~ years. Since day one, I always opted to try to use English (rather than my first language) whenever possible. It was hardest at first, but the more I did it, the easier it became.

When I started learning French, a native speaker told me to exaggerate the sounds. It turns out that I was softening the sounds that are uniquely French because I lacked confidence in my spoken French.

I imagine that the same thing would work for learning to speak English with less of an accent.

That obviously doesn't help you learn the language, but I found that it helped me to speak better (or at least more confidently), so I spoke more. More practice is definitely helpful.

Yeah, I totally agree about exaggeration, but I think it can also have a positive impact on learning the language. A big issue I see with non-native speakers of languages I know is that they stick to the comfortable sounds of their native language, approximating the foreign sounds instead of trying to really imitate them. If you haven’t done it before, it feels ridiculous to try to put on what feels like such an exaggerated “fake” accent. But what you’re doing is getting a handle on the phonetics, which increases your ability to recognise and distinguish those sounds when listening, and be easier to understand when speaking. It also helps you cope with phonetic variations and different accents, which may at first sound totally different from the “standard” language you learned—but if you understand the phonemes as a native speaker thinks about them, your comprehension will be much more resilient and adaptable.

I'm Indian. I became fluent in English watching Cartoon Network when I was around 6 years old.

I remember watching The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Dexter's Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls, etc. Thanks a lot cartoons!


Record yourself while reading a random page from a book and then listen to the recording. When I did, I found a few defects and managed to fix them, though it took some time.

Personal anecdote from which you may be able to pick a thing or two: back in the day RPGs were not translated. I stumbled upon Chrono Trigger and found the game amazing but could barely understand anything beyond the basics. I sucked it up and got a paperback dictionary. Mid game I was barely referring to it, and by the "end" of it (several dozens of hours, possibly hundred; got 10 of the 14 or so endings) things were treading along nicely.

I followed up with Day of the Tentacle for which the complete Full Talkie was only in English (the French one had only partial voice over in English) and since it was so hot at the time to listen to voices in games I really wanted to get that experience, so again, I went for it. It was much more involved as DotT relies on wittiness and humor a lot, so that was definitely a step up. By the end of it I was really getting good at listening instead of just reading the English subs.

From then on I got lots and lots of exposure from movies and TV shows because I began to catch how flawed or lacking some of the French dubs were for the stuff I watched.

The missing part was speaking, and for this I happened to be repeatedly tasked with preparing and presenting some stuff in English class. The key points being: "repeatedly", like, a lot (once a week for three years) and "preparing" which really helps in progressing (you can't realistically be expected to wing it at talking if you only were doing "passive" activities like reading and listening) because I had to both write and rehearse presenting beforehand, which are both "active" tasks.

The "fluent" part then comes out as the sum of all this experience.

(Also, at some point I switched all of my OS/software/phone to English. Little tidbits like this mean I was faced with English every single days for the most trivial things, so that it just becomes second nature)

(Also also, getting involved in online communities, but not lurking: interacting instead, stepping right outside the comfort zone.)

Playing videogames, asking my parents the words I didn't know

Talking to people I met on a stick figure Flash animation portal using Google Translate (this was ~12 years ago so I was constantly made fun of but learned a lot!)

Watching films at first with Portuguese subtitles, then with English subtitles, then with no subtitles.

Reading books in English.

At this point I could read pretty well, write decently, but my pronunciation was terrible.

Before university my parents sent me to Vancouver for a month to have English lessons. Pronunciation and listening improved a lot!

During university I did a year abroad in Birmingham, UK. Talking to people with strong accents during the first week was tough, but got easy after that.

My English is noticeably not very good, but I'm pretty happy with it considering I had no more than a month of real lessons.

When you are brainstorming with yourself, during your commute, shower or whatever, do it aloud and in English. This helped me think in English and increased the speed at which I was able to turn a thought into a proper sentence, bypassing translation.

One thing I did when I came to the US was to have no pride and to invite and even insist on people correcting my English. This can be really annoying and often embarrassing but I think it stopped a lot of mistakes really early before they became a habit. I see a lot of people who have been here for a long time making really bad mistakes and nobody tells them. In general Americans are very hesitant to give direct criticism so it takes a while to find people who are willing to play that role.

I had a lot of problems understanding people for a while and there watching movies and listening to radio helped.

- school (grade school, high school)

- Hollywood (movies in NL are as a rule subtitled)

- Reading (the public library, second hand bookstores, the internet)

- Work (An American Bank, working all over the planet)

- Running an online business

- Living in Canada for a number of years

- Writing (blogging, HN)

Each of those contributed in some way, it is still not perfect. It likely never will be, there is no substitute for being born in an English speaking country but at the same time there are many people that are born in such a country that have the most horrible accents or that couldn't spell if their lives depended on it.

Language mastery is never done, it just keeps getting better at an ever reducing rate.

It is easier to learn when you are not fully aware that you are "studying", at least that is the case for me.

Consuming different kinds of media like books, audiobooks, video games and movies in English can help a lot with that without too much effort. Combine that with joining some English-language forums in which you actively participate, and you have a relatively cheap way of improving your language skills.

If you have the means, add travel into the mix and try to immerse yourself in the language and culture for as long as you can afford while avoiding people who speak your language.

Best thing to do is travel, or language vacation. I've done a language holiday in Spain, learning Spanish, and that worked really well. I only did two weeks, but got a basic understanding of Spanish, in a beautiful old town - Salamanca. You can do the same with English. I bet you can go to London, Sydney, New York and many other places to learn English. You have to do this in a country or city where the main language is English of course. You don't want to do this in Paris or Barcelona.

I did morning study and afternoon free, but you could do much more if you wanted, like 6 or 8 hours daily, and even private classes. Besides that we had to do homework, and that could take two hours or more, so be aware of that. Two weeks is a minimum to learn anything, but if you have the money go for at least three or four weeks. Then you set something in motion.

We could stay with local families or in an appartment with other students. With a local family you'll learn a lot more, especially if they don't speak any other language. If you prefer to stay in an appartment, ask for an appartment without people who speak your language. The tendency is to go speak the easiest language, and you're not there to do that.

Have fun! Do all the tours etc. Avoid people who speak your language.

1. Learn the basics

2. Read a lot (preferably books) in order to acquire a large vocabulary

Most people stop here, but if you want to be able to communicate orally you still need to

3. Study English phonetics and dialects

4. Get as much exposure to spoken English as you possibly can (by listening to radio programmes, podcasts, watching TV, and so on)

5. Talk a lot (talking to yourself works too, if you don't have anyone else)

Notice that this is a years-long endeavour which takes a lot of time and effort, but in my experience it's definitely worth it.

I'm Greek, been living in the US for the past 4 years of my life. I had two very large spikes in my English knowledge during my life.

First one was when I actually started taking English classes that were good. That was in my private middle/high-school. In a lot of countries public education does not care enough about English and a lot of classes are half-assed. Another option for this would be private afternoon lessons. This really helped me understand the grammar, syntax, put effort in learning new essential vocabulary.

The second big spike occurred when I got into the IB program at my high school, and all classes were taught in English. Any professor interactions were also usually in English. The whole atmosphere created by this encouraged me and a lot of my friends to start talking in English to each other on a daily basis, which really helped with talking, and making the language feel way more natural. This is also when I started "thinking" in English regularly.

But I feel like the most important thing was the constant consumption of English content. I read a lot of books in English, and underlined any words I didn't know, looked them up later (kind of a tangent, but for some reason I found Greek writing to be very corny, while English writing/poetry seemed way cooler in my eyes. So that helped a lot). I watched a lot of YouTube, pirated movies without subtitles, and played a lot of games that were in English. That constant exposure and willingness to learn the language was probably the biggest factor, but I'm unsure of how good my English would be today if I hadn't started serious English lessons or didn't have friends that I would speak English to.

Probably not helpful, but here's how it went for me

I think I started out pretty well from school and my mom videotaping some "learn english show" on TV when I was a kid - but once I got my first computer and had to read stuff about problems online in English.. well that helped a lot. I've also been on IRC for like 17 years now, reading and writing at least 50% in English. Reading books in English is really good once you can make enough sense of it (not so useful if you have to look up all the words - but I still did that for a while). Children's books for age ~10-12 are really good for this imho, they're usually not so complicated and can still have meaningful content (think more Harry Potter, less Teletubbies).

The final "wow, this helps a lot" was working in a company where the official language was English and thus using it for hours, daily, and we also had some folks with bad/non-existant German skills. I was lucky to sit next to a native speaker for a while who also shared a lot of my interests, so we were talking a lot about.. stuff in downtimes.

English is everywhere, so it's very easy to consume English media to improve your vocabulary and comprehension skills. As for speaking (for me, that was - and still is - the hardest part), I'd try to find native speakers to communicate with. If you live in a big city, there are probably foreign students teaching English. You can also find a remote tutor on italki.com.

I became fluent by practicing the language. Reading is not enough. Writing is not enough. Memorizing is not enough.

I struggled to learn English until the day I started speaking it to get my thoughts across. I had gotten to the point of understanding most of the everyday conversations but it wasn't until I started speaking it that my fluency skyrocketed. I was easily speaking it within 6 months and was fluent within a year after.

So my suggestion to you, from a former mono-language speaker, is to start to speak the language ASAP. I know it's embarrassing but there is no other way.

Additionally, listen to audio and video programs with a dictionary in hand. Grammar and languages structure aids will help but by using them as your primary tools they will only slow your progress.

Duolingo is great simply because it keeps you going and it helps you practice but it's slow and you'll never be fluent.

Also, the reason most foreign language class teaching is ultimately a waste is that most people forget what they learn because they don't speak it as a way to communicate.

So, speak it, speak it...

I can attest to that. I'm perfectly fluent reading English, yet my spoken English is so bad I just can't finish a sentence without fumbling and taking detours.

Like any language, you need to immerse yourself in it.

Chatting on IRC with other developers, reading technical documentations, and watching series in English (first with subtitles, then without).

I also started reading fiction in English recently. I have an e-reader with a builtin dictionary, that's very helpful.

It gave me the necessary skills in my everyday life (reading, writing, listening), but I have an horrible French accent when speaking.

There are some online services where you can find a language exchange partner (to help practice each other's native languages). This is useful if you don't want to pay for professional classes. You can meet periodically by video chat and help each other practice.

Practice or study with native speakers is valuable because native speakers have a "native speaker intuition" to quickly and confidently resolve uncertainties about how to say things. On the other hand, if people haven't studied linguistics or language teaching, they might not be able to explain why they say things a certain way (because we all know and use rules in our native languages that we've never thought about consciously and never tried to explain). So you shouldn't assume that native speakers will always be able to give you helpful explanations of why they chose one way of saying something over another.

The best way is to have a girl/boyfriend that only speaks english. The second best way is to move to a country where they speak english and avoid people who is not native. So basically the way to becoming fluent in english is to use it as much as you can. Movies, books also help, but for communication you need to talk a lot.

My wife and I decided to move to Ireland this summer. Once you’re there, you have no choice, and must talk. We have prepared out 8yo kids with a year of english lessons and they are excited to move there.

What I mean is, if you have the opportunity, go to an english speaking country. When you have no choice, your english will improve automatically

English isn't my native language. I'll tell you my high school story.

There were some kids who started to speak perfectly in 2 years. And then some who even 10 years later still struggle. And probably have mental problems due to it.

People who didn't have family here mostly interested with strangers, who all spoke English. They became fluent.

People who had family here spoke English only in context of school in limited sentences. They struggle even after college.

People who did worst were who had family here, and were only friends with people from their own country. Most didn't go to college.

People who were in ESL did worse than people in regular English. Mostly they had less opportunities to speak their native language and didn't learn bad grammar rules. Most grammar rules are broken at some point.

Learning to speak by reading is a crime in first place.

Doctor consoles patient. I've many consoles.

ESL student who learned from reading could die before realizing the distinction.

I've been trying to become fluent for over 12 months, having been passively exposed to this language for over 9 years. I'd say that mastering English beyond intermediate level is extremely difficult.

You have to be constantly aware of what you are saying. Also, you need this kind of loopback that allows you to detect your mistakes and learn from them. This is a difficult skill which requires practicing.

You also need to have a social and communicative personality, so if you are introvert than you are less likely to master a language. I am focusing on speaking, because it is the most important aspect of any language.

As others said, when encoutering a new word you should check the pronunciation and commit it to your memory. This in turn allows you to practice your inner voice while reading. If you don't do that, then after some time you will reinforce your accent.

Mostly learnt English online. Bulletin boards. IRC. Reading sci-fi & fantasy. Watching movies. Talking to oodles of internet friends on ICQ and the phone. By the time I was old enough for the compulsory English classes at school -- 14? -- I was fluent.

English was my third language, currently working on my fifth (Japanese), so I guess I've got some experience when it comes to this. Best advice I can give you is this: read a lot & listen a lot. So basically books and movies. The English version of a book/movie you like is a good starting point. Lord of the Rings is my weapon of choice. I've read it in four languages. I know the story. I know Tolkien's style. So reading it in a different language is great for brushing up on that language.

One of the most remarkable obstacles when trying to shave off any accent or just trying to hone in your grammar skills is lack of understanding of the language learning process by most native English speakers, as most of them can only speak their own language, if so.

Best advise I can give is, move to a country where English is broadly spoken (Scandinavian countries come to mind) and work in one of many English-speaking companies there. It'll be much easier to shake off at least most of the grammar mistakes (ESL speakers are actually rather proud of their grammar skills) and hopefully also soften any regional accent. As a bonus, you might also catch some other language basic skills. In the EU, NL and BE (Brussels area) are also good choices.

Watch the same movie in English with the subtitles on. Pick some characters' speeches to memorize. Do this until you truly can do this in the voice of whichever actor interests you right now. I mean until you can do it on your own without the movie going. You will start to get a feel for the larger chunks and idioms, not to mention therhythms and melodies of it. I'd say we speak as much in rhythm and melody as we do in word choice. I'm a native speaker of American English, and I have trouble understanding David Tennant sometimes because of his chunking, melodies and rhythms- so different from American English. One has to get flexible with these. Regionally, just within the United States it can be tricky.

I spent whole days reading Tolkien outloud while sitting on the balcony. At the time I did not know the meaning of many of the words but knew how to pronounce them. I avoided reaching for the dictionary so as to not interrupt the flow of my speech.

Besides the other posts about simply comsuming as much English I'd like to offer my tip that helped me a lot:

In England there is (/ was?) a tradition of making middle and high school students read increasingly more difficult books throughout ages 11 - 18. There are entire book series written with this concept in mind. These are excellent to pick up.

Harry Potter is a good example of this: the first Harry Potter book was written for 11/12 year olds and the books become longer and more mature with every next book.

Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban was the first book I've ever read in English when I was 14 or so and since then I always try to read books in English if the original is.

Turn everything you can to english: software, movies, google, books etc.

Get a browser plugin for quick translations of words you don't know.

Jump in the water and use english. Sadly this can be the easiest and the hardest part because it requires the right circumstances.

Am a Finn.

For vocabulary and grammar: playing Runescape. I translated every single word separately using a translator because Google Translate is shit.

Pronunciation? You have to speak. I played videogames and talked to people online.

E: Also movies and series with subtitles!

computer games for vocabulary, TV shows and movies for phrases, Simpsons and Friends are particularly good

in the end it doesn't really matter if you speak perfect English, most of the English users are not native English speakers and everyone makes mistakes, it's better to communicate with mistakes than being afraid to use language at all

i worked in China with tons of different nationalities with varying levels of English and we could always understand each other, only people who care about grammar are grammar nazis online who are most likely not speaking any foreign language and not own even passport

For me it was playing a lot of text heavy RPG games, and watching a lot of TV in English. This was the best way to immerse myself without necessarily having someone to actually speak with.

I imagine variations of that today may include YouTube or podcasts.

Also, there will be plenty of times you come across a word you don’t recognize. Look it up. What’s that weird phrase? Type it up in google as close as you can. You’ll likely come across it.

It takes time, but you’ll get it. Also, don’t be afraid to speak it with others. You’ll get asked “what” here and there that’s fine.

I know this is probably not the answer you are looking for, but I wanted to chip in nonetheless: English is my 3rd language, but I was more-or-less forced to learn it once I started school in Kindergarten. So, I learned during my first two years or so in school =).

Also, note that while being fluent in English helps communication a ton, it is far from sufficient to mean you are a good communicator. If you are interested in more details on how to get better at communication in general (not just becoming fluent in English), let me know.

I also second the suggestion of things like movies, podcasts, books, etc...

I think you have to find a "cheat" that immerses you in English as a SECONDARY side effect.

For example find a TV show that you like to watch and understand then sit through it with English subtitles so you can see what you are hearing in written form. As you get better you can turn off the subtitles.

I think the methods that focus on language learning as the primary objective are not successful after you learn the basics. Perhaps because they are too boring or some other reason.

There are some good comments here, but I'm curious if there's any reason you can't take lessons? I would recommend going to your local British Council (or the American equivalent, forgot the name) and try to get classes there. If for whatever reason you can't (too expensive, you live in a place with limited access), then you have lots of good comments here, but IMH(and somewhat biased)O if you want to get a good, professional level of English, you can't avoid classes.

I agree with the advice of listening to Films and TV, but would also suggest British radio. BBC radio streams are available internationally - the stations Radio 4 and 4 Extra are speech heavy and you can probably just put it on in the background whist doing other things around the house.



The Dutch are known for their proficiency in English. Why is that? All foreign TV shows are broadcasted with original sound, and subtitled (except those for young children).

I happened to have had the luck to grow up at just the right time to have some subset of foreign children's television in NL be subtitled still - and combined with the ability to read early, ended up remarkably fluent in English at a pretty early age.

I'd imagine the same goes for other people who grew up with subtitled children's television shows during this brief phase.

Also Dutch is probably the major language that's most closely related to English.

Supposedly Frisian is linguistically closest to English, but Dutch is second yes. Others following close are Danish, Swedish and German.

Hence why I said "major" language. Scots is very closely related too, among languages without an army.

Other than taking classes while in school...

Watched a bunch of American cartoons/shows, then grew to computer games where I had to translate words used in text-heavy RPGs.

Read a ton of great historical novels about military history since I got into strategy games like Europa Universalis.

Attended language clubs to talk to fluent English speakers. Then went abroad for music camp, took a ton of sample SAT tests till I aced them, then managed to get into college in the States.

Read a lot to build up your vocabulary. Then after vocabulary is there you can start consuming multimedia content in English (movies/tv-series). You can start with subtitles if it helps at first. At some point need in subtitles will just go away. And then just try to talk as much as you can in English. Listen to how native speakers contstruct sentences, try to replicate that on the fly in your speech.

Many-many-many books (with a dictionary by me) and reading for hours and hours. I grew up at a time there was no internet, just books. I was lucky enough to have plenty of english books close to me.

Then while in Uni (in the UK) I would (actually) read the physics/maths/electronics books cover to cover (with a dictionary by me).

After the 00's it was many-many-many english-speaking movies and series without subtitles.

I made a game that may help with vocab - www.esoterica.io. Would be curious to hear if helpful (peter at 3eyes.studio).

Fluency in language (and all things) comes down to practice. Converse as much as possible in English. And when you can’t find someone to talk with, read read read. Anything and everything, from message boards to magazines to books and more books. It doesn’t matter what about. Just diversify.

As other have already suggested Read. Even if you don't fully understand just read and look up word in paper dictionary. This way you slowly start to build your mental map.

Second is view movies with subtitle even if you don't fully understand them.

You can get lot farther.

Also how about using https://www.cambly.com/english?lang=en

I improved my Listening watching American movies and tv shows with English subtitles first, then no subtitles later (subtitles in your native language will do more harm than good).

My communication skills in English improved A LOT by being very active at Hacker News. It is written communication skills specifically, but they translate well to oral communication I think.

Dutch people learn English because it's such an important part of our education. Most people under 50 will speak English at a decent level.

Also, all our foreign movies and TV shows are subtitled, not dubbed, that is also important.

For me, early on I understood that English is the language of the computer world. So that makes learning English a necessity.

> Most people under 50 will speak English at a decent level.

Most people, period.

In fact the Dutch speak English so well that it is hard for an English speaking foreigner to learn Dutch because everybody will automatically switch to English at the first sign of foreignness.

Not only English... they frequently speak German, French, etc. well, too. Thus it's virtually impossible for outsiders to learn Dutch :-) A veritable shibboleth.

This is frustratingly accurate. When I was learning I wanted to tell people that I didn't speak English, only... halting Dutch with an American accent.

I played an online text-based roleplaying game that was in English[1]. Grammar, vocabulary and idiomatic expressions flew through the roof, but pronunciation could have used some live action.

[1] http://discworld.starturtle.net/lpc/

Get a native anglophone partner and go live with them, force them and yourself to speak in English exclusively, especially when you argue or when you do errands together.

This forces you to simplify concepts to get your point straight at first, then pushes you to ampliate your vocabulary.

Learned Portuguese in 1 year this way.

My advice to improve one's oral comprehension: there are great podcasts on the BBC radio 4 website. Find a topic that interests you (maths, science, sociology, fictions...) and start listening to it. You may no understand everything but you will soon see that the context helps a lot.

Daily 2-3 articles of reading of papers e.g. guardian, ny times, science journals reading the IELTS prep material Speaking a lot English with friends Vocabulary practice by installing google dictionary in chrome while reading Movies with subtitles followed by without subtitles

When I came to US, we had the cheapest cable plan, and it has the C-SPAN channel. Very boring but there were no commercial interruptions. So I just followed the speakers loudly with the subtitle turned on. I thought it worked very well years later.

As a non native speaker, continuous effort to read everything in english and watch english movies helped to improve. If possible, try people facing job in service industry for year or two and it can help you a lot as practice ground.

Watching motion pictures in the original English with or without English subtitles.

Listen to the BBC World Service (radio). Watch English Youtube videos with English subtitles (preferably not autogenerated). Read, both fiction and non-fiction. Take any chance available to write or speak it.

TV shows (mostly Friends) and movies, first with subtitles and then without. Also, singing in English.

Between these three, I acquired the day to day vocabulary, pronunciation and rhythm of the language.

Works for other languages too.

I think I’ve learned the most from listening to podcasts. I would recommend Hello Internet for the conversational nature of their “two dudes talking” genre and the show’s impecable audio quality.

Game of thrones + linguistic meetings (things like "go talk english afterwork", you'll find one in every big city in the world, of if you dont, organize one!)

I was very bad at it at school (I'm from Germany).

Somehow I got better later by watching and reading everything in English on the Internet.

Documentation, movies, blogs, tv shows, forums etc.

A friend of mine got almost fluent in Chinese in a single month, just by downloading a chinese dating app.

Chatting with girls motivated him so much, it was an hilarious process.

Mtv, series, movies and programming literature, but i guess that depends on how you define "fluent", i still mess up a lot in English.

if you want to learn foreign language, make it into your daily routine, you don't need to spend much time, just about 10-20 minutes a day, which help you to refresh your brain, build your foreign language conscious.

like your native language, this practice need to be consistent.

another important thing is try to learn culture, which can help to understand the way how they think.

Our ‘terps in Iraq all said (to a person) watching American movies with subtitles was the best help for them to attain fluency.

Best of luck.

By dating. Date English native speakers and you'll learn the subtle and contradictory parts of the language.

Put a post-it-note on every item in your room with the english word.


Speak speak speak, write write write, read read read, watch watch watch.

Watch YouTube video and pickup some public speaking skills including learning how to debate.

TED.com is my favourite channels.

World of Warcraft with TeamSpeak/Ventrillo. However I have stopped playing it almost a decade ago.

Reading on the Internet to learn about mathematics, physics, computers, and such things.

Get a girlfrind from the UK, USA, Canada or Australia. That has worked best for me.

The day I decided to watch series and films in VO ( with subtitles in english too )

By watching Sony entertainment television and playing VGA planets.

Play online games with English speaking teammates.

Runescape + McGuyver/A-team reruns

Watch lots of TV, shows, and news.

Being born Dutch there are many advantages into learning it. I don't think I could've not learned English while being brought up in the circumstances that I was. However, having said that. I think a lot of native speakers could see all kinds of phrasing mistakes. Last year I learned that I secretly translate Dutch to English without knowing it. It's either that or my Dutch and English are really intertwined.

1. Subtitled videos from the day you are born. And when I was young, cartoons were subtitled as well, now they're dubbed and that doesn't help.

2. Digital games do not have a Dutch option in most cases. Other often used languages are: French, German, Spanish and English. What are you going to choose? I suppose the language that people speak during those subtitled movies: English!

3. The Dutch internet is not the biggest place and clearly lacks information. Want more information? Learn English. My gateway drug was when Dragonball Z was on air and I was 12. The Dutch websites were 6 months behind the English websites. I read all the spoilers, I loved it.

4. Being part of an international community helps such as HN. I did that for several communities, but this is not a seperate principle per se, it is a consequence of #3.

5. We had English at school! However, that helped just as much as French and German, i.e. not really.

6. Compared to American accounts that I read, Dutch people take quite a bit of vacation, at least once per year. The family I was raised in definitely did that and Europe is so small that if you goo 200 miles / 320 kilometers in the right direction you are in another country or you passed several countries already. Can't speak the main language? Speak English, because most countries are influenced by good ol' Hollywood.

7. What nailed it for me was tertiary education. Studying computer science meant that some teachers would ask if they could speak in English. In some cases, I even asked the teacher to do that. I'd rather listen to pretty good English compared to horrible Dutch, and who cares about Dutch anyway in the global economy?

(I know it sounds rude but the difference between some teachers their English and Dutch was really big, you clearly could notice that they didn't learn the language after years of living here. Moreover, they didn't care, and I couldn't blame them. Their teaching dramatically improved and imposing those teachers to speak Dutch by university management was obligatory in a legal sense. It was also silly.)

7+. This effect was even stronger in my master degrees, since they have English as the main language. I was so happy with how many international people were in my classes.

8. Oh, realizing that I am a part of the world that knows a language that is more or less useless outside of my own country (yea, Flanders, former colonies and 16 million traveling Dutchies but whatever, they all speak English as well).

9. Last but not least: the Dutch language is related to English which makes learning easier.

Edit: and then I went on.

10. Being in a relationship with an English native speaker, who happens to be Dutch ethnically (and learned Dutch from her parents). It taught me a lot more nuance regarding emotional words. I thought I knew English but the intuitive cultural nuance is not something I learn by only living in The Netherlands. I'd need to live in a native English speaking country for that.

11. Picking for a style: I choose Californian American English. It's not that my accent sound like it, but when in doubt to pick a formal style that is my style. Most talks and online seminars that I watched came from that placed and influenced me when I was 16 to 17.

12. Asking teachers if I can write my essays in English, in my bachelor degree. I do this for 2 reasons: 1. I learn English better. 2. I noticed some teachers were worse in English than me, so when they graded me, I had the language advantage.

13. When I was very young and on vacation I wasn't very shy to adults. I would have conversations with them and if I didn't know a word I'd run back to my parents to ask and then run back to the conversation.

14. I wanted to learn English.

15. Being young helps, I was 7.

-- For a Dutch person, I think my story is quite common.

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