Seven Ways to Build Your English

Practice – but how much?

Anywhere from between 20 hours to 10,000 hours – according to academics or entrepreneurs – depending on which group of experts you wish to believe.

If you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which explains the 10,000-hour rule and the concept of deliberate practice developed by the academic researchers, I suggest you add it to your wish list. If you can’t face reading the book, here’s a wonderful animated summary of the book produced by Fight Mediocrity.

It’s not so much a question of how much or how long you practice – but HOW you practice. The concept of ‘deliberate practice’ can be adapted to anything, including language learning. It’s about practicing in a deliberate way – pushing your skill set as much as possible – with a view to achieving a predetermined goal.

Now that we’ve established that you’re going to be practising in a ‘deliberate manner’, you need to make a deliberate practice plan and fill it with different ways of improving your English.

Here are some ideas.

Shadow – but who?

Ever heard of ‘shadowing’? This is a language-learning technique developed by a US professor. It’s actually quite good fun, although if you opt to do it outdoors the way he suggests, you’ll certainly attract some puzzled looks! It’s a technique used extensively by interpreter trainees, as they try to mimic the pronunciation, inflections and rhythm of their chosen language.

josh 20 hours

TED talk with transcript showing

If you find shadowing hard without the written text, I suggest you look to the transcription option in YouTube for help. For instance, if you watch the Josh Kaufman’s Ted Talk ‘The First 20 Hours – How to Learn Anything’, try opening the transcript and mimicking Josh word for word. You’ll be amazed how this helps you tune your ear to English and how the repetition builds your English vocabulary and expressions.

Record – what, me?

With the mini computers we all carry around in our pockets these days, it’s easy to record ourselves speaking. And it’s a very good exercise, even though I think we all shy away from listening to ourselves speak in another language.

What can be very powerful with this area of practice is to find a native English speaker who can give you feedback on your pronunciation, intonation and flow.

Write – but what?

We all know the only way to improve our writing skills is to – write! But what? I once had a business coach who asked me to write for 20 minutes every morning. ‘Write what?’ I squeaked, in shock! ‘Just write, Bridget, write!’ So I did. And after about a week I was hopping out of bed to write in the mornings. It really helped me get over my blank page fear as I had to face one every day.

You could try writing what writers call a ‘stream of consciousness’. It’s an exercise where you transcribe all the thoughts jostling around in your head.


The art is to get to a point where your conscious mind has shut down and your sub-conscious has taken over. The beauty of this practice is that even native English speakers don’t worry in the least about grammar or spelling. The idea is to zone out and let the words tumble out onto the page.

Read – but what?

My advice has always been to read articles or books on a subject you are passionate about. There is no faster way to speed up the acquisition of vocabulary than the thirst for new knowledge of a subject that you love. Whether it’s fishing, football or fashion, find a magazine or articles about your preferred subject in English and get acquainted with your favourite world in another language and culture. 

Immersion – but how?

Sadly, we can’t all afford to immerse ourselves in an English-speaking country, but we can make our own little immersion programme by listening, watching and reading English instead of our mother tongue.

Another form of immersion is to study something in English, rather than the English language itself. You’ll find your focus moves from the actual language onto the subject you’re acquiring. For example, I started practising yoga when I moved to China. I acquired all the Mandarin vocabulary relating to parts of the body or body movement through the sheer physical (painful) repetition of yoga. 

Passive learning – but, really?

Yes. There is a time for deliberate practice and there is a time for passive learning. There is a time for kicking back on the sofa and watching your favourite English film, and yes, it can be a Disney film or a Pixar cartoon. You will be absorbing vocabulary without even realising it. Let your brain do what it does best.

Happy deliberate practice and let me know how you get on!

Give me more:

In this article about my struggles to learn Chinese, I take myself to see a therapist to understand why I’m not progressing with my Mandarin and how to cope with my guilt!

Language trading – something I did with various partners such as my vegetable vendor, housekeeper and yoga teacher in China!

The most impressive application of deliberate practice to language learning is the story of Irish/American stand-up comedian Des Bishop. His goal was to speak Mandarin Chinese well enough to perform stand-up comedy in front of a Chinese audience – and make them laugh – in the space of a year!