Studying English can be an expensive investment, especially if you have no framework on how you will achieve fluency. Many students spend years throwing huge amounts of money at course, classes, and applications that get them no closer to their English learning goals. Others spend a lot of money initially, but become so frustrated by their lack of understanding or progress that they give up and believe they are horrible at learning languages.
As an English teacher I think it’s important that you know what to expect from yourself as both a human being and an individual. Learning a new language is not easy, but it also does not need to be the hardest thing in the world.
I would like to go through the 3 stages of English learning and what your expectations for each should be. As well, you should know more or less how many classes you will need to take and how long they will be.
The beginner stage can be the most frustrating for some because your brain will have to learn something new. For others on the other hand, it can be the most rewarding because it is something so new and interesting.
As a beginner student you shouldn’t be putting yourself in any sort of environment where you will be overwhelmed with knowledge. Private classes should be short (30 minutes) and focus on good pronunciation and basic vocabulary, basic questions, and basic sentences that will help you survive if you were stranded in Louisville, Kentucky for a week.
If you are taking group classes online or in an institute, the same principles apply. However, classes can be a little bit longer (60 minutes) since the teacher’s attention will be divided between the students and you will be able to practice with other beginners like yourself.
Classes should also be occurring almost daily. This is important as your brain is creating new space to store all the new information about English it is receiving from you. Since it doesn’t know how to handle this new information, you must bombard it with new information regularly until it learns how to efficiently store it. I would say 5 days a week minimum, 6 days a week if possible. 7 days a week can be tough as everyone needs at least one day off to relax from learning at such an intensive pace.
Learning correct pronunciation of the English phonemic sounds is vital at this stage as it will allow you to avoid forming bad habits. Any bad pronunciation you make a habit at this time will become ingrained in your brain and will be difficult to fix in the future.
Learning grammar should be minimal or not learned at all at this stage. For most beginners, it only confuses them and intimidates them, unless they are linguists or translators.
I would also avoid reading and writing at this stage. Why?
English does not have a phonological system where what you write down is what you will say. For example, though, through, tough. All 3 are words that look similar but have 3 different pronunciations. For a student of a language such as Spanish where what you write is how you will say the word, this can create problems. You will see patterns where you should not see patterns.
Reading and writing at this stage are not bad, just please be careful about not making a connection between what you read/write and how you pronounce your English.
Do you need to take classes?
From personal experience, I believe that most people can get through this stage of English through self study at home. There are so many good audio courses, video courses, and applications, both paid and free that can be used to build a solid English foundation.
By the end of this level you should be able to introduce yourself and be able to have a basic conversation about superficial topics.
Grammar can begin to be introduced or studied more in depth at this stage. You will have seen many examples of the grammar you will begin learning here because of what you learned previously. This is exactly how you learned your mother language as a kid. Your parents and other family members gave you a solid foundation, and when you later entered school, you began to learn about grammar.
If you are taking private classes, you should be able to bump up the time from 30 mins per class to 45-60 mins per class.
Group class times do not need to change. 60 mins is still sufficient amount of time for intermediates. However, if there are options for 90 min classes, those are acceptable.
Frequency of the classes does not need to be as intense as it was when you were a beginner. 3 classes per week should be fine as long as you are doing extracurricular English activities outside of class like listening to music, watching TV series, reading books, writing, or talking to gringos.
Do you need to take classes?
I would definitely advise taking classes at this stage. The reason I say this is that you will need someone to help you form the correct habits you need to speak fluently with as few errors as possible and a minimal accent. The best person to do this of course would be a certified English teacher. Bad habits formed during this stage will be hard to fix when you reach the advanced level.
By the end of this stage you should be able to talk in the present, future, and past without difficulty. You should also be able to begin expressing your opinion about simple topics.
This is also a good time to begin writing sentences and paragraphs in English, as well as reading short texts. Especially important if you plan on taking the TOEFL or IELTS English proficiency exams in the future.
As for pronunciation, this is a good time to focus on getting the correct emphasis on the correct syllables in words and the correct emphasis on words in sentences.
The advanced learner should now be able to direct his own studies if he/she wants.
A 90-120 minute group class once a week focused on advanced grammar, writing, reading, listening, or pronunciation should be enough to guide you towards fluency.
If you prefer private classes, you would probably only need a 60-90 minute class once a week.
At this stage you can begin reading more complex texts and novels if you desire. You should also be able to write a basic paragraph well, and essays if you plan on taking the TOEFL or IELTS tests.
The last stage in pronunciation will be gaining the English rhythm. Learning how we connect words and how we change sounds when we speak quickly in English will allow you to both understand us better, and speak like a native.
You can begin challenging yourself by watching series and movies without subtitles.
At the end of this stage, you should be fluent.
How long will doing this take you?
I would give yourself a minimum of 1 year. Could it be done quicker? Yes, but I find that students who pressure themselves like this will burn out from too much pressure. 1 year is good, but if you have a busy life, and are unable to practice English at least once a day, this could be 2-3 years. As well, these estimates will vary depending on the student.
Students who are able to do intensive English learning courses in North America, Australia, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom have been known to reach fluency in 6 months.
What are your responsibilities as a student if you want to reach fluency quickly?
You should be doing at least 15 minutes of English practice a day. Whether that is listening to music, going to class, watching a movie, or talking to a native speaker, it doesn’t matter, just do something. Doing this will allow you to learn much quicker than someone who just goes to class.
Don’t waste your money on classes or courses that will frustrate you or are unnecessary. By following the framework I laid out above, you should be able to avoid overstudying and overpaying during your language learning process.