By Paola Pascual on Sep 30, 2021 4:16:00 PM
The ability to communicate effectively in English has become an absolute must in today's global workplace. If you never got to learn perfect English, you may think that it is not for you, or that you will never feel fully comfortable speaking English. Well, I'm glad to spill the beans for you –you can become an excellent communicator in English, even if this is not your main language.
If you haven't achieved proficiency yet, it can be because you haven't found your perfect learning style. You know, each learner is a unique individual with very specific needs and skills. Teaching everyone the same way would be like giving everyone the same show size and expect them all to walk comfortably. That being said, we have observed that English language learners from around the world tend to have similar concerns and questions. And that is what this article is all about. After years in the ESL industry and helping corporate learners in all roles and departments –from HR managers to CEOs to front-line workers–, we have collected your top 10 questions about learning English. Read the answers below.
Top 10 English Language Learning Questions
- 1. What can I do if I can't find the right word? (Read answer)
- 2. How can I explain something if I can’t find the exact word? (Read answer)
- 3. How can I improve my listening skills? (Read answer)
- 4. How can I expand my vocabulary? (Read answer)
- 5. How can I write better emails and faster? (Read answer)
- 6. How can I learn prepositions? (Read answer)
- 7. How can I improve my fluency in English? And my confidence? (Read answer)
- 8. How can I improve my accent in English? (Read answer)
- 9. What can I do if I don’t understand my manager or a client? (Read answer)
- 10. How can I link my ideas together to sound more like a native speaker? (Read answer)
1. What can I do if I get stuck?
When English is not your main language, it is normal to get nervous and have the fear of losing your train of thought, unable to move on. Getting stuck in the middle of a sentence is more normal than you might think –especially when you are in front of your manager or other native-English speakers. To avoid this kind of situation, don’t overthink or stress over grammar mistakes, learn vocabulary in chunks (blocks), and learn to paraphrase.
If you do get stuck and cannot find the right word, first of all, don’t panic! Nobody is perfect and we all get stuck sometimes. Take a deep breath, relax, use one of the phrases below, and start over again! The techniques below will help you navigate this situation:
- Ask ("Sorry, what was I saying?" "Excuse me, where were we?").
- Pause and be open ("I lost my train of thought.").
- Repeat the beginning of the sentence or use other words ("I’ll start again," "Sorry, I meant to say that…" "Let me rephrase that," "Actually, what I meant to say was that…").
- Gain time by drinking water or asking a question.
2. How can I explain something if I can’t find the exact word?
“I know how to explain it in my own language, but when I try to explain it in English, I can’t find the exact words.”
This is probably one of the most common concerns among our learners, and it is especially frustrating when you have a vast knowledge of a topic in one language, but then you are not able to express it so clearly in English.
Let’s imagine you are trying to say “we develop pioneering techniques” in the middle of an important demo with a potential customer, but you can’t really remember the word pioneering. What can you do? Try the following tips:
- Use synonyms and similar words. Think of words that mean the same (or almost the same). For example, innovative, creative, or groundbreaking.
- Make it simple. Rephrase it in a more simple way, without having to use that word. For example, “We are the first people to develop these techniques.”
- Say the opposite. Use antonyms to state the opposite of what you have in mind. For example, “Nobody else had created these techniques before.”
- Generalize. Use broader terms. For example, “We work with new systems.”
Check out our article 8 Useful Ways to Make Your Point With Precision & Clarity for more tips on this topic.
3. How can I improve my listening skills?
Improving your English listening skills takes time, but the good news is that you can do it while commuting to work, taking a shower, or doing the dishes at home. How? Listen to podcasts or TED Talks about topics you find interesting. Finding inspiring ones is key to enjoying this activity and wanting to keep listening.
Some podcasts even offer the transcript, which you can read at the same time as you listen, or copy some phrases you like, or even write down how the speaker pronounces the words.
The best podcasts to improve your English listening? These are some of my personal picks:
- Talaera Talks - Business English podcast with loads of tips and vocabulary
- No Such Thing as a Fish - Quite Interesting facts
- The Infinite Monkey Cage - Comedy and popular science
- Stuff You Should Know - Conversations on how things work
- Planet Money - Economy explained in an entertaining way
- Hidden Brain - Fascinating psychology
- TED Talks - Inspirational speeches on interesting topics
4. How can I expand my vocabulary?
Learning vocabulary the old way requires time and dedication and is anything but inspiring. Trying to memorize a vocabulary list is as boring as it is ineffective, so forget about your school days and start improving your English more efficiently. The first thing to remember is that every step matters. If it is bringing you closer to your goal, it counts.
- Start by setting everything to English –your phone settings, your computer, your washing machine... The more English surrounding you, the better.
- Forget about dubbed movies. Watch everything in original version. You may use English subtitles if you still find it hard to understand (or even subtitles in your own language).
- Instead of wasting time on social media, invest 5 of those minutes in something that can help you improve your English (like listening to a podcast, reading a book, or watching an interview in English).
- If the urge to check social media is too big, at least follow accounts that offer language tips and resources (like our Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram 🙂).
- Read books and the news in English, and don't try to translate every single word you don't know. Try to understand it by the context first, and only look up those words or expressions that are either relevant to the message or keep coming up repeatedly.
- Keep track of the new words. You can add the new words you find to a Note on your phone or computer, use a notebook (if you still prefer old-school paper), or create a personal dictionary with flashcards on Quizlet. It will be much more effective if you write them in a sentence (much better than adding just the word). Go over your list every now and then and try to use the new words in a sentence.
More tips on this topic: Learning Business English? +20 top tips you need to know
5. How can I write better emails and faster?
One of the concerns of many of our learners is that they are scared of making mistakes in their emails and this results in them taking too long to write them. The most important thing when writing emails is to have a clear goal. The first step is to think about what the topic of your email is –and pick just one topic per email (2 maximum). This will keep both you and your reader focused and increase the effectiveness of your emails.
To write better and faster emails, structure your messages using the template above and copy-paste some of these +150 useful email phrases. Once you have written it out, check your spelling with Grammarly (or work on your emails with an instructor).
6. How can I learn prepositions easily?
Prepositions are those little words that connect other words and are usually a difficult part to learn in a new language, like in, on, at, by, for, of, under, after, under, or before. They sometimes make sense, like in 'The dog is under the table'. This example is easy to learn because most languages have an equivalent. However, other (many) times, it is not so obvious:
- They work under pressure. (Why ‘under’ and not ‘with’?)
- He was accused of favoritism, (Why ‘of’ and not ‘for’?)
These are fixed uses of prepositions and understanding and learning them can result in a headache. The good news is that even if you get them wrong, your listener is probably going to understand what you mean since they are not the most important part of the sentence.
We understand, though, that you want to get them right. So is there a way to learn them and avoid making mistakes? How can you remember the correct preposition? Is there a secret technique? I am very sorry to tell you that there’s no magic bullet. However, there are little tricks that can help you.
Tip 1. Learn the whole sentence. We learn by association, which means It is easier to remember prepositions if you learn them in a sentence.
- Instead of learning "apply + for", learn "Did you apply for that great job?"
Tip 2. Make the expressions relevant to you. We remember things easier if we feel emotionally connected to them. Make sure that when you learn prepositions in a sentence, that sentence speaks about your life or your emotions. If the example is relevant to you, the memory of it will last longer. This depends completely on the learner.
- For me, the example "I am responsible for managing the company's blog" is more relevant than "I am responsible for getting the best interest rate".
Tip 3. Keep a notebook (or document). Write down all those relevant examples in a notebook or document and read them every once in a while. Why? Read Tip 4.
Tip 4. Spaced repetition. Have you ever heard of spaced repetition? It's a very useful hack to learn a language. This simple learning technique consists of reviewing information at gradually increasing intervals. Let's look at an easy example:
Why do most people remember that the capital of France is Paris, but not so many people remember what the capital of Zambia is? Mainly because we have most likely heard the first one many more times. If you learn today that the capital of Zambia is Lusaka and never hear of it again, chances are, you'll forget. But if tomorrow you read again "The capital of Zambia is Lusaka", and then you read it again next week, and next month, and then next year, it will probably get stuck in your head, and the chances of remembering it grow exponentially.
To apply spaced repetition to your learning plan, set up a little calendar to review your document with the prepositions and relevant examples to make sure you don't forget them.
Tip 5. Use visuals and color. Using images and color will help your visual memory remember examples much better. Group all the expressions with the same preposition and give them a special color, then do the rest with the other groups.
7. How can I improve my fluency in English? And my confidence?
This is the next million-dollar question! How to improve fluency and confidence in speaking English? Well, easier said than done, if you want to become fluent in English the first thing you need is not to be afraid of making mistakes. Remember that being fluent in a language does not mean that you can speak perfectly; rather, it means that you can express yourself easily and coherently.
Second, practice makes perfect. Find friends, colleagues, or a teacher that can help you with this part. The more you speak, the more natural it will feel.
Shadowing is a technique that will help you feel more in tune with the language and understand pronunciation and intonation patterns much better. Prepare an audio file and its transcript (you can use TED talks or a book and its audiobook). First, listen to it as you follow the text. Then, practice mimicking the speaker, repeat exactly the same words with the same pronunciation and intonation.
Fixed phrases and idioms are very common among native speakers. If you learn them and include them in your vocabulary you will feel you can express yourself much more effectively. You can find more useful tips to become a better communicator here.
8. How can I improve my accent in English?
You actually do not need to get rid of your accent. We all have one, and it adds personality. As long as it is clearly understood and you don't face misunderstandings.
You can improve your accent by mimicking your favorite actor or actress. Shadowing, as we explained in the previous question, can also help you improve your accent in English. You can also learn how to pronounce difficult sounds with Lisa's videos on our YouTube channel. You can read all the tips in our free guide How To Improve Your English Pronunciation.
9. What can I do if I don’t understand my manager or a client?
Who hasn't been in that uncomfortable situation where your manager or client said something and you couldn't really understand a word of what they said? Their accent might be difficult to understand, you are unfamiliar with the vocabulary they use, or the just spoke at the speed of light. What can you do when you can't really work out what they just said? Well, nodding and smiling and hoping it was not an open-ended question is an option, although not the one we recommend. Check out our podcast episode How To Ask For Clarification Like A Native English Speaker and read the phrases below.
Instead of awkwardly nodding, you can be clear and ask them to repeat:
- I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that.
- Could you say that again?
- Can you repeat that?
- What was that again?
- Sorry, what did you say?
- Could you speak a bit louder?
- Can you speak a little louder?
- Did you say A or B?
Or if they have said it a few times already, you can ask them to be more specific:
- Could you be a little more specific?
- Could you give me some more details?
- What is it you would like to know exactly?
- What would you like to know more about?
10. How can I link my ideas together to sound more like a native speaker?
One of the tricks to sound more like a native speaker is to use linkers or connectors. These will connect your ideas together and you will seem much more fluent and in control. Look at the examples:
- Without connectors: "We liked the candidate. She was very enthusiastic and experienced. She is very young but she meets all the requirements. I think we should invite her to the next interview."
- With connectors: "We really liked the candidate, especially because she was very enthusiastic and experienced. Although she is indeed very young, she meets all the requirements, so I think we should invite her to the next interview."
Here you have another example with connectors: "While Company B kept focusing on the negatives, they seemed interested in the product. That's why we were not completely sure if we would manage to get this client. However, we kept insisting and providing them with solutions, and as a result, they decided to close the deal!"
They really make a difference, they make your speech more coherent and connected and you will look totally in control.
Download this list with the most useful transition words and phrases and include them in your sentences.
Looking for more ways to improve your business English communication?
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- Personalized English training - 1:1 sessions, group courses, or company webinars tailored to your needs
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If you enjoyed this article, keep reading:
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- 150+ Useful Email Phrases That Will Make Your Life Easier
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- Learning Business English? +20 Top Tips You Need To Know