Filed Under: Learning English
July 30, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

There are a few, but from my experience (working with high-level English learners, helping them to go from “okay…” to “amazing!”) these are some of the biggest:

  1. All study all the time, with no using (which results in slow, academic English).
  2. All using all the time, with no focused study (which results in fast, but very messy, chaotic and disorganised English which is hard for people to understand).
  3. Using the wrong kind of materials for your goals (e.g. studying newspapers or news broadcasts and expecting to get good at conversation… which is very different).
  4. Trying to improve accuracy and naturalness by studying more grammar (but that’s not how natives speak — “could you aid me in this task” is grammatical, but very unnatural… “Thanks very much” is ungrammatical, but very natural).
  5. Thinking memorising more words will make you fluent (it won’t).
  6. Living in an English speaking country and expecting that to be enough to improve (it won’t).
  7. Doing nothing (you’d be amazed at how many people I talk to who complain that they don’t improve, but are actually doing nothing to make it happen).
  8. Doing the same things, and expecting different results (if you’re not progressing in English… you need to change the things you’re doing).

Now, the fast way to improve?

Use a method which works, materials that are going to give you natural samples of English you’ll actually use, and change the way you think about English (because it’s probably wrong). I’d also add to this, work with a coach who can help guide you and show you how to fix your personal problems quickly and easily.

On the first few points (method, materials, and thinking) I’ve got a free training here that will teach you the nuts-and-bolts of improving as an intermediate or over English learner — it’s here.

Hope that helps.

Julian Northbrook

July 29, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

The answer to both questions is: stop focusing on words and grammar.

The big difference between people who are intermediate in English and people who are advanced (and beyond) is that they’ve learned to CHUNK their English well, and this has little to do with grammar.

For example: “take a picture” and “make a picture” are both grammatical – but only one sounds natural; “thanks very much” is ungrammatical, but every native speaker says it.

So studying grammar isn’t enough, or even the best way to do it.

Same if you keep forgetting your words — it’s because you’re trying to remember words, but you should be learning “chunks” of words.

Linguist John Rupert Firth said:

“You shall know a word by the company it keeps.”

And this is true.

What it means is, to really understand a wordーits true meaning, nuance and useーyou’ve got to understand how it combines with other words. Words rarely appear alone. And indeed, native speakers aren’t, for the most part, speaking using grammar rules and individual words like you were taught.

Rather, as I said, we speak using ‘chunks’.

We used to think native speakers had grammar rules in their head, and that they combined these with words to make sentences… but this never made much sense. Speaking like this, we shouldn’t be able to speak fluently because the brain’s RAM (working memory) simply isn’t that good. Using grammar and words, we’d speak slowly and awkwardly (like most non-native speakers who have learned to speak in this way). Also, we shouldn’t sound natural simply because most “grammatical” English isn’t natural (again, “make a picture” is grammatical — but only, “take a picture is natural”).

Native speakers speak in chunks. And if you also want to speak in an advanced, native-like way, that’s how you need to speak, too.

The easiest way to do this is to learn in chunks right from the beginning.

And I have a free training here that will show you how to do that.

Julian Northbrook

July 28, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

I work with high-level English learners speaking in business, work and day-to-day life. This is a very common problem.

There could be a couple of reasons why it happens.

But the biggest are:

  1. You haven’t learnt the language well and
  2. You’ve practised in comfortable situations.
  3. A third problem is that people simply don’t know what to say (i.e. their English is fine, but they don’t have anything to say).

Let’s break this down.

We tend to think of fluency as being one thing, but that’s not true.

Fluency is actually FIVE things.

They’re all happening in your brain together, and that creates the illusion of fluency.

The first of these things is what we call “encoding”.

You haven’t learnt the language well

Have you learnt the English you need, in a way that properly puts it into long-term memory where it can be found and used?

If you’re memorising random words from lists, that won’t work. You need to learn them on a deeper level, together whith the phrases, expressions and chunks they are commonly used in. There’s a detailed (and free) training here which will get you started with this kind of “deep” learning.

You’ve practised only in comfortable situations

Another one of the five elements is what we call ‘cognitive load’. And this is the most common reason your mind might “go blank”.

It’s like your computer. If you’ve got a hundred programmes running at once, they’re all going to struggle to run smoothly. Eventually, you get the blue-screen of death, and your computer shuts down. But if you close everything down and just let one program run, it’ll do so efficiently. Or, to extend the metaphor, “fluently”.

What this means is, if you’re not confident and you panic and get flustered, you’ll struggle to speak because your mind will be taken over by other things – the panic and the fear and the fight-or-flight response that comes with it.

There isn’t enough “RAM” left for speaking well.

A lot of the time this is caused by practise in easy, comfortable situations (like a conversation teacher or partner), but not enough is scary, real world situations (see here for an article and video I wrote about this).

The solution is to free up your brain as much as possible.

Learn English in the right way (study this free training), know WHAT to say and HOW to say it in conversation.

Then get good (and get over your fear) by using English in scary in real-world situations.

Hope that helps.

Julian Northbrook

July 27, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Yes and no.

It’s not hard in the sense of having to learn it in the way someone learning English as a second language does. We learn our “palette” of sounds along with our first language as kids.

But there are plenty of things we mispronounce, just like, I’m sure, people in your native language.

A couple of years ago one of my clients pointed out I was pronouncing the word “taciturn” wrong (taKIturn). I’m not sure when or why I picked up the incorrect pronunciation – but of course, as soon as I realised it was wrong my pronunciation simply changed (and no, it wasn’t difficult to do).

Being a “native speaker” means being completely unconscious of the way you use language. And yes, that means unconscious (most of the time anyway) of the imperfections, too.

My speech is full of imperfections.

No excuses or explanation — because I honestly don’t see why justification is necessary.

Humans are wrong about most things most of the time. Who cares if I make a mistake with my English.

But, and this is the important part, herein lies the paradox of language learning. You go to school and English classes focus exclusively on accuracy (it’s easy to measure, after all). Yet in reality, there is no true “accurate” model of English because the English I know is a collection of my own (often flawed) experiences.

And my experience of life (and therefore English) is very different to anybody else’s experience.

Of course, the concept of a “standard English” exists.

But that’s all it is.

A concept.

As an aside, a great exercise for developing good pronunciation—particularly rhythm and good “chunking” skills—in English as a second language is “Shadowing”. I’ve got a free guide here, for anyone who wants it.

Julian Northbrook

July 26, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Let me answer this by asking a similar question: how many pieces of spaghetti do you need to make a meal?

Obviously, there’s no answer to this.

Arguably just two pieces don’t make a full meal… but it all depends on how hungry I am. There’s no clear point where we can say “not a meal”, “now is a meal”.

Fluency in English doesn’t necessarily depend on the number of words you have memorised.

It just doesn’t work that way.

I remember this quasi-experiment I watched on Japanese TV many years ago. They sent reporters out on the street to talk to Japanese and American people. They asked the Japanese people “Can you speak English?” they would say no. When they asked the Americans (despite having had no Japanese education whatsoever) they’d reply with simple Japanese words like “konnichiwa” or “kimono”. If the only thing you need to do in Japan is to get some sushi, knowing the word “sushi” allows for a fairly fluent conversation.

But, say, you’re a sales rep for an international company. You’re going to need more vocabulary than simple words because your job depends on how you use specific words in your daily conversations.

The point is, how much you need will always depend on you and your life. The words you need to know to depend on your specific needs.

If you want to learn more about my approach to improving your English (without having to worry about pointless questions like this one) go here and sign up for the free daily English email tips I write.

Dr Julian Northbrook

July 23, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

How do you sound classy when you speak English?

Good question.

Let’s look at the dictionary definition:

Classy: adjective
Stylish and sophisticated.

Speaking English well requires far more than just English. You’ve also got to have intelligent and interesting things to talk about.


Stories to tell.

Ultimately, no matter how fluent your English is… boring is boring.

So it’s not about learning big, complicated words or rare grammar constructions. Instead, the first step is developing a stylish and classy personality (whatever that means to you, in your personal situation). Once you’ve got that, it’s all about communicating with other people in a natural, clear way.

Hope that helps.

I send free daily email tips to help you speak better English — you can get them by going here.

Julian Northbrook