September 17, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Any type of passive exposure (i.e., listening to podcasts, watching TV shows, reading books, etc.) while useful… isn’t going to do much by itself.

But if you want to want to improve your English, you will need a balance of focused intensive studying… accompanied by extensive passive exposure. And this is because when you study, you’re opening the door for passive exposure to let it do its job. Once you’ve studied English intensively, passive exposure can help make it fluent.

But if you’re only going to rely on watching TV shows and listening to podcasts in English, it’s going to be extremely ineffective. I mean, sure, absolutely, passive exposure can help. Reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching shows in English are great sources of exposure to supplement your study time… but it’s not something that you should ONLY focus on.

Ultimately, if you want to improve your English fast, you’re going to need a balanced, structured routine, which is what I call the Two Track Approach. You can learn more about this when you download the free one-hour training I created.

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook

September 9, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

It’s not that you can’t speak English well (despite having good grades in school)… it’s because you’re probably overthinking it.

You see, what you learn in school is quite different from what you actually use in real life. In school, they taught you a sort of method that forces this kind of
very slow, conscious, careful processing of English learning.

But learning English is really just a case of balancing focused intensive learning and relaxed English usage. And again, the keyword here is BALANCE.

See, if you’re just intent on thinking that “examination is king”, then you’re always just going to have that habit. You’re always going to think about your grades… and that’s very counterproductive.

And, you know, this type of habit is especially true in Asian contexts as well. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms I have about the way schools in Japan approach “speaking” (which I honestly think isn’t speaking at all) is their scripted “speaking exercises”. I mean, sure, it’s useful in some way, but if you’re going to consistently rely on these exercises, your brain is always going to look for that crutch. Your brain’s always going to need that help to speak English… whilst worrying about your grades in English at the same time.

But anyway, the point here is… you need to understand why you feel like your English isn’t getting any better. Are you just focusing on your intensive learning and your grades? Or are you just using English in your relaxed time and doing nothing else?

What you should do is learn which part of your learning method you’re lacking… then fix it.

Now, if you want to learn the proper way to balance your learning routine and how to fix it, you can start with the one-hour free training I made.

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook

Filed Under: ESL, Learning English
September 1, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

One of the most influential books I’ve read in terms of getting shit done is a book called “How to Write a Lot” by Paul Silvia.

Now, this book is actually about academic writing.

It’s for academics who need to do a shit load of writing to get ahead of the game. He wrote in the book that if you’re an academic, you must publish or perish. But, many academics will still procrastinate… and it’s tempting to just do everything else that’s not writing. But this is actually a huge mistake. Because as an academic, the thing that defines your success is the quality and frequency of what you’re putting out in the world. So, you have to prioritise your writing. Treat your writing time as something super important, sacred.

Silvia says for academics, writing time should be scheduled like a meeting or appointment that’s totally fixed and inflexible.

This principle is true when you’re learning English as well.

If you need English in your life, and it’s a barrier to you getting ahead… then improving your English needs to be given top priority. It needs to go in your calendar, and it needs to be sacred.

No changing the time.

No letting other people say, “surely you can do that later?”


Your English learning time is more important than anything else.

For more on this and ideas for what to do in this time, you might like to sign up for my daily email tips for speaking better English. The place to go is here.

Dr Julian Northbrook

Filed Under: Learning English, Sitcom
August 12, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

This is a great question.

First off, the question itself implies if you can improve your English by ONLY watching sitcoms… in which case the answer is no, you can’t.

At least not effectively and definitely not very quickly.

Here’s an extract:

You see, any type of passive exposure (i.e., watching sitcoms, reading books, listening to podcasts, etc.) while helpful as a form of extra exposure is not going to do much by itself. But if you love sitcoms, then yes, absolutely, they’re a fantastic source of exposure to English. But again, if you’re going to just use passive exposure, it’s just not going to be enough.

Actually, studies have shown that sitcoms are a good source of learning English in terms of words, phrases, expressions, etc. However, sitcoms (though useful in conversational English) tend to be hyperreal.

One example of this hyperreality is the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” (which I absolutely loved). They purposely use a lot of scientific jargon because that’s what the show is all about. I mean, even as a native speaker, I had a hard time understanding some of the words because they use a lot of scientific terms. And if you’re watching it thinking, “Oh I don’t understand any of these words, I must be shit at English”, you’re kind of missing the point of the show because it’s designed like that for comedy effect. And another good example would be “How I Met Your Mother”. I mean yes, they do use very conversational English. However, you also have to understand they designed these shows for comedy effect – a comic book or theme park representation of real life.

Another example of a sitcom being a theme park representation of real-life is the show “Emily in Paris”. In fact, it was so heavily criticised because it was SO exaggerated – portraying stereotypical Parisians and their culture to create humour. Parisians in and out of Paris argued that the show is totally exaggerated that it no longer represents what Parisian culture actually is.

And, you know, the point here is yes, absolutely, sitcoms are a great source of exposure to supplement your study time. But sitcoms are also a genre of English unto themselves. And because they’re hyperreal, they’re not actual real-life representations of how people actually speak and behave in the real world.

So, yes, sitcoms are a great source of exposure, but no, you shouldn’t take them too literally.

But ultimately, if you want to improve your spoken English fast, you’re going to need a balanced, structured routine that is to have focused intensive learning and exposure or usage of English in relaxed settings.

This is one of the things that I teach my coaching clients (go here if you’re interested in this).

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook

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 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