I used to learn French by leaving lists all over the place, even on the bathroom tiles. I tried making lists on particular topics – sport, names of plants, adverbs, the weather. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t. Then my sister moved to Belgium and invited me for an extended stay. We didn’t do many ‘touristy’ things, but ordinary family things – the supermarket, buying children’s shoes, going to the dry cleaners and making a complaint and all the rest. How my French flourished! The fact is, I was learning in context.


Not everyone makes or uses word lists, some people learn by reading simple texts in their chosen language - I learnt to read Urdu from a child’s alphabet book at first, and then used primers and story books meant for primary children and it worked very well, however, I was living and working in an Urdu rich environment. So if you are going to use these methods to improve your English you need to enrich your environment.

What do I mean by "enrich your environment", well you can do this in many different ways: Subscribe to an English language magazine perhaps, or listen to the BBC World service, watch DVDS and seek out English speakers for conversation. There is also of course the Internet  - lots of language learning opportunities there and not just on language learning sites. If you follow a sport try reading the reports in English instead of your mother tongue. The same can apply to car adverts, cooking pages, news items and lots, lots more.  

After reading, and re-reading simple texts several times you will usually be able to remember all the vocabulary, and that's because you are learning in the best possible way – in context – your mind soon works out the links between words, and even when you come across something completely new there will be clues that help from what you already know. Concentrating on phrases and sentences rather than individual word works so much better than just learning lists of words in isolation.  You also learn, almost effortlessly, such things as word order, grammar and useful phrases etc.  

In most books some words will occur over and over again, but in slightly different contexts, so your language learning becomes more flexible and effective.  Even without  a dictionary you soon learn new meanings. There will be some words you can’t work out – those are the ones the dictionary is for.

In a city near here there are many, many migrants from Eastern Europe. There are thousands of them – the problem with that is there is always someone to speak Ukrainian or Polish with, so they just aren’t learning English. Many of those I see are young mothers, usually talking away to another young mum in their native language.  What a handicap for their children when they start school here with no English! Also, what happens when they fall ill or are pregnant? How do they come to understand what the doctor is saying or explain any symptoms they have?

As a former midwife I can remember mums coming to antenatal clinics with a five year old to act as a translator.  How many 5 year olds can understand enough to answer ‘When did your mother last have a period?’ or other such personal questions?  Often men learn more quickly, not because they're men, but because they are more likely to be interacting with the general population, especially at work, but not everyone can take time off to accompany their wife or girlfriend to clinics.

Am I describing you? If you are living and working abroad, of course it is easier to make friends with people from home, but remember the rest of us are here and we’d usually be happy to help.