I sometimes run across articles and posts around the internet these days saying that non-native speakers don’t need to worry about their English grammar so much.
The argument has some merit (which I’ll address in this blog), but speaking as someone who’s been teaching English for well over a decade, I’d say it’s not always the best advice.
It’s true that perfectionism and worrying about our grammar makes it very hard to improve. If we’re too stressed about results, it can be counterproductive, and we won’t make progress. Or we’ll get stuck on little details that aren’t as important and we’ll get shut down.
Sometimes students criticize themselves very harshly. Then they may give up because they don’t believe progress is possible or that they’re even capable of it. This may be a result of the education they received in their home country, which might have been very critical and discouraging, expecting perfect results. “What, you only got 99% on the test!??” This stuff has an impact on our ability to learn. So at some point, we have to start being kind to ourselves in order to get the results we want.
I know many international professionals who believe their English is a lot worse than it is and as a result, have stopped trying to improve.
(There’s also the problem that in many countries, certain aspects of English grammar are simply not taught correctly. Someday I’ll have to do a world tour and deal with that!)
When I hear students harshly assessing their own English skills, I’m always reminded how important it is to have the right mindset. To have a realistic view of how language acquisition works. You have to be patient and kind with yourself. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, to use the old metaphor.
You have to practice and dedicate the time. As in all things that are difficult but worthwhile, true results come with time. And this requires some patience.
So understand that we must be kind with ourselves, but that we also have to put in the work. (I always compare this process to getting in shape at the gym, which doesn’t always bring a smile to the student’s face!)
Anyway, none of this implies that grammar isn’t important. On the contrary.
Good grammar is important. Especially in business communication, which relies on clarity and the ability to communicate nuance and fine distinctions. You need to be able to do that if you’re going to be taken seriously in the business world. There’s no way around it: a good grasp of English grammar will improve your communication ability enormously.
And it will help you understand when native speakers are talking. Do you want to be the only one in the room who didn’t quite get what then client was saying? It’s not a great look.
So how do you improve?
I recommend the following approach and have seen great results with students who follow it. It requires some dedication in terms of time and is not as sexy or exciting as an app. But it does work over the long run. And it’s based on fundamental principles of language acquisition.
Business English practice plan
1.Set intentions for your English and write them down– Identify the specific speaking, grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation points you want to improve and write them down in a journal. Next to each point, write down what you intend to do to improve it.
Change your bad habits
2.Dedicate at least 20 minutes per day to practicing and study. Follow the three modalities:
- Write sentences using the grammar or pronunciation focus point. These sentences should be related to your personal experience and professional field.
- Recite these sentences into your smart phone, focusing on pacing, diction, and clarity.
- Listen to the recording. It’s important that your brain ‘hear’ the structures as well as create them in writing. If it’s pronunciation, where you hear mistakes, re-record it until it is correct. .
3.Read online articles or blogs related to your industry (this can be on Linked In or elsewhere. Find sentences in these articles that contain grammar or vocabulary that you need to improve or learn. Write these sentences down in your journal and use them also for pronunciation practice.)
4.Listen to audio blogs and podcasts on your favorite topics. Repeating these listening exercises can be very helpful. I once had a student from Japan who’d made an audio tape of the movie Back to The Future. He told me he’d listened to it over 900 times. His English was very good and I fully believe this somewhat obsessive repetition was why.
5.Record yourself again. Find a few paragraphs online of native speaker English (Yelp reviews and TedTalks transcripts are great for this.) Record yourself on your smartphone or other device and then listen to it. You’ll be surprised how much this will help with pronunciation and with learning new vocabulary and structures!
Intentionality and awareness
6.Use the new structures and pronunciation points in your daily life. Be conscious of your speaking style and your grammar but don’t stress yourself out about them. Try to remember to use the new structures when you can but also remember the real work is what you do in points 1-6. During the day in your normal conversation, don’t worry too much but make corrections when you can.
Good luck. Keep to this system and within a few weeks or months you will see improvement!