How can people improve their English?

This is a question that I hope 林沛理 and 劉天賜 will not ask me tomorrow
(Tuesday) night on 講東講西 . I hope that they will instead
ask Benjamin Au Yeung, who will also be speaking, how people can improve their Chinese.

Because of my work, I am often asked the embarrassing question above. Embarrassing to
me, because I don’t have a good and concise answer. So very often I try to get
away from the embarrassing situation with a tongue-in-cheek reply: “ I have no
idea. If I had known the answer, I would have become a billionaire.”

Which is probably true: English language teaching is a multi-billion-dollar business. If
only there was a magical formula, and I knew 1% of it, I would be the richest
man on earth.

Sure I could give some quick and vague answers: read more, speak more, don’t be afraid of
making mistakes, make English-speaking friends, go to English movies, listen to
English radio, find someone to practice English conversation with …. But who is
interested in such commonplace, uncool, answers?

Alternatively, I can delve into the very micro issues, such as:

You want to improve your speaking? OK, first of all, let’s look into the psychological
processes of producing speech. Writers generally agree that these are the six
stages involved: first is conceptualization (blah blah blah)…….and finally,
production. And these are the 6 factors that affect fluency. The first is
familiarity with the subject matter. … And then to be communicative effective,
you have to know your objectives in speaking …. And in real-life situations, we
speak for different purposes; so we need different speaking skills; these are
the 61 speaking skills in the HK English language curriculum …. And then,
spoken language is not just written language sounded out … these are some of
the features of spoken language …and what is the grammar of spoken language
like …..what about pronunciation ……

Of course, my listener will have long fallen asleep, unless they are taking my MA
course on the Teaching of Listening and Speaking. (Even so, I can’t guarantee
that my students are really awake and listening.)

And I haven’t even started to talk about other aspects of language learning:
listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary, discourse, communication
strategies, learning strategies …….

The MA ELT at CUHK requires 336 contact hours. And most of the participants, who are
usually experienced ESL teachers, have already completed initial training in
English Language teaching.

IF you ask course members who have completed the 336 hours how people can improve
their English, it is very likely that, armed with all the knowledge
they have learnt, they are not able to give a straightforward answer to the

So I don’t have a quick answer to the question how people can improve their English. But I
know a simple reason why some people in HK do not succeed in learning English:
our social values, our education system, and sometimes the way we teach
English, have joined hands to strangle students’ motivation to learn English.

I hope I will be able to elaborate on that later, but for now, let me point out that I
know a few people who have learnt Japanese, Korean,
German, etc. for only three to four years (compared with 14 years of English learning by the time a student finishes secondary school) and have reached a very high level of
proficiency. Their secret? A high level of motivation.


One thought on “How can people improve their English?

  1. tommycc

    I used to teach English in Thailand- it is truly HUGE business. Unfortunately, that takes away from the credibility as greed gets involved, as well as quality- most of the teachers over there are travelers that end up falling in love with a place away from home, and want to extend the holiday a few months. It is quite ridiculous, and the only ones that suffer are the kids as the teachers turn over and over and over.

    I became very jaded with it all, sometimes I kind of wish I had stuck it out- for the kids. Now I do web design! ( is an example)…sheesh!

    Great post, keep up the amazing work- and the best to you for giving your all to teach.

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