This post is a bit different from my usual content, which focuses on translation and the technology that makes translators' lives easier, but before becoming a full-time translator and interpreter I was an English teacher and a teacher trainer, so this is something I'm also very passionate about.
During one of my interpreting assignments this week, someone asked a question I often get at these events: how can I improve my English?
The woman who asked this question explained that she had completed close to 400 hours of English lessons but she still felt unable to speak the language confidently and fluently.
It's been a while since I've taught English, and a couple of years since I've done teacher training work, but this is the advice I always give to those interested in improving their fluency, so these are the strategies I shared with her.
1. Find a private tutor. When you've taken so many hours of English instruction, it's going to be hard to find a class in a language school that will be appropriate for your level. What you need at this point is to activate all the language you have learned, and private lessons, tailored just for you, may be what helps you finally do that.
2. Practice with yourself. This is one that I used a lot when I was first learning English. You know all that self-talk we engage in? Instead of doing it in your native language, try doing it in English. Out loud. When? When you're driving your car (by yourself, of course, otherwise your passengers may think you're going insane), when you're alone in the house, when you're in the shower, anywhere and any time you can think of. If you run out of self-talk topics, pretend you're a guest in a talk show, recreate a conversation you had earlier with someone, narrate the plot of your favorite movie. The idea is to get you talking. This has the benefit of helping you realize all the ways in which you are able to use English, as well as any gaps you need to fill. Was there a word you wanted to say but don't yet know how to say it in English? Look it up and try again to say what you wanted to say.
3. Listen to TED Talks. I always recommend TED Talks because you can find talks on practically any subject that you find interesting and you can find an appropriate length for the time you have. My suggestion is to take a three-step approach: first, listen to the TED Talk without using subtitles. Listen intently, try to grasp the main ideas, but also try to identify any parts that may be a bit hard to understand. Take notes if you can. Then listen a second time, now with subtitles on, preferably in English. Don't be shy to pause the video and take note of any words that escaped you during your first round. Don't just write them down, say them as well. Try to say the whole sentence that contains the new word(s). When you're done with round two, listen a third time, pause the video at appropriate points and repeat what the speaker just said. Once you're done, you can combine this strategy with the previous one and pretend telling someone what the talk was about.
4. Don't be afraid to talk. Don't be embarrassed, either. Native English speakers tend to be very tolerant of our mistakes. And many of the English speakers you'll come across are not native speakers either. You don't have to wait until you have a perfectly constructed utterance in mind to speak. Like with so many other things, the best thing is to... Just Do It! You'll be amazed at how much better you are at speaking English than you thought you would be.
5. Read. Reading increases our vocabulary and makes us accustomed to the structure of English. This, in turn, makes it easier for words and sentences to flow when we're trying to speak. If you can, also write. One of the most helpful incidental activities to improve my English when I was studying to get my degree was writing. I had to write essays in English practically every day for four years. I'm pretty sure the first ones were not very good. But as time goes on, reading and writing enrich our language and help us become better listeners and speakers.
Whatever you do, be persistent. Language learning is always more successful when you practice it constantly.
PS I realize the irony of writing this in English when the intended audience is people who want to improve their English, so I promise I will post a Spanish version soon.