Actually, this post isn’t just about the IELTS but about improving your English in general, and most of this post is applicable to both. So, what I want to write about today is how some learners seem to sabotage (unintentionally no doubt) their chances of getting the IELTS score they need and/or their English study in general.
To set the scene first, as it were. To recount some anecdotal evidence, recently I had a student wanting to take the IELTS and get a 7.0 band score. This learner happens to be living in America, in California to be precise. Anyway, he booked a session with me online, and the first question I asked him was “where are you living?”, and he told me, so my next question was “remind me again what language they speak in America?” and he replied knowingly “English”. Without asking, he knew what I meant, which is how come you are calling me when you live in a “native” English environment?
Can you see my thoughts here? Why is this guy who lives in America, land of “native” English speakers, calling me, another “native” speaker, when all he has to do is step outside his front door and he can speak to “natives” for free? I am being somewhat unfair here, for most “natives” wouldn’t be able to coach the IELTS nor in fact would many “natives” be able to explain the workings of their own language system, but that’s another issue.
Well, this is not the first time I have had people call me from England and America wanting IELTS lessons, interview practice, etc. I have had Italians, Spanish, Russians, and others booking lessons, all of whom were living in the UK or America at the time. What do they all have in common? Simple, they were all sabotaging their efforts to improve their English ability. What do I mean? Well, to give another example, an Italian lady wanted help with something, an interview I think it was, but she complained that her English was not as good as she would have liked. When questioned, she told me that her boyfriend was Italian, so they only spoke Italian together, she lived with other Italians in a flat share, she worked in a shop with other Italians, need I go on? Suffice it to say, instead of speaking English and making the most of the opportunities she had, she chose to take the easy option and only speak her native language.
I have many such pieces of anecdotal evidence, another example, one which I know is being repeated across English university campuses as I write. When I was at the University of Bath a few years ago, I was researching the intercultural adaptations of the Chinese learner for my MRes dissertation (Chinese students having a very large presence on UK campus these days). During the interviews and focus groups I ran, the same thing came up time and again. After nearly a year spent in an English speaking environment, most of the interviewees said the same thing, they thought their English had not improved, or had not improved as they had hoped. The reason? You guessed it, they lived with other Chinese, had only Chinese friends, only hung around with Chinese, etc…….
The same problem my other students had had, and still have in most cases. Not only a failure to integrate, but a failure to take advantage of the best environment available to improve their English.
So, to come back to the point. What does this mean for you? Especially if you recognize yourself and your situation from the above. I shall endeavour to explain. To give some context, and to show where my train of thought came from, I was reading an article the other day about how to be successful. What the author said was that, there is no magic trick, no secret to success, what you need to do is to identify what makes you unsuccessful, and eliminate it. So in this case, you need to identify what is holding you back, what is making you fail, and basically stop doing it. Stop looking for a formula for success, a new method of learning, a new textbook, a new app, whatever. Instead, be honest, look at what is stopping you, making your English bad, and do something about it.
How does this translate into action? Well, if you live with people who only speak your native language then that is a problem, either, move out (maybe a bit drastic) or, make an English only rule in the house. If anyone speaks in your native tongue, they get a penalty, they have to wash up, or clean the toilet or whatever. This should benefit your housemates, partners, as well, as they should really be doing the same thing.
Widen your social circle, what I mean is don’t only hang out with your fellow compatriots. I try not to do this myself, living in Prague I make a conscious effort not to hang out with English or Americans, most of my friends are Czech or Russian or other nationalities. This helps me to avoid the “Englishman abroad” ex-pat mindset which I dislike. So for you, try to make new friends or go to social activities where English will be the lingua franca. I have written before about how to find these social activities in your city, so I shan’t repeat it here.
Consider a change of job, again, difficult to do, but I want to relate this story. I know a student in China who wanted to improve her English, she had no chance under normal circumstances but she did she went and found a job in a hotel popular with foreign tourists. This meant that she was speaking in English all day long with the guests, and as a result dramatically improved her spoken English. This girl knew how to make the most of her chances and she took the opportunity. The same can apply to you.
If you think that all this is unrealistic, that no one can be expected to do these things, then you may be right. This is what I mean by change your mindset. Don’t look for a formula for success, look for a way to stop being unsuccessful. If you really can’t make these kind of changes, then try something else, make the most of the time you have and make English an integral part of your daily life. As I have written elsewhere, this is the best time in the history of the world for learning English, given the plethora of free and paid tools available via the internet, so there really are no excuses. So consider this, what is really holding you back? Is it your mindset, if so, you know what to do…