Strategies for improving your English grammar

Mastering grammar is usually one of the most difficult aspects of learning a language. Language teachers spend a large portion of their classes teaching grammar because there are so many rules. Language tutors spent large chunks of their classes correcting grammar mistakes. Personally, I am constantly bombarded with student questions about how to improve their grammar.

Grammar dictionary definition in a dictionary under a magnifying glass

Some of the best ways to improve your English grammar are:

1. Practice your spoken English with an English coach or on your own
2. Watch TV and movies in English
3. Practice reading and writing in English

Having read those you are probably thinking one of two things.

  • How is watching television and movies going to help improve my grammar?
  • How come English tutors are always saying to watch television and movies?

Well, it’s simple. Think about it. How did you learn your native language? How did you learn vocabulary, grammar, etc… in your language?

By seeing and hearing it from time you were born. That’s how. Every single day you were surrounded by people speaking your language as well as visuals of that language on TV, magazines, newspapers, billboards, chalkboards, online, and so on.

Now that you understand the why, let’s look at the how.

Change the way you live your life.

If you are really serious about improving your grammar then you need to surround yourself with English as much as possible. Not sure how to do that? Here are some good examples.

  • Change your computer from your language to English.
  • Stop watching TV and movies in your language. Watch them in English.
  • Stop visiting websites in your language. Visit websites published in English.
  • If you have friends that are studying English, then you should be talking with them in English as often as possible
  • Spend time writing, reading, listening to, and speaking English as frequently as you can.

Whenever I tell my students about these tips I always hear the same complaints about watching television and movies in English.

“I have trouble understanding television and movies that are in English.”

Of course you do. It’s normal. It is also because you need to practice and improve your listening skills. For many of my students, especially the beginners, reading English is much easier to understand than it is to hear. This is why so many of them will turn on the subtitles when they watch a television show or movies. It’s a fine thing to do, but the goal is to get to a point where you are able to understand what is going on without the subtitles. Obviously, this means doing more listening and less reading. There are two basic ways to accomplish this.

The passive method

The passive method is very easy and requires almost no effort. Unfortunately, it has less of an effect and takes longer to work. However, it is a companion to the active method (below).

All you have to do is make sure that there is a TV show or movie playing in the background as often as possible.

For example, let’s say you just arrived at home after a long day at work or school. The first thing you should do (and I do mean the first) is to turn on the television (or computer) and start playing a movie, video (online) or a TV show. Then you can walk away to take off your coat, change your clothes, cook dinner, check email, or whatever else you do. As long as you can hear the TV or movie while you are doing it. That’s right. It is just that easy and you do not even have to pay attention to it.

The idea is your subconscious brain will still absorb and process what it is hearing even if your active (conscious) brain is not paying attention to it. Don’t believe me? Well, have you ever found yourself singing or humming a popular song you don’t even like? Of course. Why? Because it is popular and everyone is playing it and even though you tune it out and ignore it, your subconscious still hears and processes it.

The active method

This active method is the exact opposite of the previous one. This method does require you to pay attention to what you are watching. You actually have to spend the time to sit there and watch it and try your best to focus on it and understand what is being said. Obviously, this requires a bit more effort on your part, but it is more effective, works faster and you get to enjoy the movie or television show you decided to watch.

You can even take this step a bit further and study what you are watching.

For example, let’s pretend you are watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones (at the time of this writing GoT season 6 episode 8) and you come to the part where Tyrion Lannister is sitting in a chamber (room) with Grey Worm and Missandei drinking and telling jokes.

Perhaps, you did not understand either of the two jokes that were told. Well, I admit that I did not understand Tyrion’s joke the first time I heard it. I had to go back and watch/listen to it again. Why can’t you do the same? Actually, you should do the same.

Note: I still do not get the joke, but this article on Yahoo! explains it wonderfully.

Whatever part(s) you do not understand, go back and watch them again. Watch them a few times if you have to. If after a few attempts you still do not understand, then you can turn on the subtitles. However, it is a bad idea to watch an entire TV show or movie with the subtitles turned on.

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