Technology has been something of a savior since the COVID-19 pandemic – it has brought us all kinds of new opportunities and allowed us to form and keep connections with others, even if the type of connection is not the same. Technology has enabled many of us to keep working and earning income. On the other hand, at this point in the ‘new normal’, if you don’t pay close attention, you can easily spend 10-12 hours a day or more in front of a screen (I know I can). We know this is exhausting and unhealthy, but many people who work online don’t have a choice about it right now. And does anyone have the energy to practice English online at the end of a 10-hour virtual work day? I think it’s unreasonable at this point in the pandemic to require our clients to increase their screen time in order to make progress on their English communication goals. With this in mind, here are eight analog suggestions for how to practice your English and move forward a little bit every day, and none of them require logging into a device. Most can be applied to any language you want to improve.
There are many great reasons to search online for English conversation practice groups and participate, but if you need to reduce your screen time and you happen to live with others who speak English in some way, why not just create a daily habit with them?
Perhaps you live in the U.S. and your children are native speakers now, or perhaps your roommate or spouse is an English speaker or learner. I can tell you from experience that many couples or families pledge to improve their English together when they first move to the U.S., but it quickly falls apart under the daily stressors of life. This is normal – if you really need to express your needs to a loved one, it’s best to do it in your primary language. For this reason, you need to formalize the speaking practice process and make it a habit. Choose a specific time each day when everyone is available. Use a speaking prompt if needed, or choose an audio news story to listen to first and then talk about it. Try it first for one week, see how it goes, and adjust from there.
Some of our clients are living and working alone right now. We know this isn’t easy. An English practice phone buddy can help you with both human connection (which we all need) and improving your conversation skills. Brainstorm a list of five people in your life who you would like to connect with more often. Of these five, are there at least one or two who would agree to have a 30 or 45 minutes conversation in English with you each week? Reach out to these people today and propose this idea. Be sure to pick a consistent weekly time for your phone chat that works for both of you, and mark it on your calendar. To ensure consistent practice, make this arrangement with at least two people, so if one person cancels or postpones you will still have your practice time. Consistency is key here.
By now you have probably heard a lot about the physical and psychological benefits of taking walks. Why not extend these benefits to language learning? Prior to the pandemic, we hosted a hiking and conversation group for English learners – the idea is that the relaxing effects of nature and physical movement loosens people up, increases their fluency, and helps adult learners retain what they practice. It’s a fun and efficient way to work on your target language, and it’s also supported by research.
An easy way to practice your English while also getting the benefit of fresh air and exercise is to take a walk and try to describe what you see in English in your head. Carry a notebook and write down anything that you don’t have the words for (or use the notes function in your phone). We recommend not stopping to look things up on your phone – stay present in the moment and connected to the environment around you. You only need to capture what you don’t know in some way, and then you can look up your missing words or phrases later when you get home.
Choose a talk radio program or podcast and listen to it while doing an uncomplicated activity that engages your brain in a different way, such as washing the dishes, preparing a meal, cleaning your house, or working with your hands in any way. For many of us, the physical activity settles our brain and helps us focus. You may find yourself tuning in and out of the listening content, but that’s OK – the point here is to listen in a more relaxed, passive way instead of focusing on every word or worrying about what you don’t understand. Try it and see if it feels different – our brains are mysterious and you never know what language input is actually getting in there and in what way. This is just a different way to absorb input.
Be sure to choose something you genuinely enjoy listening to rather than something you feel will give you ‘the best’ practice. Our guide to choosing podcasts for practicing English listening is here.
Practice actively switching over from your first language to English in a structured way. Say to yourself, “I am going to think in English now” and set a timer for 15 minutes. You can experiment with free-forming thoughts, or you can choose something you know you need to spend more time thinking about and focus on that. It probably won’t feel automatic at all in the beginning, and you may find yourself translating your thoughts at first or switching back and forth between languages, but that’s OK. It’s a practice that takes time and repetition. Once you’re able to think almost entirely in English for 15 minutes, you can extend the time to 20, 25, and then 30 minutes. The effectiveness comes from the intention of the practice, so it works even better if you try to do it at the same time every day.
If you love music, you’ve probably had the experience of singing along to songs in other languages when you have no idea what the lyrics mean. In addition to being fun, did you know this is a fantastic way to practice your pronunciation? Music engages different parts of our brains – it’s a ‘doing’ rather than ‘thinking’ approach. You’re not thinking so hard about how to position your mouth and tongue – you’re just tapping into the rhythm of the song and following along as best you can. So pick some of your favorite songs with English lyrics and create a playlist to sing along with! For even better practice, search for karaoke versions with the vocals removed.
Grab a journal and pen, set the timer for six minutes, and write continuously by hand in English about anything and everything that comes to your mind. Don’t stop to think about grammar, word choice, punctuation, or any mistakes. This is a fluency rather than accuracy exercise. The idea is to let go of the impulse to be correct in English and challenge yourself to keep your pen moving for the full six minutes. You can read it at the end if you like, but you don’t have to. Do this daily and increase the time in increments – when six minutes no longer feels intimidating, then increase it to eight, then ten, etc. More of the benefits of automatic (or ‘free’) writing is on our YouTube channel here.
This is a great brainstorming exercise if you are having trouble getting motivated to practice or think in English. Again, it’s best to do this by hand with a journal and pen. Set a timer for six minutes. Choose a category for making a list – this can be anything, such as “things that make me happy” or “foods I refuse to eat” or “the best things about summer”. List everything you can think of for six minutes. Then choose any item on your list that resonates with you, set the timer again, and write about that topic or speak your thoughts out loud for six minutes.
On that note, I’m shutting down the computer now to hike some trails and be with my thoughts in nature. See you outside!