Personal experience: how I independently improved my English from zero to level B2 - ForumDaily
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Personal experience: how I independently improved my English from zero to level B2

Ivan Rubtsov spoke in a column for the site Habr about his experience learning English and shared things that worked and didn't work for him personally. He recalled that the process of learning a language is very individual, and one can never say that any one method or scheme is correct. Next - from the first person.

Photo: IStock

Who am I and why do I need English?

I am a mechanical engineer and try to absorb as much theoretical knowledge in my specialty as possible from academic sources. Quite quickly I realized that the last serious book on my specialty in Russian was written in 1978. Over 40 years, technology has changed a lot, but this information was not available in Russian. But I found people on reddit working in America in my industry. They recommended a bunch of cool literature to me. Of course, it is all in English and has no Russian translation.

I started my journey of learning English in January 2022 with about zero level. In all my schools, English teaching was not at the highest level, and at the university it was enough to memorize 30 sentences to get a decent grade in the exam.

Definition of goals

First of all, I decided for myself that I need to decide what level of language proficiency I want to achieve (I deliberately do not use the term “learn a language” because it sounds incorrect, in my opinion. You are either a native speaker or have some kind of language skills). then the level of language proficiency). I opened job openings on Linkedin and looked at what level of English proficiency the international giants in my industry wanted from my specialty. Almost everywhere it was just “excellent spoken and written English”, but in the end I found that for a mid-level engineer position a B2 level according to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) would be sufficient. Here here Learn more about what this knowledge assessment system is.

So, the goal is clear, next I need to decide who will confirm for me that I have nevertheless reached level B2. This is where the international exams TOEFL iBT and IELTS Academic come to the rescue. The differences between these exams are the topic of a separate article. I initially started preparing for the TOEFL iBT, but after a few months I switched to preparing for IELTS Academic. Here here infographic on how IELTS Academic scores compare to CEFR levels.

Plan of the education

Next I needed a training plan. I've read many different diagrams, but I didn't like any of them. I decided to try a little bit of everything on my own and figure out what worked for me and what didn’t. All my training can be divided into 2 large stages:

  1. Raising the general level of English (reading skills and listening skills of native speakers).
  2. Direct preparation for the exam in 4 blocks: reading, listening, writing and speaking.

Stage one: read and listen

I decided to start with a series of books from the Oxford Bookworms Library. This is a professionally curated library for those who want to learn English, which includes adapted versions of classic and modern literature, as well as real-life stories. The books are divided into 6 difficulty levels. At the initial stage, I determined my level, it was level 3. The entire series of these books can be found quite easily on the Internet. I read about 30 level 3 books, about 15 level 4 books, and 5-6 each of level 5 and 6 books.

The reading scheme was extremely simple: I see an unfamiliar word - I type it into an online translator, then I write it down so that I can learn it after reading the book. At first I used the Yandex translator, then I started using a dictionary, in which the definition of the word is given in English. This, of course, increased the time spent, but for books from the Oxford Bookworms Library it was tolerable.

About learning words using cards.

While reading books from the Oxford Bookworms Library, I wrote down words I didn't know and learned them after reading. Sometimes there were too many words, and I set myself a limit: 20 words per book. I read books one after another, and out of 20 words learned (and repeated several times that day) after 3 days, at best, 2-3 words remained in my head. I absolutely didn't like it. I read so much about learning words with flashcards that I decided to repeat all the previous words every day so as not to lose anything else in my head. I reached 160 words, which I spent 6 hours repeating and consolidating in one day (I simply didn’t have time for any books or podcasts), and realized that this was some kind of torture that would lead nowhere. And from that day on, I never opened the flashcards app again.

On the subject: Why Russian speakers sound rude when speaking English, and how to fix it

In parallel with the process of reading adapted books, I found this podcast "Listening time" and listened to 60 episodes with simplified language (the presenter speaks slower than his usual speech and tries to pronounce words more clearly) according to the scheme:

  1. Listening without transcription.
  2. Listening and reading the transcription.
  3. Listening without transcription.

If the podcast was quite complex, then I listened to it 5-6 times, alternating between reading the transcription and just listening.

Towards the end of spring 2022, I finished a series of books from the Oxford Bookworms Library and podcasts for beginners. I switched to a podcast in which the same host speaks at his usual pace (it seems that for this you had to buy a subscription to his patreon), I worked with podcasts according to the same scheme. Plus, I started looking for English-language podcasts (necessarily with transcription) 10-15 minutes long on topics that interest me. The difference in understanding was felt strongly; I got used to the voice of the host of the “Listening time” podcast and understood him much better than the hosts of other English-language podcasts. And if there was more than one person on the podcast, the perception became even worse. I started alternating podcasts: 1 day a podcast from a host whose voice I was used to, 1 day some other podcast on a topic that interests me.

Then I decided that I was definitely ready to read books in English in the original. The first thing that came to my mind was Tom Sawyer.

It was an absolute shock - I didn’t understand anything after reading the first 2 pages. This would be the time to admit the mistake and choose another book, but for some reason I decided that I should read this one. The first thing I did was switch to a regular English to Russian translator that can translate directly to PDF (reverso). I read it according to the following scheme:

  1. I read 2-3 pages.
  2. I read them again with the translation of all unknown words.
  3. I read them again without looking in the dictionary.
  4. If something remains unclear in a sentence, then I repeat points 2 and 3 until I understand each sentence completely.

Even with a translator from English to Russian, it took me about 3-5 hours for 3-4 pages of the book. In total, I read only Tom Sawyer for about 2 months, and this was the most painful period of learning the language. But it should be noted that the book is amazing, especially if you didn’t read it during your school years. However, even native speakers of American English say that the language in Mark Twain’s books is perceived differently due to the advanced age of the works.

After suffering through reading Tom Sawyer, I couldn't think of anything better to do than read Huckleberry Finn. But I changed the reading scheme. Now I re-read the chapter only 1 time if I understood in general what action was being discussed. I looked at the translation only of those words that are necessary to understand the main action (verbs and nouns mainly). I mentally divided the adjectives into positive description / negative description. The process was already going more vigorously; I spent about a month reading Huckleberry Finn.

And then I finally made the right decision and decided to re-read in English the books that I had already read in Russian: “1984” by Orwell and “Brave New World” by Huxley. I read them in the same way as Huckleberry Finn. I always underlined words unknown to me, but rather in order to find them faster when, when re-reading the chapter, I had to type them into the translator. And of course, if I understood the general meaning of the sentence, I did not try to translate the unknown words in it. While I was starting to read 1984, I Googled what was considered a classic of American literature and ordered about 20 books from Amazon.

I can’t say that after 4 books in the original, I immediately sharply increased my vocabulary, but I began to extract meaning from paragraphs and sentences much faster, and 50% of unknown words in a sentence no longer baffled my brain, and it didn't refuse to think.

Then I slowly increased my reading speed to 1 book in 2 weeks. Here is my list of books read in English in the original at the time of taking IELTS Academic (+/- in chronological order):

  1. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” Mark Twain
  2. “Huckleberry Finn” Mark Twain
  3. “1984” George Orwell
  4. “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
  5. “Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” Daniel Defoe
  6. “The Lost World” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  7. “Because Internet” Gretchen McCulloch
  8. “Ella Minnow Pea” Mark Dunn
  9. “The Great Gatsby” F. Scott Fitzgerald
  10. “Fahrenheit 451” Ray Bradbury
  11. “The Old Man and the Sea” Ernest Hemingway
  12. “The Catcher in the Rye” J.D. Salinger
  13. “Animal farm” George Orwell
  14. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
  15. “The Age of Innocence” Edith Wharton
  16. “Asya” Ivan Turgenev
  17. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” Ernest Hemingway

My recommendation for those who want to start reading books in the original:

  1. Choose a book you read in Russian.
  1. If you want to start something new, start with “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger. So far this is the easiest book I have read in English in terms of vocabulary.

Since the beginning of June 2022, I have found an English speaking teacher on italki and started working with him once a week. Since, in principle, I had never spoken more than 1-2 monosyllabic sentences in English before, at first the lessons were difficult, but after 3-2 months I learned, although with a modest vocabulary, to somehow express my thoughts.

Regarding the choice of teacher.

I think it's important to choose a teacher who doesn't know your native language to avoid the temptation to ask a couple of "clarification questions" in your native language.

At this pace - 1 lesson with a teacher per week, 1 podcast per day (all according to the same scheme, alternating listening with and without transcription), and regular reading of books - I studied from the beginning of the summer of 2022 right until 2023. Of course, I combined all this with a 5/2 job and the everyday routine of an adult.

About learning grammar.

At first, I tried to solve some specialized problems on English grammar, I even took out my green Golitsyn textbook and did some small amount of exercises, but English sentences taken out of context seemed boring and uselessly time-consuming to me. In addition, try to somehow ask a native English speaker in what cases he uses the present perfect simple in everyday speech. If he does not have a linguistic education/extensive experience in teaching a language, he will most likely freeze for a very long time and produce something vague and very far from the definition from Cambridge Dictionary Grammar. Although he uses it quite often. As a result, I only occasionally clung to some grammatical structure in the book and opened the Cambridge Dictionary Grammar in an attempt to make out what the grammatical structure was. It worked with varying degrees of success, but I didn’t focus on it.

The year 2023 has arrived. I understood that I read English quite well, my listening comprehension of English was a little worse, and my speaking was even worse. But at the same time, I don’t know how to express my thoughts in writing at all. Since I'm going to take an exam where I need to write an extended essay in English, it's time for me to do something about it.

At the beginning of 2023, I was still sure that I wanted to take the TOEFL (largely because I only listened to American English podcasts, and the British accent seemed to be something unimaginably more difficult to understand), so I found broker, where a TOEFL preparation specialist explains in an accessible manner what an essay is and how it should look. There are questions for practice on the same site. The next question was “who will check my essays?” The answer was found quickly - of course grammarly.com. Until the beginning of summer 2023, I used the free version; it was enough to understand my main mistakes and try not to repeat them in the future. Yes, the training scheme was exactly like this:

  1. I'm writing an essay.
  2. I put it into grammar and see what mistakes I made. I'm trying to understand what kind of mistakes I made: I didn't know this before or I simply didn't notice it during the check.

I tried to write an essay every day, but, of course, it didn’t work out every day; it came out 4-5 times a week. I studied in this mode until the end of May 2023. Around the beginning of spring, I began to realize that my vocabulary had increased exponentially, and I could express quite complex thoughts in sentences that were understandable, give or take, for my English-speaking teacher. Skim and scan reading skills have also become significantly higher. Overall, I felt that my brain began to think faster and work more efficiently with a large amount of textual information, regardless of language.

Stage two: preparation for IELTS

It's the first month of summer 2023. I plan to try to pass the exam in the fall. The deeper I dive into the nuances of the TOEFL exam, the more doubts I have that this is the one I need. After putting into practice the immortal advice DYOR (Do your own research), I decided to take IELTS Academic because:

  1. In any city where you can take both exams, you will have many more available days and test centers for IELTS than for TOEFL. For example, if the TOEFL exam in Istanbul is available 1-2 times a week in 2 or 3 places, then IELTS can be taken in as many as 6 test centers on almost any day of the month.
  2. When checking, TOEFL may invalidate your results if you used 1-2 connecting sentences in your essay. For example, something like “My personal experience is a compelling example of this.” Try reading reviews about ETS global (the company that owns the rights to TOEFL and conducts this exam) on Google, trustpilot and new jersey better business bureau website.
  3. IELTS is a little more prestigious and more recognized around the world.
  4. The IELTS test format itself is more human-oriented. TOEFL seems to be made for robots.

From now on I am switching completely to preparing for IELTS Academic.

The IELTS exam consists of 4 blocks: reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

Accordingly, the preparation plan was as follows:

Reading

I took 2 practice tests for the reading block on ieltsonlinetests.com and received 5,5 and 6 points. Here I decided not to change anything, just as I read the books, I decided to continue.

Listening

I continued to practice my pattern of working with 10-15 minute podcasts, but to this I added passing 1 Listening test from the site ieltsonlinetests.com. After passing the test, I listened to it again and at the same time read the transcription for this text to understand what I missed the first time listening.

Speaking

I increased the number of classes with a native speaker to 2 times a week, and during the classes we practiced standard exam questions. In the last month I have connected self-study with the IELTS interview simulator here on this YouTube channel. For me, this is the closest simulator to a real exam.

Writing

I bought a premium subscription for grammarly.com and continued to write 4-5 essays a week (I immediately limited the time for 1 essay: 40 minutes - like in an exam).

Here are my stats for checking my essays from grammarly.com:

In the last 1,5 months, I needed an independent assessment of my essays according to the IELTS criteria, and I used Chat GPT to check the texts. There are different opinions on how Chat GPT is suitable for this task, but my average score from Chat GPT was 6 points, and I got 6,5 in the exam.

So at the end of September I flew to Istanbul and passed the IELTS exam with a score of 6,5. Which corresponds to level B2, according to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).

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