The Best Way To Learn English?

Posted By Judy on 02-06-2018 Categories - Uncategorized,

The Best Way To Learn English?

I stared at my student in shock.

“Can you say that again?” I asked.

“Yes, it took me four months to learn how to order a cup of coffee,” he repeated.

“How come?” I asked, completely bewildered.

My student Phillip is a very nice young Korean man. He has plenty of friends at Columbia West College, both Korean and non-Korean. He gets good grades and his teachers like him. But Phillip suffers from a problem that many Korean students face when trying to learn English.

As Phillip explained to me, the Korean school system teaches English from elementary school. He is no stranger to the language. From a young age he memorized thousands of vocabulary words, worked through dozens of grammar rules, and written thousands of English sentences and phrases. He’d taken hundreds of English quizzes and tests. So why didn’t he know how to ask something so easy, like ordering a cup of coffee?

Learning vs. Acquiring English… Which Is Better?

In the ESL world, we call the way Phillip learned English the “learning” method. The “learning” strategy is based on traditional ways such as memorization of vocabulary, formulas, and grammar rules, all in preparation for some kind of test. The Korean school system is famous for this style of learning.

Now don’t get me wrong, without a doubt, there is a time and place for this kind of strategy when you’re studying English. But there are also drawbacks when focusing only on “learning” English.

For one, when you’re “learning,” you’re typically memorizing information specifically for tests. So once you’re finished with your exam, you usually forget everything you learned! Does that sound familiar?

Another drawback about “learning” English is that is doesn’t give you any practical, real-world communication experience. Reading from a textbook, studying grammar rules, and memorizing vocabulary may be helpful, but it doesn’t give you the opportunity to practice what you’ve learned in real life.

And this is exactly what happened to poor Phillip. He knew a lot of English grammar, he knew a bunch of vocabulary, and he could write pretty well. But he had NO idea what real conversations in the United States sounded like.

Coffee Shop Fail…

As he explained to me, the first time he tried to order a cup of coffee, a couple of things happened. First, the barista asked him, “What can I get for you?” Phillip froze, realizing he had no idea what she was talking about. So after a few agonizing moments, he just blurted out, “AMERICANO!” to the startled barista.

The barista then asked, “Okay, would you like that for here or to go?” Phillip froze again. When he heard the words “to go,” he thought the barista was upset at his inability to speak English and was asking him to leave! And so to the surprise of the barista, he turned around and left, embarrassed and confused. For all of his years of studying English, it didn’t mean anything in the real world.

In fact, he was so embarrassed, he didn’t tell anyone this story for weeks. When he finally told his English teacher, she quickly explained that “to go” simply meant that you were taking your food or drink with you as you left. Eating or drinking “here” meant you were staying at the restaurant or coffee shop.

As for ordering, all he had to say was, “I’ll have an Americano please!” That’s it! Again, “I’ll have a/an __________ please!” You could use this phrase in many situations. Phillip couldn’t believe how easy it was! After learning this, he finally went back to that same coffee shop and confidently ordered an Americano with no issues.

The Key To Quickly Improving Your English!

Unknowingly, Phillip had just applied the “acquisition” method of learning English. This is the second way you can learn English. Acquisition simply means putting what you’re learning into practice. The key word here is “practice!”

If we look at what happened to Phillip, we see that he was obviously not prepared for his experience at the coffee shop. But something very important happened as well. He made a mistake, figured out what was wrong, and then learned the right way to say what he wanted to say. Sure, it may have taken him four months to do so, but in the end, he was able to learn and move forward in his English language journey.

Phillip recognized this as the missing element in his English education. He could study from books for the rest of his life, but if he didn’t actually apply his knowledge in English speaking environments, he would never become a fluent English speaker.

This is what it means to “acquire” English. Until you are able to communicate your ideas and thoughts in English, you haven’t truly acquired it. The great thing about this method is that the more time you spend practicing English, the more confident you will be to keep going. Just like Phillip!

How to Apply the Acquisition Method

What are some ways you can use the acquisition method? The first thing to do (especially if you’re in Korea right now) is to find a language partner (or more than one) to start applying the English concepts you’re studying.

You can find conversation partners online on sites like and in person at local meetup groups in your area. When you do find a language partner, come up with ideas or situations that come up frequently in your life, or subjects that you find interesting. For example…

  • Ordering at a restaurant or coffee shop
  • Your family and friends
  • Work or school
  • Your dreams or ambitions
  • Telling a funny or interesting story from your past
  • A hobby

Next, talk about these topics with your partner (in English of course!). As you can see, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions, so you can speak freely. The important thing to remember is, you WILL make mistakes! In fact, mistakes are a normal part of the acquisition process, so don’t feel embarrassed or discouraged by them.

Have your conversation partner write down any mistakes he or she hears, but only tell them to you after you have finished your conversation. Afterwards, study these notes and remember them for next time. Be sure to ask questions about how to say certain words and phrases that fit each situation. This simple strategy alone will help you improve your English more than reading a dozen English textbooks!

Okay, Now What?

Congratulations, you’re on your way to acquiring – and mastering – English! If you’re reading this article, chances are, you may have experienced what Phillip went through (or you’re terrified that it will happen to you). You’ve probably studied English in the past, but you may not have much confidence in your ability to use it in real life.

If this sounds like you, I invite you to stop “learning” English, and to start “acquiring” it instead. Learning alone will not allow you to master English the way you desire. A good rule of thumb is to spend just 20% of your time “learning” the vocabulary, grammar rules, and writing aspects of English, and 80% of your time actually practicing English.

And while this article may have pointed you in the right direction, there is obviously much more to understand as it relates to English acquisition. How do you overcome nervousness when speaking English? What’s the best way to memorize, and remember vocabulary words, long-term? What are the fastest ways to improve your English? These are topics we’ll cover in future articles. Have a question? Then be sure to leave a message via Kakao. Don’t wait four months!


James Lee is the Chief Marketing Officer and Co-Owner of Columbia West College, an English located in Los Angeles, California. He is a Korean by ethnicity but was born and raised in Los Angeles. His passion is helping international students achieve their dreams through the power of fluent English.


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