“Wait… what? You are German? No way!” I love seeing the surprised faces of people when I tell them that I am whether British, despite my slight British accent, nor from any other English speaking country. Until today, it fills me with joy and excitement that I am able to speak English almost as well as German. I really appreciate that I can share my thoughts not only in one but in multiple languages with the people around me and I see it as a privilege to learn different languages. I also have some French as well as Italian skills and I do understand Dutch pretty well but English has always been and will always be my baby.

After receiving the question how I learned English that well sooo many times, but never really gave a better answer than: “it just happened over time and by living abroad”, I decided to really go deep and hack my own secret for you. So here it is. My blog post on how I learned to speak and write in English like a native:

Kudos to the German educational system

Right after my graduation from secondary school, I hated the German educational system. I had enough of exams, the often unnecessary topics and the inefficient and partially very old-school teaching methods. I thought that everything sucked! But then I got the chance to exchange my experiences with students from other European countries such as Italy, France and Spain and I got some first-hand experience of the educational system in the UK.

Hearing their stories made me realise: Despite the negative points I just mentioned, the German system also has a lot of positive sides to it. Starting with the fact that I didn’t just brainlessly memorise pages of text and ending with the fact that I had four hours of English each week for seven years. It shocked me to find out that in most other countries, language classes focused more on theoretic grammar in exercises on paper and rarely ever gave students the chance to apply what they learned in praxis.

I actually had my first English class when I was already 11, which is the latest point possible in Germany as I had chosen French as my first foreign language. So props to my English teachers (although not all of them were that amazing of course), who stimulated my interest in the English language and awakened my curiosity to learn more about it.

And for all of you out there who are already older: I think I am a good example of how to become fluent and without going to a bilingual kindergarten. So keep up your motivation and curiosity. There is no limit to improvement!

 

The good news and the bad news about learning English

Here’s the bad news: I didn’t just magically become better than most of my peers. It came from hundreds of hours exposing myself to the English language in various ways; because nothing can be created out of nothing. But here’s the good news: This doesn’t have to feel like studying since, nowadays, there are countless ways of including English in your daily life and thereby always learning more without the usual pressure studying and by making it a fun experience.

My absolute favourite always was Youtube. I discovered the platform when I was about 12 years old and started by watching German videos but quickly started moving onto English Youtubers because they offered a broader variety of topics. I used to be embarrassed about telling people that I was watching one makeup tutorial after the other. Nowadays, however, I think it’s funny to think back and see that my vocabulary expanded so much from “concealers”, “makeup brushes” and “setting sprays” to the “liberty of speech”, “information overload” and “indulging in Italian cuisine”.

I didn’t read more than one or two books in English besides the books I had to read for school. And, because of the fact that almost every movie is available in German, I never saw the need to watch anything in English until I moved abroad.  This means that as long as you find something in English from social media to books, magazines, blogs or movies that works for you, there is no way around improving your English skills day by day.

My first time visiting England

My first time going to an English speaking country was when I was 15 years old. Together with my best friends, I went on a language trip to a little city on the south coast of England. To be honest, I didn’t really learn much English in the 10 days that we spent there despite the fact that we were taking English classes every day. What I gained from this trip, however, was a feeling for how it was to live in a world where everything was in English. I also gained the confidence that, although I didn’t feel that comfortable speaking yet, I was able to talk to people and find my way around. And that was all I needed to reinforce my enthusiasm for this language and to strengthen my dedication to keep studying.

My secret weapons

My passion for English was born but how did I get so good already during my time in secondary school? I don’t know exactly when I began doing this but once I knew the basic grammar, I started experimenting with the language whenever I had to write a text for English classes at home. I quickly found my favourite websites that helped me to check if what I was writing was correct and to always include better expressions and new words. I call them my secret weapons because I think that this is what helped me get above average at school and what, until this point, allows me to improve every time I’m writing a text. If you want to try it and challenge yourself, here are some of my favourite websites to bring your English skills to the next level:

  • linguee (this one is AMAZING for checking any expressions or phrases you might be unsure about)
  • dict.cc (sometimes linguee doesn’t include all meanings of a word so this is my go-to also as an app on my phone)
  • thesaurus (I try to avoid repetition in my texts and thereby always find alternatives)
  • collins dictionary
  • urban dictionary

Now, the secret to using my secret weapons is that I don’t just passively use it but when I look something up. The secret is that I always try to remember what I am including in my text. This is especially easy because I am directly applying the knowledge and actively include it in the text I am writing so I have a context that I can relate it to. Therefore, it is way easier for me to memorise new words or expressions than if I just sit down to learn random vocabulary! Even writing this blog post, I have the first pages open in another tab. And I promise that, if you do the same in the future, it will help you improve a lot too!

Au pairing in England

This is where we get into the part of my story where my English got the fine tuning so that people started thinking I was a native speaker. What many people don’t know is that I used to be obsessed with American English because of all the American Youtubers I watched. On the contrary, I disliked British English because of a teacher I had in secondary school. But because going to College in the US was too expensive, I was happy to accept the offer to become an au pair in a little city north of London in the first eight months of my gap year.

Unfortunately, the family I first lived with, mainly spoke German despite the fact that the parents had promised me to speak only English with me. Because of that and because I generally didn’t feel comfortable, I decided to change families after about a month. It was a great hustle since I didn’t have an agency supporting me but in the end, I found the loveliest family with whom I stayed for the rest of my time in England.

I wanted to improve as quickly as possible so I asked my host family to always correct my mistakes when we were talking to each other. In addition to that, I mainly spent time with other au pairs who were not German which was pretty difficult because there were heaps of them in my area. And whenever I meet up with someone German, I would ask them to talk in English. My friends know that I still do that whenever I’m in another country or in an international environment.

Taking classes in England

Because I wanted to have a certificate proving my level of English, I  took English classes three times a week at a College in preparation for the Cambridge Exam. This was the time when I deeply fell in love with English and decided that I wanted to study in English too. If you are thinking about which exam to take you can have a look at the system of the Cambridge English Exams but of course also at any other language test. Furthermore, you can look into the C1 Advanced exam which I took since there are different levels available.

For about 3 months I took two preparation classes a week as well as one business English class because I was already dreaming about working in an international job in the future. This course was absolutely amazing and what I learned there helps me to be confident when I interact with people on any level of English.
In the end, I passed the exam on the level of the C2 Proficiency (no clue what that is? Have a look at the Cambridge English Scale) which states that I am on the level of a native speaker.

Now here’s the thing: All along, I never studied a lot for the exams because I already tried to take in as much as possible during the classes as well as when I did the mandatory homework with the help of my secret weapons. On the other hand, I made sure my environment was as supportive as possible and I surrounded myself with as much English as possible during that time.

The struggle of keeping it up

After my time in England, it got more difficult. When I moved to Italy my English environment went from 100 to about a 10. Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to work in a place where I could sometimes talk to tourists in English. I also found myself some tasks such as translating texts from German into English as part of my job. That way, I made sure I would still get a little dose of English here and there.

Hello Holland, international studies and multicultural environment!

Today, I am studying International Communication Management in The Netherlands. The studies are in English and although I already felt confident in English when I started, I learned so much more about the language by now using it every single day of my life both spoken and written. Because The Netherlands are a beautiful, multicultural country, I made friends from all over the world and guess what? With all of them, I speak in my favourite language!

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Discovering another layer of communication

But what goes beyond the use of English is that I am now developing a feeling for another level of communication. Every culture, even every person communicates in their own way. And in order to exchange thoughts, ideas and stories with people from all over the world I constantly strive develop my sense for that further. By now, I see English not only as an absolutely beautiful language but even more so as the bridge that I can use to connect with all kinds of beautiful minds. As you can tell, I’m absolutely in love with this so you can look forward to a blog post on this other layer of communication.

As I said above, nothing can be created out of nothing so you do have to put the work in. But I hope that, by sharing my story with you of how I learned to speak and write in English like a native, I could give you the kick of motivation but especially some tools to get there too. I strongly believe that, if you really want it, you can push yourself as well as your English skills to an entirely new level and make some amazing experiences on the way!

Thank you for reading my blog post, I really appreciate your time and feedback!

All the sunshine to you!
@Phyllosophia