Ten years ago, I was barely able to speak English.
Last year, I pitched my startup in front of 1,000 investors at YC Demo Day in California.
Last month, people mistook me for an American.
Last week, I wrote a post that reached half a million people.
I became fluent in English because I designed a set of systems which made my learning natural, simple, and fun.
And it's the complete opposite of everyone else.
Most people fall into the following trap:
Jill wants to become fluent in English. She signs up for some school a few blocks away. Classes are on Mon and Wed nights, so Jill goes there after work. She’s a hustler, but it gets really boring really fast. Two months in, life kicks into play. More errands, more meetings, more work. Carving out hours of focused time to do the homework becomes unbearable. Jill quits her dream.
What did Jill do wrong?
To become a native speaker, you should design your life in a way that English becomes necessary for your survival.
At least to perform your duties well.
You need to jump off the cliff and build wings on the way down.
DESIGN AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE YOU NEED ENGLISH TO SURVIVE.
Here’s why it works.
Dr. BJ Fogg, a researcher who leads Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, came up with a formula for changing human behavior:
B (BEHAVIOR CHANGE)
To change a behavior, we need to have all three things in place at the same moment.
We need to have high motivation, an ability to take easy action, and a gentle nudge at the right time.
If we don’t have all three at the same time, behavior change will not happen.
The behavior we want to nurture is using English instead of your native language.
It’s the only way I know to become fluent.
Let’s come back to Jill for a second.
Her motivation is high. Being fluent will help her land a new dream job in tech and move to the US.
The problem is in the Ability land. Her learning environment was scarce. Jill could not use English instead of her native language at all. More than that, she did not have any prompts to trigger new behavior besides classes and annoying homework.
That’s why she failed.
What could Jill’ve done differently?
She could have weaved in English in her daily life.
She would have an easy and natural ability to practice every single day.
Her errands and duties would become her prompts.
And having all three components in place, Jill would start taking action and drive behavior change.
1. Switch all tech to English
Whatever you use, change the language preference to English right now.
You will struggle. You’ll find yourself not knowing what this word means or what this feature does.
But that’s what we’re looking for. It’s a natural P (Prompt) to drive the behavior change.
If you don’t know what the feature does, you’ll have to look it up.
Looking up the word in the context teaches your brain a use case for it (like “cellular” on your iPhone Setting). Not just an abstract meaning.
It’s much more likely to stick.
2. Text friends
Instead of saying hi in your native language, write “hey” in English.
It looks like a small change, but you’re laying down the foundation of a skyscraper here.
It works because of the neuroplasticity of the brain.
Neuroplasticity is a powerful feature of our brain to adapt in response to environmental stimulus, cognitive demand, or behavioral experience.
Our brain changes on a physical level when we learn new things.
You can think of it as a trail. The more you walk the path, the more trodden it becomes.
IF YOU START ADDING TINY ABILITY-PROMPT PAIRS TO YOUR LIFE TODAY, YOU’LL HAVE A WELL-TRODDEN ENGLISH HIGHWAY IN A FEW YEARS.
Why do I need to start small?
Because if you start taking a class three times a week, you’ll quit. It’s like gym.
You have to start small to stick with it.
After three months, structural brain changes occur.
Your learning process will become much easier because your brain adapts to it.
3. Watch movies
Start with subtitles.
Once you can roughly understand half of what they’re saying, ditch them away.
You’ll learn much faster.
4. Read books
Start from reading stuff you already love to read.
Most people make the following mistake:
They start learning English for work. And then they’re like: “OK, I need to start reading original books in my field.”
Don’t do that.
You’ll struggle much less if you actually enjoy what you’re reading.
But what if I don’t understand a word and it becomes a chore?
Start from books you’ve already read in your native language. Even if you’re not a bookworm, you probably have one or two.
It’s much easier because your brain will automatically match new words to memories of the original book.
5. Buy a Kindle
Kindle is the single best investment I’ve ever made.
I started reading 10x more.
Same behavior change formula.
When I’m in a waiting line somewhere, I pull up my Kindle and read for a few minutes.
To those skeptics who’re frowning now that a few minutes is not enough, it is.
It is enough to start.
THE SMALLER YOU START, THE HIGHER YOUR CHANCES ARE
TO KEEP IT UP.
My favorite part of the Kindle is the built-in offline vocabulary.
When you’re reading a physical book in English, you have to keep your phone or computer next to you to translate words you don’t know.
It ruins all the experience.
With the Kindle, you can tap on that weird word and get a sense of what it means. Or even translate it into your language.
Another great trick is to use the Word Wise mode.
It increases the intervals between lines and shows short definitions of words and phrases right above them. You don’t have to click on each word as you do with the dictionary.
Finally, I prefer Kindle to an iPhone or iPad because it doesn’t have apps.
When I pull up my phone, that dirty little dopamine fucker in my head wants me to go straight to Instagram. With the Kindle, I create an environment where I don’t have that luxury.
6. Get a job
This might be the most important, so don't skip it.
When I was in high school, I got a job as a sales guy in a dev shop.
Folks were selling software development to the US. My job was to find leads on LinkedIn, email them, and try to sell our services.
I used email templates and Google Translate first.
I avoided calls and passed them over to my colleagues, who could speak better.
I felt no progress for months.
I was devastated.
And then that rainy Tuesday morning came.
I managed to reply to an email without Google Translate for the first time.
And then I did it again.
And then I realized that it worked.
BY HAVING A JOB WHICH REQUIRED ENGLISH PROFICIENCY, I CREATED A NATURAL ENVIRONMENT TO DRIVE LEARNING.
Getting a job is a serious commitment.
But if you went thus far in the article, I believe you're committed enough to succeed.
You have to put yourself in an environment where you need English to thrive.
7. Take notes in English
It will take you much more time first to translate that vague thought in your head and then write it down in English.
You will question yourself a lot. And maybe even go back to taking notes in your native language for a while, as I did.
But taking notes in English will tremendously improve your learning speed.
I started doing this in high school. I was curious if I could take class notes in English despite the lecturer presenting in Russian.
And I’m glad I did.
After a few years, I was writing 3 to 5 pages a day.
No class on Earth will ever give you that.
8. Keep a diary
It’s easier than taking notes because you have more time and flexibility.
If you already write a diary, great. Just switch over to writing in English and don’t give up.
If you don’t, try using The Five Minute Journal.
It’s a simple and easy technique to start your day happy (and improve your English!).
I use the last method. It’s the simplest one, and I just enjoy the process of longhand writing.
To be answered in the morning:
- I am grateful for... 1. __________ 2. __________ 3. __________
- What would make today great? 1. __________ 2. __________ 3. __________
- Daily affirmations. I am… 1. __________ 2. __________ 3. __________
To be filled in at night:
- 3 amazing things that happened today… 1. __________ 2. __________ 3. __________
- How could I have made today better?
9. Move to an English-speaking country
In 2018, I spent nine months in California. It changed my life.
This is where your English meets the real world.
And the real world is messy.
You won’t understand a bunch of things.
You’ll have to ask twice a lot.
You will struggle.
But the thing that surprised me the most is that people are fine with you speaking imperfectly. They’re okay with mistakes.
Moreover, they respect your effort because they know how hard it is to speak a second language fluently.
You can start by traveling to English-speaking countries for a week weeks and just practicing there.
Or you can make friends over the Internet and talk to them via Skype.
Whatever works best.
10. Design your own way to learn
Now you understand the principles. Apply them to your life.
Don’t just copy my stuff. Use the principles to design systems that fit your environment, your schedule, and your lifestyle.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO START.
I urge you to do that now.
Don’t use a translator to make it perfect. Make it imperfect.
But start now.
Thank you very much for reading my work.