How To Learn English Through Imitation

It is exciting to learn a second language in the beginning. You get motivated, buy a book, and start memorizing words and conjugation rules. You now know how to start a friendly conversation. But you feel you have reached a plateau. Your English speaking skills are not getting any better. This is how you feel right now, compared to when you first started learning English.

You want to aim higher. You want to speak with confidence and professionalism. You want to express yourself more clearly and with style. But you are just not sure how to go beyond your current level.

When babies start to learn the language, they imitate their parents and repeat after them. In your very first attempts at learning English, you most likely memorized simple phrases by repeating after the teacher. But when you became a little more comfortable with the language, you stopped mimicking native speakers. Then you got a job. Maybe you started a family and you got busy.

Do you feel stuck? Is the old study method not working for you? There is one thing you probably haven’t tried. Let me show you what you could do to improve your speaking skills today.

go beyond one’s current level = level up = 현재의 수준을 넘어
in your first attempts at learning English = when you first tried to learn English = 영어 공부 처음 시도해 봤을 때
imitate = mimic = copy = 따라하다

I didn’t know how to cook rice. It always ended up gooey or too dry. But one day my mother told me the exact amount of water I needed to make the perfect rice, and that changed me forever. Now I make the best rice every time.

One of the concepts endorsed by Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) practitioners is “modeling.” When you model after the behavior of successful people, you will eventually act like them, think like them, and get the same results.

Learning to speak English is no different. When my mom showed me exactly how to cook rice, I was able to do it. When you copy someone who speaks English really well, you will start to talk like that person. If things haven’t worked out for you until now, it’s time to switch up.

gooey = soft and sticky = 끈적하다
endorse = support = uphold = 지지하다
practitioner = a person actively engaged in an art, discipline, or profession = (예술, 기술, 직업, 학무를) 하는 사람
model after = model on = imitate = 모방을 따라하다
switch up = to make a change = 바꾸다

How to Model After a Native Speaker

Memorizing words and phrases is not enough. You should also imitate the way native speakers breathe, raise pitch, lower voice, or pause between sentences. That’s how you become fluent in English. When you play the violin, it’s not enough knowing which notes to play. You also have to know how to phrase and connect those notes together. Speaking is not just a mechanical process. It’s also an art. You don’t need foreigner friends, or to take more classes to speak better English. You can still improve even if you practice alone at home. Here is how.

raise pitch = speak with a high tone = 목소리 (음절)를 높이다
lower voice = speak quietly or with a deeper voice = 목소리를 낮추다
note = musical note = 음표
to phrase = to pace or express = 표현하다

Step 1: Find Someone Who Talks About Your Favorite Topic

We all have blind spots and confirmation biases, which means that we only seek and find information that is important to us, and we are blind to information that is not important to us. Let’s take this psychological quirk to our advantage. This means we are really good at remembering what we think is important to us. You already notice and talk about things that are of importance to you. If you are thinking about buying a new car, you start to see and compare many kinds of cars in your town. If your wife is expecting a baby, you start to see many pregnant women around you. They didn’t suddenly appear from nowhere. They were there, but you only started seeing them when those things became meaningful to you.

In the same way, when you model after someone, you should look for an expert or an authority figure who talks about the topics that you are already interested in. Generally, experts are good at talking about what they know. If you don’t already have English-speaking expert friends who share your interest, look for those people online. You can try:

* Podcasts
* YouTube
* Popular Blogs

Just because I mentioned YouTube doesn’t mean you should start watching some cheap slapsticks. Watch interviews or coaching videos. Learn from naturally spoken language with the appropriate level of professionalism. Interviews, dialogues, and coaching and teaching videos on the topics you are already interested in are what you should be looking for. Are you interested in psychology? Watch Dan Ariely. Do you want to get motivated? Listen to Tony Robbins. Are you a Barclays Premier League Football (English soccer league) fan? Listen to this podcast.

There are two merits to listening to the talks on the topics of your existing interests. First, you are already excited about the topic. Second, you start to connect with the speaker emotionally. When you feel a connection with the speaker and perhaps even admire him or her, you will subconsciously start to talk like that person. If you are learning English and trying to improve your speaking skills, then it’s all the more reason for you to emulate the person who talks about what you love to hear.

Notice I didn’t tell you to find the best public speaker on the planet. I respect Martin Luther King Jr. dearly. His speeches are powerful and they move me every time. My student Sumi, a 20-year-old Korean office lady who has never lived abroad, would never wake up in the morning and say, “I’m so excited about racial equality.” She has probably never seen an African-American in her life, and the issue of racial equality is not as much talked about in Korea as it has been in America (99% of residents in Korea is ethnic Korean). I’m not bashing Sumi or anyone else. Chances are, Sumi will never talk like Martin Luther King Jr. no matter how much she practices her English. Let’s be honest with ourselves and identify what is immediately important to us. Let’s use our limited cognitive capacity to our advantage by focusing on talking about a few topics that matter to us.

At first, you might spend some time searching on the Internet to find the person whose speech style you want to emulate. When you find that one person, you will dig deeper and start to find other speakers and authors in the similar field and interest groups.

Step 2: Talk About What You Just Learned

After you have chosen and listened to the person you want to emulate, it’s your turn to talk about what you have just heard, watched, or learned.

If you are already enrolled in an English conversation class, chat with your teacher in the beginning of the class. You could say,

“Hey, Mike. Yesterday I watched a YouTube video of Warren Buffet talking about how to succeed in investing. He said you should only invest in business that you understand. Have you done investing?”

Try to be proactive and talk more in class if you get the chance. It doesn’t matter whether your teacher agrees, disagrees, or shows interest in your topic. What matters more is that you are reiterating the words and phrases you learned in the video you watched. If you are not taking any conversation class, talk on the camera. Yes, it’s very difficult at first. It’s embarrassing, and you would probably hate seeing yourself in the recorded video. But I highly recommend you do this for two reasons: (1) Talking in front of a camera forces you to talk clearly and concisely, and (2) You can easily find your ticks when you talk. You will also know exactly what to improve about yourself.

We are the worst critic of ourselves. If you improve just one thing about yourself after watching yourself in the recorded video, it would mean a massive improvement in the eyes of others. This is perhaps the most excruciatingly difficult part of your speaking practice, but when you do it, it will definitely change you for the better.

Step 3: Write it Down

You just practiced listening and speaking. Write it down, and read what you wrote. Writing things down on paper or typing it up on your computer helps solidify your concepts, and if you ever need to go back to the notes for a reminder, they are easily accessible. I highly recommend Evernote as your main note-taking application. Evernote works like your personal online library.

You won’t be completely sure if what you wrote is in perfect grammar, unless you show it to native-speakers. Don’t sweat. You don’t have to be perfect from the get-go. Get it right 80%. Then, rinse and repeat. Improve incrementally as you go through this process. What matters more is that you are practicing.

Start Small

Putting what you know into action is never easy. That’s why you should take smalls steps. Don’t watch a 15-minute TED talk. Just watch 10 seconds of that clip. Repeat after the speaker. If talking in front of camera is too much for you, just record your voice using the voice recording application on your smartphone. Then write it down on a piece of paper or type it in Evernote. Just like learning or practicing anything else, the most important thing is to be consistent. The results will follow.

About Josh

3개 국어(🇺🇸영어, 🇯🇵일본어, 🇰🇷한국어)가 가능한 Japanese-American(일본계 미국인). 한국 거주 10년 째. 구독자 6만명의 영어 유튜브 채널을 운영하며 교육 방송 출연과 대학 출강 경험이 있음. 전 직장: Line과 Meta. 좋아하는 음식은 🌮. 취미는 탬버린.

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