Want to Improve Your English? Please Skip MTV

It’s a joke on too many shows these days that the alien or the foreigner learns English by watching MTV or the equivalent. It might have been marginally funny the first time, but it’s way past time for that joke to be over, and the underlying message is actually rather dangerous for those who are trying to sound like professionals. It’s hard to learn real English from people who make money with catch phrases they probably didn’t even come up with themselves. “That’s hot….” Right.

If you’re not a native English speaker and it shows through your writing, watching a bit of television can help, but it will help with your conversational English more than your written words. And if you’re getting paid by the word, you probably want to learn from real ones that can actually make up an entire sentence. Don’t even think of trying to get by with subtitles either. The last time I watched the subtitles on a popular show, I got to experience a “slurp” actually written across the screen and that was enough for me.

So if television doesn’t cut it, what does?

Surprise! Try reading.

You already knew that didn’t you? I’m not a bit surprised. Of course, I’d wager that you’re not reading the sorts of materials you need to fully immerse yourself in conversational American English. Short articles can help, but go ahead and put the Wall Street Journal on the back burner for now. It’s great for news and learning formal English, but you need to take it down about five or six notches and start reading the real thing – light novels.

Why novels?

  • You’ll be able to immerse yourself in the voice of an authentic character for hundreds of pages, not hundreds of words.
  • You’ll be able to understand, in context, some of those strange things Americans say.
  • You’ll see the conversational, casual tone laid out for you in clearly written English.
  • You’ll be able to work through the light novels easily if you pick ones at a reasonable reading level.

Wondering what qualifies as a “light” novel? I’m willing to be flexible on what fits the bill here, but it should be something that doesn’t make you think very hard about life situations. You can leave Ayn Rand out and skip Hemingway for now. You want something more in line with Rick Riordan and Janet Evanovich. These are books that I usually term “brain candy.” They are fun to read and easy to enjoy. And they are written in the first person voice and exemplify the tone you’re trying to learn.

To get started with your new “brain candy” education, I’ll provide a few ideas at the bottom of the post and perhaps comments will suggest some more ideas, but remember, your goal here isn’t to impress your friends with the depth of your literature choices. The opposite is true.

You’re immersing yourself in conversational, casual written words. This means you’ll need to browse the teen and YA section of the local bookstore. You can look at this as "dummying down" a bit for learning and entertainment, but you’ll likely realize that many teen and light books are extremely well written and entertaining, even if they aren’t deemed the greatest novel of the decade.

Read them, learn from them, and enjoy them. The following are all books and authors I’ve either used to teach students effective voice in the classroom or ones I’ve at least mentally flagged as being so well written with a contemporary, conversational, realistic voice.

  • The Lightning Thief Series by Rick Riordan (Teen series with a young, light voice.)
  • Any grown-up books by Rick Riordan (Set in Texas, a tough but self-depreciating male voice.)
  • Anything by Janet Evanovich (Her early stuff is better, but she is great at a tough female voice.)
  • The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler (Funny, teen girl voice.)
  • Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher (Intelligent yet urban male voice of a mixed-race young adult.)
  • Anything by Sarah Dessen (Quiet female voices.)
  • Anything by James Patterson (Serious male voices.)
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Andersen (Serious female voice.)

This is the very abbreviated list, of course, of books that have crossed my mind as I was sitting here. The litmus test for picking books that will work is the word “I.” If the first page of the story is written by “I” and it’s not set in the past (or future), you’re likely holding something that can teach you just a bit more about how to put words together the way the natives do – at least conversationally, of course. Stick to the Wall Street Journal and Rand for the deeper elements of language if you’d like. Give me brain candy any day.

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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

5 thoughts on “Want to Improve Your English? Please Skip MTV”

  1. Good advice, though I must admit I am not familiar with these authors.

    I would also add that listening to audiobooks will help with improving your English usage. You can usually pick up both the audiobook and the regular book at your local library and sight read while you listen. This is great for expanding your vocabulary.

    I am planning to use this technique to increase my Spanish vocabulary this summer.

    • Oh absolutely!

      I force this on all my English and Reading kids for every novel we read together – no Cliff Notes in Garland’s class! We always read and listen at the same time – double sensory is absolutely helpful in improving reading and language skills. Excellent point I neglected to mention.

  2. I’ve been told that if want to have a feature film produced to make sure it’s written for an audience that has an 8th grade level of education.

    My writing group has been reading my teleplay. They suggested I change some of the dialogue because it sounded too formal. I took their advice and reworked the dialogue. My teleplay’s being read by someone from Hollywood, and I can’t wait for the feedback … stay tuned!


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