How I Learned English

This post is brought to you by HBO and Her Campus Media.

People often ask me how I learned English to the point that I’m able not only understand what people say but also make writing in foreign language my job. To be honest, it was not an easy journey. I remember the time when I felt completely lost and embarrassed when I did not understand what people were saying. I also recall sleepless nights when I stayed late to read the book in English… and was not able to go through a half page without a dictionary. My journey to learn the language to the point where I feel comfortable communicating took almost 10 years—in June, I’ll be celebrating my anniversary with America. Today I collaborate with HBO to share with you some of the strategies that I used to master my comprehension, speaking, and writing skills in English.

Watch to Speak?

Growing up in Russia, I received some basic English skills. I was aware of the concepts of times and articles and could put together a somewhat readable text. My problem was that I didn’t know how to talk in English. Well, maybe I was… but I felt too embarrassed doing so in public. I felt that people can’t understand my accent and think that I’m not that smart because I didn’t know any “fancy” English words.

What helped me to break this barrier was… watching more TV! I know it sounds counter-productive to listen to the language to start speaking, but in my situation, that was exactly the solution. By surrounding myself with as much English as possible, I started hearing how different people pronounce certain words and felt more confident in remembering what was the exact way to do so. Since there are many people on TV speaking with an accent I also learned to understand different pronunciations.

My strategy for learning the language by watching it was to pick some of my favorite TV shows that I already saw in Russian and start watching them in English. That way, I already knew where the plot was heading so it was easier to understand what was going on in the show. I was always a fan of HBO so the first TV show that I picked to binge-watch for educational purposes was Sex and The City. Not only it was about fashion and shoes, but it also took place in New York City!

On my first round of re-watching all six seasons of Sex and The City I turned on subtitles and tried to read what actors were saying. The next round I watched the show strictly in English—surprisingly, by that time I could understand most the words and even slang used by the characters. Granted, Sex and The City doesn’t use academic language that you might need if you are planning on continuing education in the U.S., but it will teach you the “street language” that you will not find in any English textbook!

Find an Editor

A lot of people ask me, how did you learn to write in English. Well, it’s a complicated question. For starters, I have a degree in journalism and many years of experience in writing in Russian. It might sound like a non-relevant information, but in my opinion, writing is a skill of being able to put your thoughts on paper regardless of which language it is. In other words, writing regularly teaches you the habit of expressing your thoughts and the style of doing so comes via analyzing your texts and correcting them.

What worked for me is to hire a professional editor to find and correct my mistakes. I found a very reliable editor via UpWork (at that point, it was still called Elance) and sent her my texts to read. When I received them, I could see all the corrections and ask questions. I can’t explain what a big difference such strategy made for my English writing skills! Not only my blog posts came live without any typos or errors, but I also learned which areas of language to concentrate on. Until this day, I experience difficulties with articles and prepositions (did you know that there is no such thing as the articles “a” and “the” in Russian?), but these are nothing compared to when I started.

I know that not many people could afford to hire an editor or a tutor to go over your writing samples, but you could easily find an editor among your friends and acquaintances. Ask them to proofread a piece or two weekly and you’ll be amazed how much you learn during these sessions.

I would also recommend signing up to one of the online editing apps that check spelling mistakes in your emails and even social media messages. My personal favorites are Grammarly and PaperRater. Some people use these tools for proof-reading academic papers, but I run all my emails through them—not only you are learning the language, it’s also much more professional that way.

Make It Convenient

Another tip that really helped me to learn the language is to make your native speaker sources available. By saying so I do not refer to your American friends who you could call in the middle of the night asking to translate a difficult sentence, but entertainment in English that is easily accessible at any moment. Even though I’m not currently in the intensive English learning mode, I still watch TV shows and listen to podcasts while on the go—to educate myself and also learn a new word or two in English.

For podcasts, I use a regular iPhone app called Podcasts where I subscribe to weekly episodes of my favorite podcasts and listen to them while at the gym or walking my dog. When it comes to the TV shows and movies, my favorite app is HBO Now. Since I’m a fan of so many HBO series, it just makes sense for me to sign up for the service and watch all the series I love as soon as they come out. I also love the idea that you can connect your HBO Now account and watch your favorite movies on a regular TV screen (or use a projector, as I did in these photos!).

You might say that you don’t have time to watch TV and I could totally relate to that, but how about just… listening to movies for educational purposes? Let me warn you: this language-learning strategy totally freaks out my boyfriend but I use it every single day anyway. Basically, I listen to my favorite shows and stand-up comedy… while taking a shower. Yes, you’ve heard me right: I put on a show on my iPad and listen to it while washing my hair and doing all the other time-consuming things like blow-drying my hair or plucking my eyebrows. In fact, I don’t even move my iPad from the bathroom – as it serves a sole purpose of my bath-taking TV screen.

Become a Student

Even before I was admitted to NYU, I took a few non-matriculated classes at Hunter College (it means, I didn’t receive a college credit for them). While it might sound expensive and unnecessary, going to college helped me tremendously with improving English comprehension. It’s one thing when you are chatting with friends about everyday issues and a completely different story when you need to learn another discipline in a foreign language.

I took psychology and sociology classes and was surprised how many new words I learned every single day. Compared to the English school that I attended when I just moved to New York, it was a much more effective language learning strategy. By the way, the best part of being a non-matriculated student is that you receive all the knowledge other students do without worrying about your grades!

Talking about English comprehension, I also recommend starting to watch documentary movies. Like taking college classes, that type of content allows you to concentrate on learning the language by acquiring new information. Some people say that watching the news work the same way, but it was not the case for me. For starters, TV hosts tend to talk faster and switch from one topic to another too often while documentary movies allow to concentrate on one storyline and eventually figure out the words that you didn’t understand from the beginning.

* * * * *

There you have it: tips and tricks that helped me to learn English to the point that writing in a foreign language became my full-time job. As you see, it takes a lot of time and dedication to acquire a new language, but it’s totally doable! Yes, it feels very frustrating when you can’t understand what people are saying but the difficult times will eventually pass. Learning the language is a never-ending process so the more you spend time on it the better you become!


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  1. Liz Lawson wrote:

    Ah, this is interesting—thank you for sharing!

    I’m learning Spanish using Duolingo (moving super slow on it by repeating lessons until they’re committed to my memory and I go a test without getting anything wrong), but will soon start watching more children’s shows in Spanish (or that are bilingual) and reading Spanish children’s books. I’m happy to have found someone else who uses mixed media to learn a new language!

    Posted 11.15.17 Reply
  2. Heidi wrote:

    I also learned English by watching TV. And Sex and the City was a huge part of it too! I have been trying other languages, but it’s quite hard since it’s not everywhere. English is all over the place so you need to learn it to understand about everything. So, I also learned the language by watching TV and playing with the subtitles on/off and speaking about everything that they said.

    Heidi ✨ | Heidi’s Planner

    Posted 11.14.17 Reply
  3. such an amazing journey!That is so awesome how you learned English!!!

    Posted 11.11.17 Reply
  4. Alicia Mackin wrote:

    I am trying to learn French and I can not imagine going to school in France and taking classes in French. Wow. But yes watching TV totally helps and what I do when watching shows on Netflix if it is available I turn on French subtitles helps a bit so I see the French words when people are speaking English. And I am going Babbel. And OMG I took classes at Hunter non matriculated too! I had to b/c my high school grades were bad. But I did this until I got my GPA up and then applied and got in. I took German.

    Allie of ALLIENYC

    Posted 11.10.17 Reply
  5. Missy wrote:

    wow thats so amazing!


    Posted 11.10.17 Reply
  6. Kathrin wrote:

    Oh wow, watching movies and shows in a foreign language is how I start to learn too. People thought I was strange when I told them…Great to know I’m not the only one.

    Kathrin | Polar Bear Style

    Posted 11.10.17 Reply
  7. Susan Tran wrote:

    This is so insightful to read! I teach at a school where a majority of our population speaks English as their second language and many of them are only beginning (or in the process of) learning English. It’s so helpful for me to hear about other people’s experiences because it helps me understand where my kiddos are coming from. I’m always trying to better my Spanish, and I think listening to podcasts and watching shows is a great idea to sharpen my skills. Kudos to you for your persistence and dedication in learning English. You’re amazing!

    Susie |

    Posted 11.9.17 Reply
  8. Mercy wrote:

    You write really well in English, I would have thought it is your first language.

    Posted 11.9.17 Reply
  9. Erica Choi wrote:

    You are so good! I find it so difficult to learn a new language – but it really takes dedication! :)


    Posted 11.9.17 Reply
  10. Bag at You wrote:

    This is such a cool post with the best tips for when you want to learn a language!! Xx Susanne –

    Posted 11.9.17 Reply
  11. Nora Gouma wrote:

    Interesting post, I love it, truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing, waiting for the next amazing post!!!


    Posted 11.9.17 Reply
  12. Cristina wrote:

    Watching TV shows is a great way to learn English. That and reading have taught me most of the English I know!

    Posted 11.9.17 Reply
  13. Len Dela Peña Parent wrote:

    OMG what a journey of learning English. I thought at first you’re an American. Haha!!! Great job girl!
    You are such an inspiration!
    Thanks for sharing!
    Much love, Len

    Posted 11.9.17 Reply
  14. Shauna C wrote:

    Wow, what an interesting journey! You would never know that English is not your first language!!


    Posted 11.9.17 Reply