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Comment on learning English

The following is extracted from an email exchange. I keep it anonymous while sharing the part that may be of interest to a wider audience.


Since we are here, can you recommend a source for improving one’s English. Or anything in general about developing mental framework for natural languages.

It takes practice. You must commit to reading and writing. There is no shortcut to competence, no cheat code you can use to get immediate results. It is the same as with everything that involves a degree of sophistication: you have to earn it the hard way.

Reading should come first. It does not matter what you choose to read, provided the text is comprehensible and the topic is not inherently obscure.

Find different sorts of texts from informative to persuasive ones. You want to avoid false modesty and such niceties. Language is like gastronomy: too much sauce or seasoning ruins the dish (and good gastronomy is like elegant code: the simple implementation is usually the best, but I digress).

I think the worst type of publication for your particular needs is anything related to the academia. Do not expect to improve your language skills as a beginner by studying works in the style of the generic research paper: it is too formulaic—it lacks character. Same principle for official documents.

You ask for a source: check out Henry David Thoreau. He is an eloquent writer who combines philosophical insight with a fine style. I think his texts are easy to follow while his philosophy is relatable.

As for writing, try to produce opinion pieces on your blog or private journal (in my case, everything is available on my website). Such as “what I like about my X hobby”. Complement them with informative texts, such as entries that explain in your own words—no jargon or professorial palaver allowed!—some otherwise technical topic.

Practice. Practice. Practice. And be patient.