Feeling Useless: I Need to Improve My English

19 September, 2016
Q I was born in Jamaica and went to the United States at the age of 14. I've never read books; I was just looking at pictures. At school, I just read what I had to in order to pass the class. Now, I'm in a position where I can read, but I can't understand what I'm reading because of some of the words used in the sentence. My vocabulary is very limited and I want to know how to increase it. I've never had a lot of friends while growing up, so I am not really a talkative person; I usually just listen to what they have to say and reply to what they asked. In high school, I was placed in an ESOL class which is for students whose first language wasn't English. I really need help to better myself; I feel as though I'm useless in this world and that I'm just existing and not contributing. Can you help me? I would really appreciate, thank you.



As-Salam ‘Alaikum,

I am actually very impressed with your post. You have written this post very well! Indeed, if you began to learn English as an adolescent, it will take a little more effort to learn.

First, give yourself more credit for what you have already achieved. Now, there are a few things you can do on your own to increase your vocabulary and to increase your written and conversational skills.

  • When you are engaging in a conversation, take notes of the words which you do not understand. Keep a notebook and pen in your pocket. Write that word down as fast as you can. If someone asks you what you are doing, you can be honest! Tell them that English is your second language and you want to increase your vocabulary. When you get home, you can Google the word and you will likely to find it in the online Webster’s Dictionary, but often the Wikipedia will offer a thorough understanding of the word as well. You can also buy a good Webster’s Dictionary from an online store such as Amazon.com.
  • When you are reading, instead of stopping the process of reading, take notes, then carry on. You can look up the words later if you are able to get the idea of what you are reading. Then, look the word up. You might want to re-read your material to get a better understanding.
  • Watch the English News Channel, or find a television show that you like. Again, take notes of the words that you do not understand, and set aside a time to look them up and write down the meaning. This will utilize all three learning modalities; you will hear the words, you will write them, and you will read them.
  • Listen to English nasheeds (Islamic songs without music). Find your favorite type and listen to the songs.  Again, just as mentioned above, take note of the words that you do not understand, and look them up.
  • Make learning fun. Go to your local Junior College and enroll in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. They will test you to see what your English skill level is, and they will place you in a class that is appropriate.  You will get an opportunity to engage with other people, who have the same experience as you do, to practice both written and conversational skills.
  • If you are not able to attend a Junior College ESL class, another option is to gather some friends and purchase ESL CD’s, downloads, and workbooks. I mentioned doing this with one or two other people so that the process remains FUN.  There might also be some online ESL classes through the Junior College.
  • Once you know what your skill level is, borrow books from the library to read which look fun, even silly, or interesting to you.

I am so happy that you decided to take the time to increase your reading, comprehension, writing, and conversational English skills. Just keep doing this with the approach that you would take if you were learning something fun for a hobby such how to draw or paint artwork, or how to win a marathon race!  In other words, set time aside for this. It is not work; it is a creative process that will open so many doors for you.

Once you master the English language, you can teach, translate, this could lead to travel, or find a better job, and the ability to connect with more and more people. Once you make learning English an integral part of your life, it will no longer feel like you are struggling to achieve something, but rather something that you look forward to and can’t wait to get back to.

Thank you so very much for reaching and writing. I pray this has been helpful to you.



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About Maryam Bachmeier
Dr. Bachmeier is a clinical psychologist who has been working in the mental health field for over 15 years. She is also a former adjunct professor at Argosy University, writer, and consultant in the areas of mental health, cultural, and relationship issues.