The last decade has seen a huge boom in U.S. companies hiring Latin American developers. Through this, it’s become clear that one of the most important skills LATAM developers can develop to further their careers is a great level of English.
As an Argentinian in the upper quadrant of the millennial generation, my first introduction to English was about 30 years ago: I picked up a Gameboy and a copy of Pokemon Red, only to find that the words didn’t make any sense to me. But hey, I was a boy on a mission to catch ’em all, so I pushed my way through. Somehow, I figured out the meaning behind the game controls, the actions, and even the general Pokemon story on the way.
This approach – learning English playing video games - while unorthodox by every measure, was the driving force that allowed me to learn five languages over time. And learning languages has been paramount to gaining experience working with international companies.
In this article, I want to share some of my favorite techniques for improving language skills.
First Things First: What Does “Fluency” Mean?
As developers, many of us share a common goal to reach fluency in English, but defining that goal can be tricky. What does “fluency” even mean? Is it being able to communicate with others through English? Feeling comfortable writing and speaking? Is it sounding like an English native? Or some combination of those?
Most standards for measuring language proficiency will define fluency according to vocabulary (i.e. how many different words you know), using correct grammar, or your ability to understand written and spoken English. Some English Standards even categorize your skills in these areas in an effort to provide a rough estimate of how you stack up against other people.
While this may be useful to get a general understanding of your abilities, it’s also vague and potentially misleading. For instance, you may achieve great results if you have a wide vocabulary, but avoid speaking in English in your day to day because you still feel uncomfortable.
In my opinion, being fluent is a journey more than a destination. It’s not something that happens overnight, but gradually and through years of practice and acquired experience. For me, English fluency is being able to communicate effectively, feeling comfortable enough when doing so, and adopting a mindset of continuous improvement. I found that defining it this way helped me avoid falling into the trap of setting unrealistic goals, then feeling disappointed when I couldn’t reach them.
You shouldn’t strive to sound like a native or feel as comfortable with English as you do with your native language, because that’s practically impossible to achieve. Rather, focus on being fluent in the work environment. Aim to get to a place where you’re able to communicate well enough to understand any task assigned to you, report on progress to your manager, and keep up at meetings.
Exposure Is Key
Let’s face it: no one learned their first language by carefully studying the grammar, structure, and pronunciation. We acquire our first language through exposure. Why would a new language be learned any differently?
Therefore, the first thing you should do is increase exposure to the English language in every possible way. The easiest way, of course, is to relocate somewhere where the primary language is English. Making communication critical for your everyday tasks can be a thrilling and effective way to learn the language and culture.
Of course, relocating is not an option for most of us. If you can’t move to a new city, the next best thing is to play it out as if you have. Every little detail you can set to the English language, you should.
Set Your World to English
My first tip: set every device to English, from your mobile phone to your computer. I’ll admit that this can be quite amusing (hearing Google Maps try to pronounce Spanish street names in English always makes me laugh), but I’ve found minimal disruptions to my day to day from making this small change. And it gets you used to seeing and hearing the language all day long. They say people check their phones a hundred times a day, wouldn’t it be great to use those as a hundred moments of exposure?
You can even use this trick to practice your listening and speaking abilities: Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant are unbelievably good at understanding non-native English speakers, and when talking to them you won’t feel the same pressure as when talking to someone.
Learn English While Working
Software developers have a great advantage, in that most programming languages are written in English. Some languages, such as Python, even follow English grammar closely. So, unlike many other professions, we are usually writing in English without even realizing it.
Still, some developers may not be taking full advantage of this. If you find yourself switching back and forth from your native language while you code, I challenge you to try sticking to English. Believe me, programming runs much more smoothly when you stick to a single language! If you’re not sure where to start, below are some everyday tasks you could try doing in English to help you improve.
Searching and Debugging
If you try to search in your native language, everything is working against you. First off, the resources you’ll find will be from a much smaller pool of results. And translating back and forth means that the words you use may be different from other people, further reducing the chances of finding relevant results.
If you try to search in English instead, you’ll find a pool of resources orders of magnitude bigger, which usually results in better implementations too and a faster turnaround. You’re getting better results, and improving your English skills as a side effect!
The same is true when reading documentation. I will always maintain that technical writers and translators are the unsung heroes of software development. But If you’re reading this article, it’s clear that your level of written English is enough to follow the docs as well. So why would you revert to your native language when reading for the job?
Sure, you’ll find an occasional new word here and there that may take you into a quick definition search, but that’s actually a plus! You’ll be expanding your vocabulary while learning how to implement something new.
Watch and Listen to Programming Tutorials in English
Similarly, if you understand spoken English at a decent level, you can try watching tutorials and listening to podcasts in English. Whatever your native language is, I’m sure there are amazing teachers available, but subscribing to English-speaking YouTube channels and podcasts for developers will grant you access to some of the most amazing and renowned ones. Many provide captioning so if you can’t understand a word, try turning it on for a second and search its definition if needed.
The same thing goes with courses. There are amazing resources in all languages, but considering how much bigger of an audience the English ones get, it’s easy to see why some of the best are in that language.
Sure, purchasing power can be an issue, but some creators such as Wes Bos even provide Parity Purchasing Power, meaning they’ll adjust their prices and offer potentially enormous discounts based on the average salaries for your location.
Learn English While Playing
Learning English at work is great, but you can still do it while relaxing! If you’re into gaming, for example, you can start by setting the interface to English. It’s a minor detail, but exposure is key and every opportunity counts.
Furthermore, if you feel like practicing in a lower-stakes scenario than your job, joining English-speaking servers can be a great opportunity to get some practice in listening and speaking, learning small talk, and expanding your vocabulary.
I told you above how Pokemon was my first introduction to English (albeit, a poorly translated and somewhat broken English), and how gaming in my childhood and teen years was the driving force that led me to learn the language without really trying.
This is actually how I learned Portuguese, too. When my country placed stronger restrictions to fight the pandemic and the soccer field and paddle tennis courts closed their doors, some of my friends proposed to use those time slots for e-sports, just to keep in touch.
The whole concept of an e-sport was kind of alien to most of us, considering that the last time we played any games was back in high school, but we decided to give it a try and go back to what we used to play back then: Counter-Strike.
Well, it turns out Argentina didn’t have official CS:GO servers, so all of our matches were hosted on Brazilian servers instead. This posed a challenge as we’d never spoken a word of Portuguese before, but just being exposed to it meant we quickly understood key words and phrases and began using them to communicate with our teammates. As normal life resumed, we stopped playing, but my experience led me to make new friends and practice a new language, which I can now proudly say I speak somewhat fluently.
So if you like gaming and you’re in a place where you feel like your written level is good but you could improve your spoken English, I’d definitely recommend this approach if ping is not an issue.
Learn English While Watching
Another great way to expose yourself to English is through TV and movies. Unless you’re a film buff digging into obscure, independent Iranian cinema (that’d make two of us), you’re probably watching Hollywood blockbusters or Netflix series originally recorded in English anyway.
The best part of using movies, TV series and other entertainment media to learn (besides the fact that it doesn’t feel like you’re “studying”) is that it allows for progressive levels:
- First, you can switch from dubbed to subtitles. This will get your brain some much needed exposure to the sounds of the language and how people use intonation, while still reading in your native language so you won’t miss anything important. If you eventually find yourself bothered by un-matching subtitles and poor translations, then congrats, you’re ready for the next level!
- Next up, change those subtitles to English, and try to follow along. As you gain experience with this, you’ll find yourself listening more than reading the subtitles or closed captions, and you’ll be ready to move to the final step.
- Turn off captions and try to follow along by listening only! Sure, you’ll miss something here and there, but you’ll find it makes for the most enjoyable experience as you’ll be able to fully enjoy the actors’ performances.
As you progress through these steps, you’ll be able to enjoy other forms of entertainment. Stand-up comedy, sketch comedy shows, and talk shows are popular forms of American entertainment. If you can watch them in their original language, you’ll find they help enormously to understand not only the language but also the culture behind it.
Learn English While Reading
If you are more into reading than watching television, try to source books in English. Lots of details are usually lost in translation, so you’ll find this will help you enjoy the stories to the fullest when reading fantasy or fiction, or better understand the author when reading essays and such. This will also help you expand your vocabulary and develop your writing skills.
I know that sourcing books in English locally can be a challenge, but books are exempt from import duties and taxes in most countries, so you can order overseas if needed. There are also apps like Scribd, a low-cost digital “library”, and Amazon offers a lot of books, too.
Techniques to Develop English Fluency
While I believe exposure is the key to learning a new language, there are also specific techniques you can use to speed up the process and take your skills to the next level. Below are some of my favorites.
The Narrator Technique
This one’s as easy as it sounds: simply narrate everything that happens around you. “I’m reading an article where some dude is asking me to talk to myself.” Yeah, exactly!
I know that it can look weird when there are people around. But don’t worry, you can still get some of the benefits even if you do it in your head. You’ll still be moving the cogs and practicing the creation of phrases, reinforcing that feeling of thinking in English rather than translating in your head.
If you have the time and space to do so, you can take it a step further and actually speak. I used this technique when commuting, narrating everything from “it’s a sunny day and I’m driving back home” to “there are two guys overreacting to a minute fender-bender” and literally everything that was happening around me. It may sound silly, but I found this to be extremely effective to practice and improve my English.
We already covered how you can learn while playing, but you can also play while learning: some language-learning apps have mastered the craft of gamifying learning. Duolingo is probably the better known among them, and certainly an entertaining way to expand your vocabulary and learn some grammar along the way.
These kinds of apps are usually optimized for engagement with reminders, scoring, and achievement systems that encourage you to come back for more. Be careful, it can be very addictive!
I installed Duolingo out of curiosity and ended up learning Italian for no good reason other than entertainment, but it proved to be a blessing when visiting the land of my ancestors.
If you feel like you know the language well enough to form phrases in your head, but your mouth isn’t really catching up, you can try shadowing.
The shadowing technique consists of listening to a native speaker (for instance, watching your favorite celebrity being interviewed) and mindlessly repeating everything they say with the shortest delay possible. The key word here is mindlessly: remember, you’re not trying to practice building phrases, but rather getting every muscle in your mouth used to the movements. It’s kind of like reading from a teleprompter, but with audio input rather than visual, just to isolate the inconsistencies of English spelling and really focus on speaking.
I recommend trying this with a favorite TV show that you’ve already watched a thousand times. That way, you won’t miss anything you were excited about in a new show because you were busy talking over it.
The JAM Technique
Speaking of just a couple of minutes, the JAM (Just A Minute) technique is an amazing way to improve your confidence and fluency in English.
It consists of choosing a random topic, from your stance on climate change to what you did today, setting a timer, and speaking about it for a minute. The first time may feel like the longest minute of your life, and you’ll probably get stuck a couple of times and struggle quite a bit, but it’ll become easier with time, I promise!
Grab a notebook and write down pointers on everything you just said. Now set the timer again and follow your notes through the same points, this time adding some details here and there. You will find that the second round flows more naturally.
Repeat the process once more. By the third iteration, you’ll be sounding like a great speaker!
This technique is amazing at developing English fluency, and even counting the notes and setup, it only takes five minutes. No matter what your current level is, I can guarantee that doing this exercise a couple of times per day will result in a huge improvement!
Have Conversations in English (With Yourself)
If you’re a developer like me, you probably like to talk about tech. When you reach a level where the JAM technique feels like cheating, try recording yourself talking freely about any tech topic that you fancy. Here are a few examples:
- X framework vs Y library
- What makes a great developer
- Test-Driven Development
- Your opinion on recruiters
The topic is actually kind of arbitrary, but the idea is to find something you’re passionate and knowledgeable about, then have an imaginary conversation with someone else. Explain the topic and express your opinion out loud. Maybe even play around by taking up two different roles and arguing back and forth with your other persona.
I recommend choosing tech topics just to get the side effect of sorting out your ideas and having a cached opinion to knock it out of the park in your next interview. But, you don’t need to only discuss tech. I often do this with recipes for my favorite meals or unnecessary data that somehow got stuck in my brain, like why most watches with Roman numerals use “IIII” instead of “IV”. Really, choose whatever you feel comfortable explaining to someone else.
At the core of this technique is recording yourself. Why? Recording simulates the pressure of a real conversation and pushes you to actually do it. It will also work as an archive to gauge your progress over time. If you ever get the feeling that you’re not making any progress, go back to an old recording and I’m sure you’ll notice a huge improvement. It’s easy to lose track of progress with skills that improve gradually. If you ever feel like you’re stuck and not improving, listening to old recordings can help remind you of your growth.
Besides, you may find some recordings that came out really well may actually be helpful to others and start sharing them as vlogs. Congrats, you just started your side hustle as a content creator!
Talking With Friends
If you have some friends that want to improve their English as well, try setting up the challenge to have every conversation between you in English. You can even make it a game: first one to revert to their native language loses!
A couple of months back, a friend (also a developer) challenged me to do this and we’ve been speaking English ever since. Yes, it feels silly at first, but with time it becomes second nature. And even though we may sometimes struggle to find the words or write with the weirdest grammar, we won’t give up. We are that competitive.
Joining Practice Groups
If you want to move a step up from speaking with friends, the next level of that technique would be to join a practice group. This helps you develop your English skills by talking with random people. Every LATAM developer community out there has an English practice group, so you’ll probably find one that matches your interests pretty easily.
You can also try in-person events and meetings. It’s a great way to meet new people and practice outside of your professional sphere.
Writing your own blog posts can be challenging if you feel like your English is anything short of perfection, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing your best. Let me tell you a little secret: this post has been improved with the help of native speakers. Oh, the irony, I know.
Many tech blogs accept guest writers and offer professional editing as part of the process. They’ll be happy to help improve your piece and make it look great, including polishing up your grammar and vocabulary. They know a huge chunk of the industry is composed of non-native speakers and are used to helping out with that.
You really don’t need to be an expert writer, the important thing is to have something interesting to say, and they’ll help you say it. We do this all the time. You could write for this very blog, and our team will help with the polishing.
Public speaking, especially in a second language, can be the ultimate challenge. However, I think if you’ve come this far, it’s an amazing experience that I would recommend every programmer to try at least once. We love sharing our knowledge, and I’m convinced that everyone has something to say.
Remember, the audience is there to learn from you, and if you made it through the Call For Speakers, you certainly have something interesting to say. It’s not a school exam: they aren’t there to judge your grammar, your accent, or even your public speaking abilities. Everyone there will be rooting for you.
I could write a whole article on public speaking (should I?), but suffice it to say that every conference or meetup I’ve spoken at has been incredibly gratifying.
“Sounding Like a Native Speaker”
I know many of us can get obsessed with the idea of sounding like a native. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s by no means a requirement for your job. People don’t expect you to sound like a native, only to be able to communicate efficiently. As you progress in your career, you’ll probably find the company has higher English proficiency requirements to meet, as meetings with the clients and stakeholders will become more common. But, by that point, you’ll probably have reached that level through daily practice at your job, without even trying.
Always keep in mind that many of your coworkers are non-native speakers, too. And if they are native English speakers, in many cases they only speak that language and usually admire people’s ability to communicate in multiple languages. They are not there to test your language skills, and usually will be happy to help you out with any questions, doubts, or whenever you can’t find the right word.
It’s also equally important to know that there’s no such thing as “sounding like a native speaker”, because English native speakers talk in many different ways, from regional variations to mannerisms. This is obvious in the differences between the UK and US English, but also enormous variations between states, cities, and even neighborhoods.
We know that good developers strive for constant improvement and developing better communication can be a huge plus, but so is setting realistic goals. I can’t stress this enough: you shouldn’t feel like you must reach a “native speaker” level.
English Language Learning Resources
Last but not least, there’s a lot to learn from English coaches that share useful tips and lessons on their social network accounts. I began curating a list of resources when I started working as a remote freelancer and these are some of my favorites.
|Lingua Marina||Marina is a Russian immigrant, and that makes her great at explaining those tiny linguistic and cultural particularities of the US that foreigners may find confusing.||YouTube|
|Stephanie the English Coach||Stephanie is an American that decided to become an English coach after her personal experience trying to polish up her Spanish. This provided her with a very useful perspective on language acquisition.||YouTube|
|Rachel’s English||Rachel’s approach is more orthodox, but that doesn’t make her any less engaging. Her videos on pronunciation are great to help you understand and figure out how to produce the right sounds.||YouTube|
|Speak English With Vanessa||A great source for things like dropping the structures, idioms and all the details that will get you to speak English faster and better.||YouTube|
|Aly from Papa Teach Me||If you’re looking to sound closer to UK English rather than US, Aly’s channel is a great choice to learn their pronunciation.||YouTube|
There are many different ways to learn English or improve your skills. From simple things that you can incorporate into your daily routine, such as the narrator technique or JAM, to details that increase your exposure, or deliberate practice with coaches.
The roadmap I shared in this article is based on my personal experience learning English and other languages, but at the end of the day, it’s all about finding what works best for you and practicing with consistency. One thing is clear: improving your English unlocks a lot of doors in the international job market.
Finally, if you’re interested in working on other skills for your career development, we curated a list of online learning resources to help you get started.