Torsten suggested that I post how I taught myself English over the years especially stating the methods I employed.
It all started at school, of course. After learning the basics of grammar and vocabulary I noticed that I still couldn’t understand very much of what was being said on American TV or radio or in song lyrics. So in order to increase my vocabulary I bought some good dictionaries and books I was really interested in -Michael Crichton’s “Andromeda Strain” among them- and started to translate them word by word, sentence by sentence. Any word I didn’t know I looked up in my dictionary and then wrote it down. This may appear tedious to most but it helped me a great deal.
I continued to watch TV in order to get an ear for colloquial and “official” American English and tried to recognize words hitherto unknown to me, in order to look them up. Trying to figure out the meaning of song-lyrics of pop songs currently in the charts also helped.
For learning slang I used so-called “pulp fiction” books, because they don’t use very complex language, rather a subset of English, consisting of everyday-speech used by the average native speaker - and are chockful of slang terms. This -ahem- literature consists mostly of horror, fantasy or romance.
Later on I became a shortwave-listener, discovering the international broadcasts of the BBC and others, which of course opened up a whole host of new possibilities to learn English.
With the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, I welcomed this new way to get in contact with people from English-speaking countries in an easy fashion. Before the Web I had been part of the so-called BBS (bulletin board system) scene, frequenting a group called “Interuser” on the FIDO network.
In the course of years I extended my studies to British English, learning that common English is full of “blokes”, “mates” and other colorful people Australians and New Zealanders also have their linguistic specialties and I think their English has a nice ring to it. Scottish, too. (Watch the extras of any of the “Lord of the Rings” DVDs and you’ll be able to savor all these flavors of English in one place).
Nowadays I read comics, “serious books”, technical papers, news…really all sorts of communication one could think of. I also write in English a lot, participating in mailing lists and forums, mostly in my line of work. Knowing English has enormously helped me in my career in IT. Not having to think about what the words in an FAQ mean but being able to concentrate on the problem at hand is clearly an advantage.
Regular exposure to original material in all its written and verbal forms is the key to really learning a language I think. The methods used to ensure that exposure may vary for each individual. These were mine and I hope I could provide at least a couple of ideas helpful to others.
One last recommendation for all fellow students of English: Use the Firefox browser and you will be able to enjoy numerous language-oriented add-ons (extras) that will let you look up words in various dictionaries, do instant translations of web pages and so forth. It’s never been easier to learn words you don’t know. If you have problems or questions about Firefox or its add-ons, feel free to send me a PM.