On Learning English

Warning: This post contains mostly personal opinions, biases and unfounded speculations.

Every time some friend ask me why I am so good at English and how I approach it, I am embarrassed. To be frank, I did achieve moderate scores on standard tests, but I don't think I am good at English. Trust me, I am not trying to be modest. I still rely on dictionaries to tell words of similar meanings apart and to find suitable words for writing. I still cannot talk to a native English speaker in fluent English. I am still unable to get rid of the caption line when watching Big Bang Theory. Scores of standard tests never tell the whole picture.

But wait, good scores of tests must tell something, you might ask. After having pondering this for a while, I guess maybe there is. So what is it? Let me explain.

Language is Way of Thinking

Maybe you have heard this somewhere. Be this true or not, personally I firmly believe in it. A distinct language has its distinct structure and usage, which reflect the philosophy and thinking model behind it. For example, English and my home tongue, Chinese, are two totally different languages. Among the numerous differences is the way of word formation. The very basic elements of English are the 26 characters. The characters by themselves have little meaning but meaningful words and sentences are built upon them. The basic entities of Chinese are also characters, but almost every character has meaning(s), kind of standalone. So, you may ask, why do you mention this? Let's look at two examples:

  1. As an amateur reader, I always notice that books translated to Chinese are often thinner than original English versions, with the same size of book and similar font weight. And you see, since meanings are compacted into characters, Chinese has the strength that complex ideas can be expressed in a concise way. Printing in Chinese seems an economic way of spreading ideas, right?
  2. As an unqualified software developer, handling character encodings often causes me trouble. Character encoding is the electronic way of representing characters of a language in computer systems. The encoding for English is Latin-1 in which each character occupies 1 byte so 128 bytes are fairly enough for the 26 characters (both lower and upper cases) and punctuations. What about Chinese? In a typical encoding, say GB2312, each character takes up 2 bytes. The best part of this is: in Chinese, there are thousands of self-fulfilled characters. So GB2312 would take a storage as large as several kilobytes! (FYI, 1 kilobyte = 1024 bytes) Because Chinese is not meant to be constructed in a combinatorial fashion, in this electronic age, using Chinese becomes lavish. :P

Back to the point, the distinct construction rules of English and Chinese reflect the ways of thinking of the inventors. And since each language has been used for millenniums, the users' thinking model are almost certain to conform to that of the language's.

The Problem

No offense but, upon my observations, many, if not most, Chinese English learners do not get this. They have a misconception that mastering a language is a process of pure accumulation of time and practice. So you devote 2 or 3 hours a day to listening to VOA or reading New York Times and believe that once enough time and effort is devoted, you become a fast reader, fluent speaker, acute listener and eligible writer. Learning a language in this way does improve your skill, but it never changes your way of thinking. You are not thinking in English for the rest of the day. And every time you hear something in English, you translate it into Chinese first and then try to understand it. Every time you wanna say something in English, you first express your idea in Chinese and then translate it into English. The process is so natrual that you do this without any conscious power. In a word, there is no direct link between your thinking and your English because an overuse of Chinese blocks it.

Back to examinations. The most prominent English exam takers I ever come across are not those who remember the vocabulary and grammar best, but those who've got a sense of English. Grammar comes from books but sense of English is derived from experiences. As you've heard, language is a living matter. That's why the latter wins.

A Solution

Once the problem is understood, the right way (I believe) becomes obvious: let English occupy your normal life.

How could I achieve this?! You cry. Yes, this obvious solution could be hard for some people to take into practice. But for some people, especially college students, this is possible. Below are some minimal requirements:

  • Change the theme language to English on your computer, your cell phone and other devices whenever possible
  • Reading books originally written in English whenever you can
  • Listening to & singing English songs exclusively
  • Watch TV dramas in English exclusively

Note the words in bold text, especially the two exclusively's. Make sure the media you interact with are purely English. You'd better not watch three episodes of Big Bang and then three episodes of some Chinese dramas. Mixing contents of different languages is a especially bad practice. One of the most horrible scenarios I've ever witnessed is that someone to take GRE in a few month keeps watching Japanese animation every day. Fighting English over Chinese is already hard. Mixing a third language in is never a wise decision. Remember, if you have a will of sharpening your English, there is sacrifice to make.

Although the requirements are described as minimal, meeting all these would mean you change your well-established habits or even make great sacrifices over your hobbies (say, watching Korean dramas). To native Chinese speakers, using Chinese is natural inclination. Many people around me like watching American dramas. However, the English just flow through their mind and the actual part they perceive is the caption in Chinese. Walk out of your comfort zone, please.

A Step Further

Once you take the first step, you can further the practice. Whenever you do something, try to figure out an English style of doing it. This needs your intentional power and is not always possible. Let me list some examples to illustrate this idea:

  • If you wanna search for something, discard Baidu and go straight to Google (in English). Google always redirects you to results smoothly, without any pop-up windows, and that's the English way of doing search.
  • If you wanna read some news, avoid Sina and choose from NYT or other English news websites. Eminent English news sites report world-wide news (they happen to have a special interest in Chinese affairs) and present objective views and critical opinions. That's the English way of reading news.
  • If you find some article interesting, see if this is a compilation, and if it is, read the original version. As most translations are done in a hasty fashion, to me, it is an effective process of distortion.
  • If you happens to be alone, feels boring and wanna say something to yourself, express it in English. Wanna write a diary? Write it in English. Watch Premier League? Choose a stream where the commentators speak English.
  • ...

I think you get it.

Progressive Learning

If you obey the guidelines above, you create an English-learning enviroment tailored for you. The process is hard to begin and requires great mental power and self-discipline. But little by little, you get accustomed to English, then comfortable with it and finally make a direct link between it and your mind.

Lastly, maybe it's hard to get immersed as you have to deal with most things in your life with your native language. The baseline is: use English at least as much as your native language.

Wish this post is helpful to you.