I was always being asked by my students how they could learn English better as a second language. There are lots of ways to improve English but not all of them proved effective and efficient to every learner because of the individual learning differences. Perhaps looking at my path of learning can shed some light on it. It was hard to tell holistically - many scenes coming out from my mind - it was a long long journey, but fruitful.
Like many other Hong Kong people in 1970s, I was born in a working family. My parents never received formal education they can only speak Cantonese. Therefore, I could not learn English from them. I learnt Putonghua and English in school, and now I can speak fluent Cantonese (my mother tongue), Putonghua (learnt in my early twenties), and English (as I regard, a second language).
I was raised and received my basic education in Hong Kong. I first entered into the English world when I began my schooling. From kindergarten to primary six, English was taught as a subject – vocabulary, reading aloud, dictation … a routine practice. I was not enjoyed being in the English lessons as they were not very interesting. But I was told to study hard because high competence in English could enable one to up the social-economic ladder and have a great future prospect. I still worked very hard studying the language just because this was one of the subjects I had. I had never thought of the importance of acquiring English.
After the completion of primary six I entered an English as the medium of instruction secondary school. It was a newly established Christian missionary school in the New Territories. Though it was so-called English medium, I seldom heard English in the school. But interestingly all teachers and students were using English-medium textbooks and students were required to use English for their homework (except subjects like Chinese, Chinese history and Religious Studies). Teachers conducted their lessons in Cantonese with some English terms (Code-mixed) while students did their work and examinations in English only.
So looking up difficult word meanings from the dictionary became a daily assignment to me. When I looked back to that stage, I admitted this ‘activity’ was boring but . Those words that I had spent time on with dictionary were impressed deeply into my mind. I tried to match the language with my first language. Contrasting the two languages helped me understand more about English. Yet, to me, English was merely a subject to learn and to use in the classroom. I and my classmates seldom used English in our daily chatting. That could be one of the reasons why I found it quite difficult to talk with others in English later.
In sum, I had no specific goal in learning English at that time. In fact I did not know how much and why I had to learn the language.
There was a significant change of my learning attitude towards English as I grown up. When I was promoted to Form Four, I became more aware of the importance of acquiring good English – to achieve a good result in the public examinations. Because of this strong , I sought ways to raise my English standard.
In school, my English teacher me on the language. We did a lot of reading, listening and grammar practice in class. As I was rewarded a lot (got more correct answers) I became more ambitious in ‘acquiring’ it. After school, I spent a lot of time on learning English through reading, hoping that my English would be boosted in a short period of time. Though I had made use of different strategies in improving my English, the result was discouraging.
I still faced lots of problems. I found difficult in understanding texts and I was struggled to speak in English. I had problem in using English to communicate! I found myself always anxious about making grammar errors and using wrong vocabulary. I realized I did not have confidence in speaking English. One day, after I had read an English passage in the lesson, my teacher and classmates told me I could read beautifully as if I were a native speaker. I was so delighted at that moment though, I was curious about whether I had already acquired the language. Was it simply because I had prepared well (read many times in my heart)? Was it my talent or by instinct that made me speak like a native? How should I evaluate myself I have acquired the language? I was asking myself lots of questions.
I went to England to further my studies a few years later. I finished my first degree in English language there. It was a experience.
I entered the country with excitement and full of expectation. But soon I underwent cultural shock. I found it very hard to understand my lecturers. I was scared and felt shame to voice out. I remained silent just as if I was first learning that language. I noticed my different accent and language use; I knew I had to overcome this difficult situation.
One of my flat mates who came from the Mainland, shared her learning experience with me. She encouraged me to make use of the authentic English environment, think and speak in English all the time. I began to record every lecture and listen to it several times outside the classroom. I tried to talk with the local people though I noticed my English is different from them. Later, I discovered that I could speak in fluent English, but I seldom used colloquial expressions, which I thought was the major difference between mine and the natives. In the classroom I was remained silent as I did not feel comfortable in speaking English I could see my great improvement in communicating successfully in English.
English is remained a more prestige in its social status in Hong Kong. At the moment, I consider myself as a learner of English as I still require conscious using the language. I need to pay highly attention when I watch English TV and news in order to receive information. I think I am still learning the language but approaching the acquisition stage. The road to use English subconsciously may take a few years to go.
To sum up, I found sufficient exposure to the target language is crucial for a language learner. A rich linguistic environment favours one to acquire the target language. Extrinsic and motivation also plays a vital role. As I see, the factors such as one’s motives, identity, confidence and determination are more important than ‘a critical period’ despite more difficult and effortful. I believe it is possible for everyone to acquire a new language. I can achieve it in the near future.