November 20, 2009

On Learning English, Again

Ever since my success in the TOEFL test, the frequency of people asking me about how to learn English has risen to a brand-new level. Every time there’s someone asking me, I kept thinking, why can’t everybody do the same if I can do it. And here is what I came up with recently.

(Apparently) most everyone can speak their mother tongue very well – basically because they have no other choice, even if we cannot understand something written in our mother tongue, we still have to crack it, possibly aided by a dictionary or an instructor, but still, we have to understand the words in their own "physical form". There is not an alternative since our mother tongue is the primary choice in comprehension. The usual method we use in learning a second language, i.e. translating it into our first language, does not work!

Therefore I can’t stop thinking why we cannot learn a second language as if it is our first. Imagine you are a Chinese, and is reading a text written by the 20th Century Chinese writer Lu Xun (if you are not Chinese, think about some influential writer who lived some a hundred years ago). It is not uncommon for students to complain that Mr. Zhou’s (i.e. Lu Xun's) dialect is obscure and hard to understand. However, even after checking a reference source and having your teacher explain the background and theme of the essay, you still have to rely on your innate language ability to understand the article.

Okay, now let’s look back at learning a second language. When you are presented with a piece of text in English, and if you have trouble understanding quite a portion of the text either because of your lack of vocabulary or impotence to connect the words into meaningful chunks, you probably would look for a Chinese version of the article to read instead. That is at least common of many of my friends - many from the math department read texts in Chinese only!

My advice here: pretend that you can understand even if you don't! This may sound ridiculous at first but if we investigate further, we will find that it is effective in forcing yourself to decipher the meaning of the text as if it is your first language. This is exactly what I experienced back in high school. In fact I couldn't understand original versions of English novels very well until my senior years in high school. In at the first few trials I did encounter manifold problems following the flow, especially the detailed descriptions. But I did not just throw the book away and turn to a Chinese translation - I stuck with the book and read as if I could understand. And by the end of my high school years, I was capable of the vast majority of modern English articles.

This does not work only with reading - it works equally well with listening and speaking. Take speaking as an example. When you speak in English, imagine yourself as a native speaker. Talk as it you are an American or Briton - it does not matter that at first your accent would sound awkward; you will gradually grab the right way to pronounce and intonate along the way. And do speak with confidence; do make yourself heard clearly. Many language learners speak as if murmuring and the listener is simply disappointed because they can't quite hear the speaker.

These are I what I've thought of recently. Hope they'll be of help.


  1. quite helpful~~~ths

  2. 学习了。