As a northern immigrant that GREw up in Shenzhen, my first language is Mandarin and the second language is Cantonese. I started to learn English as a foreign language since the years of primary school. Judging from how I have mastered the languages, I don’t have barriers in Cantonese in terms of listening and reading, but have some issues in pronunciation that do not affect the communication; as of English, I have relatively superior aspects as in listening, speaking and reading, but it falls short in writing. Since I acquired Cantonese gradually in childhood, the learning process has been very vague in memory. Therefore, this discussion is mainly on my English acquisition process.
When first started learning English in class in first grade, I, like most Chinese children, had no particular motivation to learn it. It was just a subject in the school curriculum. From the original ignorance and curiosity about English, to now fluent communicate with others in English, I have not only paid a lot of effort in the more than fifteen years of learning process, but I also gained a lot of fun. In this article, I will divide my English acquisition process into two main stages and review them one by one.
The curriculum of English classes in Shenzhen is set from the beginning of first grade. In the beginning, lessons are mostly about names of common things in daily life (such as McDonald’s food in English, etc.), and some English songs.
At that time, because there was only one English class a week, with too long interval between the two classes, and no corresponding practice, what had been learnt in the previous class was almost all forgotten in the next class. Also, at that time, English was not one of the core subjects and there was no pressure for exams, I did not put too much effort into learning English.
Thus, although I was exposed to English in an early age, I didn’t gain much in the first four years of learning, but only a preliminary impression of a certain sensibility, for example: English and Chinese are not the same, English words consists of letters, and English and Chinese have different ways to vocalize.
Entering the fifth grade, I began to learn English systematically. I was the kind of student that had fast reflection but not careful enough. In learning English, reciting words to me was very difficult and I always got the wrong spelling, so I had not ever had a full score for dictations.
At that time, my English teacher was very strict, and if we spelled words wrong, we would be criticised and have to copy the words repeatedly. Over time, I had a fear for spelling words, and I was always uncertain whether I’d written the words correctly. The more hesitant the more misspelled, by it became a vicious cycle. The effect is deeply rooted and until now, my spelling is still a major weakness. During this period, my English teacher focused in teaching English reading and writing and there was a lack of emphasis on listening and speaking, which made me undergo a long period to enter the learning state in junior high school.
Entering junior high school, the learning pressure suddenly increased. In the first section of English class, the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves in English. Seeing that every other student can introduce themselves made me feel ashamed, and made me afraid of speaking English, not to mention answering questions in English class.
During this period, we began to learn English grammar. Because I was in a foreign language school, we had more English classes than other schools, and the learning contents involved more knowledge of grammar. For example, we started learning relatively more complicated grammar such as relative clauses and the subjunctive mood. It has its advantages: learning English became easier in high school; but it also has its drawbacks: classes became boring after the large number of repeated practice and explanation, so I often didn’t pay attention to classes, resulting in a not solid enough knowledge of English grammar. Thus even to this day, I often make simple mistakes in writing.
At this stage, my motivation for learning English is not strong enough. It was mere academic pressure and I was forced to learn it, therefore the passive learning. I was content with finishing the tasks that the teachers set but no further efforts to improve my English. At the same time due to characteristic reasons, I didn’t participate in classroom activities in English, and lost a lot of opportunities for speaking.1
In high school, the number of students had grown and there were more students from other schools coming into the foreign language school. In this environment, I realized that my English is not bad among peers, which increased my confidence and courage in speaking English. From the freshman year of high school, I not only took the initiative to speak in English class, but I even took exercises more proactively than ever.
The most helpful to my English learning was my foreign teachers. Three years in high school, I became friends with them, and after class we often got together to chat, discuss various topics, and sometimes went to see exhibitions and performances.
This had a huge impact on my English learning. First of all, I spoke English more often, which makes proGREss with the repetition. Secondly, in listening, not only could I understand standard English, I could also began to understand a variety of English with accents. Most importantly, because the need of communication, I acquired words and expressions that were used in common life but not included in textbooks, which made my English more practical and useful in daily life. At the same time, I also take the initiative to use the words I’d just learnt in conversations. Those words I have successfully used, even if they were difficult, I rarely forget them.
Entering the university, because the major I took required us to participate in TEM 8, there were a lot of special training courses of English, including Intensive Reading, Extensive Reading, Speaking, Listening, Writing and Newspaper Reading.
While paying attention to lectures, I also spent a lot of extra time to read Anglo-American news, watch movies and TV shows. With this, not only did I understand the customs of the Anglo-American cultures, but I also learnt a lot of slang and colloquial expressions. More importantly, my listening had had intensive training. I no longer needed subtitles while watching English movies.
In addition, I also made friends with a lot of foreign students learning Chinese in my school. In the process of interaction with them, I learned a lot of knowledge that I couldn’t have learnt in textbooks. For example, some words have special meaning or implications in certain circumstances, and so on.
At this stage, I gradually found the motivation for learning English: to learn more knowledge in English, to communicate with more people, and to look at things from a different perspective. A clear motivation made me more motivated to learn English. The improvement of self-learning capabilities provided feasibility of the learning method.
Looking back to the years of English acquisition process, I think for me, the hardest thing was to build confidence to speak English. Because speaking in English means that others will hear all the mistakes you make, there is the risk of being laughed at, so it is a very awkward process. And how to address this issue and resolve it is essential in the process of acquisition of English, because it also affects other aspects of learning English.
The easiest part is reading. I think the ability to read in a second language is closely related to that of first language. If one can master good reading methods in the first language, these methods will also play a role in reading second language.
What I reGREt the most is not paying attention to junior high school grammar lessons, and did not pay efforts in practicing the relative clause and the subjunctive mood. Until now I cannot use these two in writing, which makes me spend more time in correcting syntax errors for the articles I write.
In my whole course of English acquisition, what encouraged me the most was that in the summer of 2008, I became a volunteer of the Beijing Olympic Games and I provided language services for foreign athletes. Since basically all the work needed to be completed in English, this was both a challenge and an opportunity to exercise. When I finished the more than two months of work, I deeply feel the importance of a second language, and also feel a strong sense of accomplishment.