As an English language teacher, one of the questions that I get asked the most often is – “How can I improve my English?” The standard text book answer for this question would be to use the language more often – LISTEN, SPEAK, READ and WRITE in English. Practice makes perfect, right? Right. Although there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with this simplistic answer, it’s too vague to be of help to language learners. They wouldn’t know where to start.
So this post is especially dedicated to all of you out there who have asked me this question before. I’d draw from my personal experience learning English as a second language and share with you what worked for me.
Learning English – My Story
I grew up speaking Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) at home. In kindergarten, at the age of 5, I was exposed to Mandarin Chinese, Malay and English. When I was 7, my parents enrolled me in a national primary school where the medium of instruction was Malay language, except during English lessons. In our multi-racial class, we communicated in Malay most of the time. However, among the Chinese students, we tended to use Hokkien.
When I was in Standard 3, I started attending English tuition classes at Living Spring, an English language centre. Unlike the communicative approach in school, I received more structured lessons on grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation at the language centre. Besides, we also wrote compositions in class and had spelling and dictation tests regularly. All these provided me with a good foundation in English. The lessons were far from boring and tedious though as I had amazing teachers who made learning English fun. We played language games, listened to stories, sang songs and danced, went on field trips, “cooked” in class…. (p/s Special thanks to Mdm Jennifer and Mrs Lee.) In addition, we were encouraged to borrow books from the class library to read at home. That was how I picked up the habit of reading and soon became an avid reader. I attended Living Spring for eight years and from there I gained confidence and competence in using English.
However, in all those years that I studied English (at school and at the language centre), I merely regarded it as another school subject. I did my English homework, wrote essays, studied for tests blah blah blah… but I hardly, if ever, used English as a tool for communication other than with my English language teachers. Not surprisingly, therefore, I could read and write well in English but I was not fluent in spoken English. In fact, my English pronunciation was horrible. And I spoke with a Chinese accent.
I only began using English as a tool for communication at the age of sixteen, which was when I started attending English Sunday Service at church. I listened to sermons (which were in English, obviously) and conversed in English with other church members. Most of them were from English-speaking families. It took me a while to get used to speaking English and I made lots of blunders along the way.
After I completed high school, I was offered a scholarship to pursue a degree in TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language). While at teacher training college, the medium of instruction was English and all trainees were encouraged (or rather, compelled) to use English at all time. As it was an Overseas Link programme with University of Auckland, I had the opportunity to spend two years in New Zealand, during which I also travelled to Australia for a short break. In those two years, I used English extensively in my daily communication with both native and non-native speakers of English. Soon, speaking English became second nature to me.
After I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in TESL, I was assigned to teach in a secondary school in Sibu, Sarawak where the population was predominantly Chinese. Outside the classroom, I rarely had the chance or need to use English. Furthermore, I got so caught up with work that I ceased to read for leisure and for professional development. Consequently, my language proficiency suffered. I regret letting it slide and I have only myself to blame for that. *sigh*
In order to turn the tide, I’m taking steps to regain lost ground…. *I’ll share about that in future posts. =)
What conclusions can be drawn from my experience?
Do not expect to master the language overnight. It takes time and lots of practice to develop proficiency.
If you need English tuition, look for a language centre/teacher that…
a. makes learning English fun and engaging.
b. deals with the basics – grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation – so that you can have a solid foundation.
Read, read and read – online news, blogs, magazines, novels – anything and everything, as long as it is written in English and the content interests you.
Make new friends who speak English (only) so that you’ll be “forced” to communicate in English.
Be more “thick-skinned” – persevere even when your friends make fun of you. Do not be afraid of making mistakes.
Make English your language of choice… for example, when you call help lines, post FB updates, tweet, sms, chat online, etc. Tune in to an English radio station, watch English movies, read the news in English…. you get the idea?’’
Ops.. that’s a really long and wordy post! If you’re reading this line, give yourself a pat on the back. It proves that you’re really serious about improving your English language proficiency and with that determination, I’m sure YOU CAN DO IT! I’d love to hear your story. If you have any questions regarding English language, feel free to comment or email me. I’d try my best to help.