How Did I Learn English?

As a migrant from China to Australia, I am often asked this question, “How did you learn English?”

I speak English and Chinese both fluently. I speak fluent mandarin and a few dialects of Chinese such as Cantonese and another dialect in my hometown.

People ask this question for different reasons. Some people are just out of curiosity, some are trying to justify how hard or how easy it is to learn a foreign language, and others might want some tips on how to learn English.

This is a difficult question to answer. It really depends on your expectations of how well you want to master this language. I probably learnt it the hard way, like most Chinese did – actually I am sure most Chinese are still learning it the hard way.

The hard work does get rewarded, if you know how to do it. I will talk about how I was rewarded later. Now I’d like to introduce the hard way and easy way to learn English.

The hard way to learn English

In 2011 I went to China to visit my family. I have been going to China to visit my family once a year since 2006 I came to Australia. My sister is a teacher in China teaching English at a secondary school. She speaks reasonably good English in comparison with some English teachers I know in China. My sister teaches English the traditional way English and other subjects are taught in China, the whole purpose of that is, to pass exams.

One of my nephews just finished secondary school and he was about to go to high school. He was one of those students struggling to get high scores in English exams. My brother and his wife desperately wanted him to get some tips from me on how to learn English.

When I went to school, we started to have the subject of English at secondary. I was taught the same way as my sister still does to her students these days, except I did a bit extra work to stand above others. I did this unconsciously to start with, then I found that this bit of extra work made my English exam scores went from average to right at the very top, sometimes well above the others. It was until then that I realized that it really worked for me.

At school, every student of the same grade would be given the same book for a subject for the term and this is the book you need to study to pass your exams. The process would be: in the whole term the teacher concentrates on this very book and goes through it over and over until the students have a very good understanding of everything in this book, and then you get the exams about this book.

Since every question in the exams was related to this book, so my extra bit of work was to remember every word in the book until I could repeat the articles without having a look at the book. I was happy to share my little secret of success with others but I obviously had a talent of remembering things because I could finish repeating an article within about half an hour while others found it hard to accomplish it at all. I kept this habit of repeating articles in the books until I finished high school and in the whole middle school period I was my English teacher’s pride because teachers are valued by their students’ scores.

If you want to pass exams in China this is the way to go. But in reality when you actually want to use what you learnt in a practical way, i.e. have a conversation with your clients from English speaking countries, you might find it very disappointing. I experienced this when I finished university and went to work for a company that had clients from overseas.

I was in Guangzhou, China at the time. Twice a year we would have clients from overseas to visit the trading fairs in Guangzhou. Sometimes I got the job of showing them ways around Guangzhou and that was completely disaster – I already had communications with them via emails but I could not talk to them face to face. I just did not understand what they were talking about. After 10 years of studying English at school, I could not understand their English!!

After 10 years of studying English at school I could read and write well but I could not talk to people face to face. I realized that I needed to do something about it. I went on Internet for the answers. I found the answer after I tried a few things.

The answer was, chat to people and learn how other people engage conversations. You could choose those online chat rooms. In these chat rooms you meet people you never met before and chances are that you will never meet them in real life. In this way you can avoid embarrassment that you think your English is not good enough to chat with people. It was that easy. If the person you are chatting with lose interest because your English is not good enough, then move on. There are a million other people are interested just for a chat.

After a couple of months my English speaking skills were improved noticeably. I was then confident enough to telephone my clients, which I used to always try to avoid. I used to try to write emails instead. One day after I finished conversation with a client on the phone, the sales manager said to me “Hey, I didn’t notice that your English has improved so much recently. What have you done?”

I smiled and said, “I try hard.”

By the time I came to Australia in 2006, my English was good enough to understand 60% of the conversations and after 3 months in Australia I could understand most of people talking.

So much about the hard way. I will now introduce the easy way.

The easy way to learn English

Empty your cup, Learn like a child.

When my daughter came to Australia with me, she was three and half years old, just old enough to go to kinder garden. She came in December and the kinder garden started in early February. My daughter had already had kinder garden experience in China so she was quite happy to keep going. The first day I walked her to her room and she could not talk to anybody. She could not speak a word of English.

The teachers from the kinder garden were very concerned about her English and made a few suggestions to me on how to get her learn to speak English. They were so kind that they bought a few books to try to learn a bit Chinese so they could talk to her. Their journey of learning Chinese did not go far because in three months my daughter was already speaking English well enough to make herself understood and in another 3 months she was speaking English as well as other kids.

How did my daughter learn English? Watching TV.

One of the kinder garden mums suggested me to get my daughter watch “Play School”, one of the popular children TV shows in Australia. It was on twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon. My daughter was quite attracted to it and watched pretty much every episode. She watched it from home, from the back of the shop I worked from and wherever she could find the show. I often heard her singing new songs and nursery rhymes that she learnt from the show.

Bret sometimes complains that she watched too much TV, and she would say: “I have to watch this. My teacher said so.”

My daughter now speaks better English than I do but I write better English than half of the people I know.

My hard work of learning English in the hard way was finally rewarded when in 2011 I engaged myself to a course to obtain a full real estate license. It took me five months to finish the majority of the total 24 modules of the course by studying in the back of our real estate office while it took Bret, as a native Australian, twelve months full time studying on campus of RMIT to get the same license in 2003 and 2004.

To summarize it, here is the list of ways to learn English:

Step 1-Watch TV shows and movies that you like and feel attracted to. This will improve your listening skills within a short period and will then lead you to step 2;

Step 2 – Try to have conversations with people and use as much English as you can and you will also learn a lot from other people as you go.

Step 3 – Step 1 and 2 will take you to speak English reasonably well if you try hard enough but if you want to read and write well, then you will need to read a lot and practice writing a lot.