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helping English language learners expand their skills and their lives

The road to more perfect English: one student’s success story

I have known Evelyn for six years and have always been impressed by her command of English. Her academic achievements in China and strong proficiency in English earned her a spot at Wellesley College. Evelyn was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions and share her story.

ESL Online Magazine: How long have you been studying English?

I’ve been studying English since I was nine.

ESL Online Magazine: Can you describe your language learning experiences prior to coming to America for college?

My learning process was in two parts: school and my own stuff for fun.

When you first start learning a language, the trick is: memorize everything, literally everything on your textbook. No matter how silly a dialog may be or how useless a new vocab may seem. If it’s on an intro-level textbook, you can expect seeing it somewhere in the real world. On my ride to school, my mom and I would go over every word and text that we had learned so far during that semester. When you know the sentences by heart, you’ll have no problem using them when the occasion arises.

Of course, a school textbook does not always provide the most authentic, up-to-date information and many people dismiss it for that very reason. But the thing is, if you have to go to school and spend your time studying it anyway, it is not half bad. It is a springboard to help you have functional English and from there, you’ll have the resources to obtain information way above your grade level.

The second part is for fun. If language learning itself is not enough fun for you, then choose what you are interested in and learn about it in English. If you are not interested in the topics you are reading, learning a language at the same time can be painful and very unproductive. I learned this the hard way.
When I started learning English in the late 1990s in a public/state school, the city’s education department decided that it was important for their students to learn about science in English. They held competitions and schools hosted extra-curriculum classes. I always liked the process of learning a new language but never cared much about gravity and hibernation. It was the least fun I had had when it came to language learning, and the only two words I took away from the two summers of boredom? You guessed it, gravity and hibernation. (Of course I eventually learned about meandering rivers, metamorphic rocks, and magnetic fields, but that’s when English had already become more of a tool than the subject I was studying.)

I happened to like movies, literature, and famous people’s speeches, so I went with those topics in my own time. So many resources are out there, written by native English speakers for native English speakers. Various Chinese education enterprises have taken the opportunity to make a profit by pasting the translation next to the original text and giving you a CD recording of the text, usually by professional actors or news anchors. Take advantage of it.

Click here for free tools you can use to improve your English!

Go where your heart leads you, cars, sports, science, economics… It really doesn’t matter, but what matters is that you need to memorize what you read. And here’s what I found most helpful: Mimic the reader: pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm. Be aware of the accent that the reader used. You can mimic all of them if you want, but it’s nice to note the differences. Now unless you are a genius, which I am certainly not, mimicking the reader is not going to make you sound like a native speaker completely. (Some people boast that they have a perfect American accent after living in the states for 6 months or 1 year. Ignore the majority of them. Most actors in the UK and the US, usually natural mimics, go through tons of voice and dialect training to acquire a different accent.) Back from the tangent, mimicking native speakers will definitely give you an edge. When you first begin, always get texts that have high-quality Chinese translations next to them and here is why. The grammar and sentence structure used in a piece written by a native speaker is usually more complicated than what you are learning at school. Getting ahead of the rest of your class is great, until the moment you realize that you looked up every single word in a sentence but still don’t understand the it. And this is not even the worst. The worst comes when you misunderstand a sentence and are completely unaware of your mistake. When things get confusing, things get boring. And when things get boring, you will be less interested in learning about them. When you hear other people or their parents bragging that they can read English articles without any Chinese translations to assist them, again ignore them. What they are doing is not productive. Instead, if there’s a sentence you do not understand, get the Chinese translation to know what the sentence is trying to say and reverse engineer. Use your detective skills to find out the structure of that sentence in English and congratulations, you might have taught yourself a new sentence structure that you can apply to many other situations. Memorize everything. You might end up forgetting, but memorize it no matter what. It may take weeks to get through a long speech, a scene, or a news article, but you would have learned so much more than the other guy who breezes through everything but ends up knowing not much. After studying on my own for a while, I wanted to talk about what I learned. Not just about English, but conversations about poets, history, and movie plots. So, it was just naturally the right time for me to look for a native English-speaking teacher. In the 2000s, the resource was half of what we have today and a warm body who was a native English speaker would do for me. But now with Skype, Facetime, and WeChat videos, you have so many more options. Look for a teacher who is 1) a native speaker, 2) a professional, and 3) (if you are very lucky) a person with some knowledge of Chinese and the culture.

ESL Online Magazine Looking back on your study of English, what do you credit for helping you make the most gains? Mimicking and memorizing. ESL Online Magazine: What would you have done differently? When you’re studying an article or a speech and there is a video of the reader/speaker, make good use of it. Observe how the speaker’s facial muscles move; observe how their mouth moves. I did all of my listening work by cassette tapes, but observing their faces is important when you want to have a better accent.

ESL Online Magazine: If you were to give advice to someone wanting to improve their English, what would you say? Go with your interest: science, art, literature. Whatever the topic, if you think it’s fun, it’s worth it. That and do get Chinese translations/subtitles, when you first start. Be aware of the quality though.

ESL Online Magazine: In what ways could you have been better prepared for coming to America? What did you find most challenging? The challenges I had are probably not going to be the same challenges people have today. I had never stepped on US soil (or any English-speaking country’s soil for that matter) until the day I landed in the States, two days before college registration. People who end up in the US for college today have spent so many summers in the States already, taking college-level classes. They are the experts.

Click here for free tools you can use to improve your English!

ESL Online Magazine: Many people achieve a sufficient level of English and then plateau. How did you ensure that your skills continued to be perfected?

There is always so much to be learned. Keep your ears sharp and be prepared to correct yourself.

ESL Online Magazine: Are there any tools (books, Apps, websites, etc.) that you have found helpful?

I used cassette tapes and books, like the Crazy English series. But I would so like to be an English-learner in today’s world. The creation of audiobooks is such a blessing. For example: get an original copy, get a Chinese copy, and get the audiobook (usually read by actors with great elocution) and dig in. If you end up talking like Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, or Scarlett Johansson one day, good for you!

Another resource is the Ted Talk. Mimic the speakers and memorize the speeches. You will not only gain new vocabulary, learn about the world today, and improve your spoken English, but also gain the skills of public speaking.
Click here for free tools you can use to improve your English!

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