More Than a Second Language

“English is not my second language – it is a dream came true.”

This was the last sentence of my college application essay. Today, after spending more than a year at Harvard, I still think my love affair with the English language is a huge part of who I am, where I am, and how I got here.

My passion for English started in fifth grade, when I accidentally won a prize in a minor English competition for elementary schoolers. I say “accidentally”, because I was not particularly good at English back then, and to this day I have no clue how I won. But the little ego of my 11-year-old self was boosted enormously, and I said to myself: “Maybe – just maybe – I’m good at this!”

So I signed up for another English competition. This time, participants were required to prepare an English song and sing it in front of judges. Happily, I dug up an old tape in my parents’ drawer that read “1998 Grammy’s”, and started to listen to the first English songs of my life that were not “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.

When I heard “My Heart Will Go On”, I was mesmerized – this tune, which I’ve always vaguely known from somewhere, is an actual song that I could learn and sing! Just the thought of reproducing this melody with my own voice in this exotic language made me exhilarated.

“My Heart Will Go On” was a turning point. It made me realize that western culture is something that I can touch, see, and listen to, even when I was physically in China. For Americans, it’s a song so old that it is put under the “Classical” category. For my 11-year-old self, it was Pop, it was cool, and it was avant-garde culture because it was American (I didn’t know that Celine Dion was Canadian – I just assumed that everything in English was American).

So I learnt the song, and another one after that. And another one. And dozens more. The process became so fun that figuring out what the lyrics meant was one of my favorite pastimes. I realized that the English language gave me the key to unlock a whole new world. A world that consists of Hollywood films and Friends, BBC and New York Times, and (my heart trembled at the thought) all those books that are written in English! Only then did I realize there are probably more books written in English than in Chinese in the world. How can it be, that as a bibliophile, I was unable to read the majority of the world’s greatest books because of something as stupid as language barrier? This needs to be corrected immediately.

Ever since that moment, English stopped being just another subject that I tried to ace in school – it became a conquest of grave importance. With utmost indignation and determination, I started off a campaign to wipe out English illiteracy from myself.

Like filling small pebbles into a jar of big rocks, I filled English words into all the little “useless moments” of my life. I was probably the only girl in Changchun, China who could be spotted carrying around a small vocabulary book literally everywhere I went. I memorized words while I was waiting for the bus, on the bus, waiting for the elevator, in the elevator, waiting for my food in a restaurant, brushing my teeth, taking a shower, and not paying attention in my English class (by that time, the materials taught at school had become much too easy).

Some people collected matches and stamps; I collected words. Before I embarked on this campaign, the most sophisticated word I knew was “refrigerator”. Now I learnt things like “exacerbate” and “connoisseur”. As I carefully wrote them down on my vocabulary book together with their Chinese translations, I experienced the same satisfaction as a die-hard fan of a singer would have when listening to a newly released single.

I boast a collection of 7 or 8 such vocabulary books, most of which are torn at the edges and show stains of liquid spills. These are my treasures, and solid proofs of how I got to where I am today.

On a fateful day in 2008, I was lucky enough to be selected to study at Raffles Institution (which, I later learnt, probably churns out more Ivy League admits than any other high school outside America) in Singapore on a full scholarship, primarily because I did well in the English test and the interview (in English) that were part of the selection process. At Raffles, I joined the Humanities track and studied language-heavy subjects like English Literature. I enjoyed it so much that when college application season came, I told the story of my love affair with the English language to Harvard, who liked it so much that they admitted me. Today, speaking English every day and casually using words like “exacerbate” in my class writings, I feel like I’m living the dream.

Many people are surprised when they learn that I come from China.

“But you speak English so well!” they say.

To that, I reply: “English is not my second language – it is a dream came true.”


Zara Zhang

Zara Zhang

Zara Zhang is a senior at Harvard. You can contact her at